Great Expectations, Poor Communication

Differing ideas on commercial pool operation

In my consulting work, I encounter pool operators who bemoan how little management understands about the work that goes into running a commercial swimming pool. At the same time — often in the same facility! — I encounter managers who bemoan how little pool operators understand what’s at stake in terms of customer reviews and revenue in an area with competing facilities.

This is a chronic communication issue across the pool industry in North America and not unique to you. I will hazard that 50% of your problems at work can be resolved by increasing communication.

Whether you work as the pool operator in a hotel, a service tech on a route or part of a maintenance team for a municipality with multiple aquatic facilities, pool operators are the subject-matter experts who fail to create and communicate expectations. In the absence of clear information, people make assumptions.

Here are common assumptions from management that plague the commercial pool service industry, and the information pool pros should be providing in clear communication:

Belief: Testing water daily is excessive.

Reality: Water chemistry is constantly changing — it’s never static — because of contaminants bathers introduce into water. Failure to regularly test pool water is a violation of regulations in most municipal jurisdictions, and poses a hazard to human health and safety.

Belief: Only the pool operator does work on the pool.

Reality: Pool operators often have multiple areas of responsibility. In a hotel, they might be responsible for fixing a leaky toilet, clearing snow and operating the pool. It is worthwhile training other staff who can perform basic duties if the pool operator is called away.

Belief: After construction, commercial swimming pools cost nothing to operate.

Reality: Every pool — new or old — should allocate 5% of operating costs to lifecycle reserves. Commercial pools circulate 24 hours per day, 365 days per year (regardless of the use period). That’s 8,760 equipment operating hours. Things will eventually break.

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Belief: It’s not dangerous if a bather enters the pool before the water is tested.

Reality: The chemicals used in swimming pool operations (chlorine, muriatic acid, calcium chloride, etc.) are extremely dangerous to human skin and eyes at high levels or undiluted. Failure to verify chemicals are within safe operating ranges, as local codes require, is negligent.

Belief: The customer is always right. Open the pool.

Reality: The certified pool operator is the person of record for a commercial aquatic facility and legally accountable to operate it safely. If the CPO says the pool stays closed, there could be legal repercussions for anyone (management or customer) who defies that decision.

Belief: We can use chlorine from the laundry department in pool operations.

Reality: Pool chlorine (sodium hypochlorite) is twice the strength (12%) of the chlorine/bleach intended for general cleaning and laundry (5% to 6%). Failure to use the correct chlorine disinfectant can lead to a recreational water illness outbreak.

Effective communication is a form of negotiation: You can either agree to the offer (proposal) made by the speaker (“I would like you to clear snow from the walkways and then go test the pool.” — “OK!”) or you can disagree with the offer and counter with a different proposal. (“I can’t clear the walkways or test the pool before the inspector arrives at 10 a.m. Which task do you want me to prioritize?”)

If you do not set expectations from the beginning of a conversation, another technique is substituting an alternative: “If you get someone else to help me, together we will get the walkways cleared and the pool tested before the inspector arrives at 10 a.m.” Or “If I only have to shovel the front walkways, and someone else shovels the back walkways, I will be able to test the pool before the inspector arrives at 10 a.m.”

Another technique for clear communication is the use of SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. This means clearly articulating what steps or tasks are required to achieve the outcome. Keep it simple in terms of only items that must be completed and exclude nonessential tasks.

Lastly, clarify your understanding of what’s been stated, and do not be afraid to use the word ‘but’ if there is a clear inability to meet the stated outcome with existing resources. “What I’m hearing you say is that it’s a priority to clear the snow so customers won’t slip and fall, but that means I will not be able to test the pool before the inspector arrives at 10 a.m. That means bathers will not be able to use the pool until the end of the inspection.” When in doubt, play the ref and not the rules. People have different communication styles, and what works with Joe might not work for Susie. Be clear on your own ethics and how you need to live your values in terms of safe pool operations. Practice makes progress, and improving communication is worth addressing.

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