PM-sponsored program generates ideas galore at the PHCC-NA show.

Last October I moderated our sixth annual "Thanks for the Tip" program at the PHCC-NA Convention in Nashville. Co-sponsored by PM, its PHC Profit Report newsletter offshoot and participating vendors, the program awards $50 bills to contractors who share noteworthy business ideas with the audience. We gave away almost $1,000. Vendors that "showed us the money" included ServiceMaster/Rescue Rooter, Hackney & Sons, Oatey and Ruth King of the American Contractors Exchange.

Here are some of the top business tips coming out of that session.

Compressed on-call schedules. I had to be restrained from paying the entire pot of money to Patty Frank of Milton Frank Plumbing in Spring, Texas. She began by saying, "Subscribe to Jim Olsztynski's PHC Profit Report." Colleagues wrestled me to the ground and forced me to restrict Patty to two $50 awards for sharing with the audience what she considered to be the most valuable of four business tips she submitted.

The first had to do with compressing on-call schedules from a week at a time to three-day weekend or four-day weekday schedules.

"We do 24-hour emergency service, and have nine service trucks with 10 plumbers. We're in a highly residential area, and it's not uncommon for the on-call plumber to do three calls a night, sometimes coming in the next morning to work right after a call. So it was important for us to shorten that week, because we were seeing a high incidence of recall work, especially after the techs would work all weekend.

"We changed our on-calls to Monday through Thursday, and Friday to Sunday," she noted. "This way, the guy who did it during the week would get weekends off. Also, knowing they wouldn't get caught up for an entire week, we found it not as hard for us to get someone to cover for someone else who might have a family obligation."

Getting them to read the newsletter. Patty also told of instituting a two- or three-page weekly newsletter for employees, published in-house, to communicate company business without taking up time with shop meetings. Contents include industry news, service topics, safety issues, new products, warranty calls, on-call schedules and other company business.

A touch I thought particularly clever was to include snippets from "Knock Your Socks Off Service," an excellent book by Kristin Anderson and Ron Zemke. "I know I can't get the service techs to read a book," said Patty. So this was an alternative way to get the book's messages across.

This in itself was worthy of a $50 bill, in my opinion. But they employ another trick worth reporting. Publishing a newsletter does not mean the employees will read it. Early on the Franks discovered that often they didn't. So as an inducement to read, they instituted a "Phrase That Pays" policy with each edition.

Buried somewhere within each edition, moving around week to week, is an offer of a free gift to the first person who uses a key expression. Examples:

  • "Free lunch to the first person to ask Milton what he had for dinner last night."

  • "A candy bar a day for a week to the first person to tell Sue the name of a candy bar mentioned somewhere in the issue."

  • "$5 to the first person to tell John congratulations on graduating from apprentice school."

The rules require employees to wait until the morning after the newsletter is distributed to take the required action. This is so that people who receive the newsletter early in the day and read it on company time don't get an edge over service techs who might not get their copy until they head for home.

Inventory control.,/b> Patty Frank shared two other good ideas that we never got to in Nashville, but will mention here.

One was a simple inventory control system. "We purchased heavy-duty cardboard boxes from Grainger, two per service truck," Patty reported. "After each day's tickets are checked for accuracy, we give a copy of each ticket to our shop employee to pull any material a service technician used the day before. He puts it in the service tech's box to be picked up the next morning, in exchange for his box of replaced material.

"It's always been hard for us to collect the scrap brass and copper for resale. Most of the guys preferred to throw it in the dumpster with their daily garbage. Now the shop guy separates it for them," Patty explained. "The system has helped us in several ways:

1. "We've gotten a better handle on inventory.

2. "The techs have to put material away daily, so their trucks stay stocked.

3. "The techs have to write a more descriptive work order so we know what to replace.

4. "We've had less material waste from overstocking trucks."

To make this system work, the Franks have a three-part work order using blank sheets of carbon paper inserted into their printed work orders. The blank sheets have the technician's signature and material used, which is all the shop employee needs for restocking.

"We know this is not as efficient or sophisticated as some of the really big guys, but it's a start for us," commented Patty. Actually, I think a lot of big guys would envy this simple but effective system.

In-house communications. Near the entrance to Milton Frank Plumbing are hung file folders for each employee for placing time cards and work orders. They also use additional boxes for blank time cards, uniform changes, days-off requests and other company forms.

"Each box has a clip on it that we use to communicate anything to an employee," said Patty. "They have to respond to whoever put it there before they leave for home."

Boosting customer comment returns.,/b> From Tish & Craig Damon (Damon's Plumbing-Heating-Cooling, Dover, Pa.) came this little gem.

"Lots of companies use customer survey cards," said Tish. "We made ours a little colorful and don't give it to techs to hand out. Instead, we wait three to five days later, send the customer a thank you, and put this in.

"At bottom, a note says that if they return the entry it goes into a quarterly drawing for a $50 certificate to a great restaurant. It also has a perforated section with a referral card offering 10 percent off the first completed service call. If we receive this referral, they get a second entry for the restaurant drawing. Plus, the service tech that has the most cards returned each quarter also wins a dinner.

"It works out well. I'd say 90 percent come back," said Tish. What's more, the company runs ads in a local newspaper business section listing the winners of quarterly drawings.

Service agreement incentive. The Damons also ad-libbed a couple of other ideas. One was a policy that helps sell service agreements. "For a new customer, we won't go out on a 24-hour emergency call unless he buys a service agreement. He'll call us at two or three in the morning, and complain that his regular plumber won't come out. Well, why should we come out unless he becomes one of our regular customers?" explained Tish.

Checking up on regulars. The Damons keep a record of when customers call them. "If someone hasn't called us in 18 months, we'll call and ask the reason, and maybe ask whether our plumber has been so good that you just haven't had any problems," said Tish Damon. Nice line.

Being seen. Two good little tips dealing with appearance came from David Moon (Moon Plumbing Service, Wilmington, Del.).

He instructs service techs not to hide their trucks during coffee breaks. Instead, encourage them to park in front of large convenient stores or strip malls to gain visibility for their "rolling billboard" trucks.

Moon's company also places a large mirror in the shop so that uniformed employees get a chance to see themselves just as their customers do.

Safeguarding disposer parts. "It always used to be a headache losing stops for disposals and baskets for kitchen sinks," said Ralph Senninger (Senninger Plumbing, Lexington, Ky.). "The plumber would put it in a drawer and then have something else to follow up on and forget where it was.

"So we developed a system where we tape stops and baskets to the disposer drain pipe when the sink is trimmed."

DIY coupons. Robb Wolf of Cy Blue Plumbing in Sarasota, Fla., revealed a feature in his company's Web site that enables customers to print a gift coupon worth $10 off any service call. It also functions as a counter to track traffic at the Web site.

Water heater warning. Chamberlin Plumbing of Windsor, N.J., developed a two-part form informing the owner of the dangers of hot water at different temperatures and scalding time. After the plumber sets the water heater temperature at 120 degrees F (unless the owner wants it higher), he leaves one part attached to the water heater and has the owner sign the other part, which provides evidence that the plumber gave notice of scalding danger.

Bill Chamberlin also noted that his company instructs its service technicians to put the company's sticker on every water heater they encounter, "whether we put it in or not."

One more good idea from Chamberlin was to be sure to time-record work orders starting with the time of arrival until the job gets done. "When a customer says we billed him for the wrong amount of labor, we can tell exactly what time he arrived and left."

All in the family. "Have someone in your office check the obituaries every day against your customer list," advises Bruce Solomon of Bruce Solomon Plumbing & Heating, Owings Mills, Md. "Then send a condolence contribution card to the customer family that had the loss. Those customers will consider your company part of their extended family."

Embezzlement precaution. Care Services Inc. makes sure to have its bank statements mailed to the home of its owners, Mr. & Mrs. Ray Tolar. Mrs. Tolar told our "Tips" audience that they had an embezzlement problem in the past and developed this system to prevent it from happening again. This enables the owner to see who made out the checks and to whom, as well as whether bank notes are getting paid on time.

A wider discussion ensued among the audience, the gist of which was that embezzlement is a bigger problem in the industry than many suppose. Tolar's precaution is one that everyone would be well advised to adopt.

Happy meals. Tolar's company treats its field people to breakfast once a week at a restaurant around the corner from their shop.

"It's not intended as a gripe session, just a chance to get to know them personally," said Mrs. Tolar. They also schedule a supervisory staff lunch the same day so they can immediately follow through on any problems or needs cited at the morning session.

"This way the men know that these meetings are important. Something else we've learned - the guys who show up on time for these meetings are your loyal people. The one who drags in 30 minutes late, you look at differently."

Here are some other good business tips offered by Tolar's company:

  • Give a copy of truck repair invoices to drivers, so they know what driving that truck has cost.

  • Put a copy of the purchase order on every piece of equipment you install. In case of problems, you know exactly who you purchased it from and when.

  • Have your dispatcher handle collections. The dispatcher knows everything about the service call, so the customer has trouble disputing the facts.

  • Color code tools to the trucks. "Every soil pipe cutter looks alike, but if the green tool is on the blue truck, you ask why," explained Mrs. Tolar. "We even color code the batteries on our trucks. Believe it or not, they've swapped batteries at times."

Personalized cookie jars. I asked one of our co-sponsors, Ruth King, a longtime industry consultant who publicizes business tips over the Internet, to share one of her better ideas. She told about one of the more memorable ways of rewarding customers.

"I've always been big on 'stuff' - plants, jackets, t-shirts. Stuff that lasts is better than giving them money, because every time they see the thing they think of you," said Ruth.

She told of a contractor who made a deal with a local potter who makes "neat cookie jars." The potter personalized them with the names of homeowners on front, and the contractor's company on the inside of the lid. After a big job, the contractor fills the jar with gourmet cookies and presents it to the homeowner.

"Where's the cookie jar sit? Right on the counter of the kitchen where people see it all the time. Guests always ask where they got that cookie jar. 'Well, my contractor gave it to me!' It works. This contractor gets all sorts of referrals," Ruth said.

She estimated the cost of this gift at about $50, which of course can be built into the price of the job. It does sound like a terrific goodwill gesture.

Water pressure checks. Another sponsor, Jack Tester of ServiceMaster/Rescue Rooter also shared with the audience his company's policy of doing water pressure checks on every faucet. To be effective, make sure the service tech informs the homeowner what he's doing. "This delivers more value to the customer, and also helps sell more jobs to fix bad water pressure," said Tester.

It's also a good idea to record water pressure on the service invoice. This helps remind the customer of this value-added service.

What follows are other tips that came out of freewheeling audience discussion during the last part of the "Thanks for the Tip" program. I wasn't always able to identify the person, but the ideas speak for themselves.

A morale booster. One 10-person company has a weekly employee meeting in which all get asked to identify something they are thankful for, and also to come up with two thoughts for the week. The latter can be philosophical or humorous. Sounds like a great morale booster.

E-purchasing. A contractor discussed great bargains he had achieved buying slightly used tools at the e-Bay auction site on the Internet ( One almost new Hilti drill normally selling for $1,400 went for a little more than $600 via eBay.

Company calendars. Using manufacturer co-op money, one contractor told of making up 1,000 company calendars for about $2 apiece. These are great promotional tools that obviously get used year-round. "Get the ones you can write on," he advised.

On-site fuel tanks. A company had trouble getting service techs to fill up their trucks with fuel except while on calls. So for $75 at a high school auction they bought a 500-gallon self-contained fuel storage tank. (More than 500 gallons, the company would have had to get some kind of permit and abide by strict environmental regulations. Better check your local regulations before doing this.)

The result is it now obtains diesel fuel in bulk for about $.60 a gallon, compared with $1.10 to $1.20 at local gas station pumps. Also, it eliminated service tech excuses about running out of gas and wasting time making fuel stops.

Larger companies ought to consider the advice of one contractor who recommended hiring a full-time maintenance person for vehicles. In addition to performing maintenance and repairs, this employee would be in charge of fueling, checking tires and washing the vehicle. Service technicians have more important things to do with their time.

Catering to kids. Florida's Jesse Green talked of stocking each of his trucks with a tank of helium and balloons. When service techs call on homes with small children, they blow up balloons for the kids, as well as hand out coloring books with a fire-safetytheme. Trucks also are stocked with four packs of crayons to hand out just in case the kids don't have their own.

One page of the coloring book has the company's logo. The service tech asks the kid to color that page and write his/her name on it. After it's turned in at the shop, the child receives a stuffed animal with the company logo on it.

"Parents just melt," said the contractor. The kids' drawings get posted in the company office.

Big bang for little bucks. A bit of discussion centered around church bulletin advertising and sports team sponsorship as two of the most cost-effective ways of promoting your company around town. "Soccer teams often have 20 or more kids," said one proponent. "They don't wear their jerseys just to games. They wear them to school and everywhere else. We've seen our shirts around years after the kids have moved on."

Another person chipped in the idea of putting your own logos on manufacturer giveaway clothing items, along with that of the manufacturer.

YP advertising is negotiable. A rather lengthy audience discussion on Yellow Pages advertising revealed that many directory sales reps have considerable leeway to negotiate. One contractor told of being given a free full-page ad as an experiment when he decided to drop down from a page to a half-page ad. The YP publisher set up a special system to track calls, aiming to prove that the full-page ad drew better.

"What we found is that our half-page ad actually drew better!"

Said another contractor, "Every time I complain and tell them I'm going to take my ad out, they give me something."