A free service doesn’t have to mean money down the drain.

Spend tens of thousands of dollars to equip your crew with color drain camera inspection units, and your first impulse wouldn’t be to offer the service for free. But if it’s just one component of a well-executed marketing plan, then that one freebie can produce as many as 100 drain and sewer service calls a day, at an average billing of $250.

That’s the case for Sumner Plumbing & Sewer, Royal Oak, Mich. Since the mid-1990s, the company has invested $600,000 a year in various advertising vehicles that run the gamut from Yellow Pages to display advertising and from cable TV and radio spots to direct mail. Beyond traditional advertising, a Web site also lists the reasons to consider calling the professionals at Sumner.

“I’ve never worn a sandwich board,” says company operations manager Gary Sumner. “I don’t think I’d go that far.”

This past year the company did more than $3 million in business — double what it did a year ago, and on track to complete $4 million in work this year. By far the company’s primary focus is drain-cleaning, with 90 percent of the revenue resulting from jetting, cleaning, excavating and repairing drain lines. Almost three-quarters of the business is residential, with the rest in the commercial/industrial market.

While the name of the game is “drain cleaning,” Sumner trains his techs to take a comprehensive look at each job, cleaning the main sewer line, storm trap and all under-floor lines when making a call. “If a plumber just rods out the main sewer, then a month later the kitchen waste could likely block up between that drain and the main line,” Sumner explains. “So the customer calls and complains that the same ‘drain’ you fixed is clogged again. We’ll save the customer money in the long-run by taking care of the whole house’s drainage system, and chances are we won’t have a call-back either,” Sumner says.

Sumner’s techs also offer a free video inspection with every paid draining cleaning charge during residential calls. “We tell people up front we’re looking for something — and most times we do find a problem,” Sumner says.

Most likely, the culprit is tree roots. “Camera technology has really revolutionized what we do,” Sumner says. For the first-time customers can see with their own eyes the enormity of a problem. If it’s a simple job, great, the techs can move on to the next call. But if it’s something more substantial that will require digging up the front yard, then customers can make that decision with their own eyes.

“We have a favorite saying, ‘When you just clean a drain line, you’re only relieving the symptoms, not curing the problem,’” Sumner says. “Here’s the thing: we’re putting a cutter down a 3-1/2–inch opening and it lays down at the bottom of a 6–inch pipe. That’s not going to do much for a major problem.”

Pay Off

To get the root of the matter, so to speak, is where the advertising pays off.

Sumner’s ads all trumpet that “We Want To Be Your Plumber,” “We’re No. 1” or “The Most Preferred” or “The Most Referred.” We won’t put up too much of an argument here, but it’s indisputable that regardless of the medium, the ads all pound away at the truth that there are 500,000 homes in the company’s trading area, and 90 percent of those homes have sewer problems. And when the time comes to address those problems, Sumner Plumbing & Sewer is the firm to call.

The display ads not only highlight the typical bullet points touting the usual features and benefits such as trucks, equipment and service professionals, but seek to inform consumers the reasons why drain cleaning should be handled by a professional. “Sewer Snaking And Chemicals Are Usually Just A Temporary Solution …” says the headline of one such ad. “We’ve heard and seen everything from pouring copper sulfate, kerosene and even rock salt down the drain to remove roots.”

Knowing that some common plumbing maladies are DIY, Sumner’s Web site even offers a helpful DIY tip every month. “Before you call a professional, you may want to give it a shot yourself,” says the intro. “You might surprise yourself at what you can do or prevent.”

At the time of our writing, the Web site offered troubleshooting advice for garbage disposals. “Before attempting to remove whatever is jamming the disposal, make sure the disposal is unplugged, or circuit breaker or fuse is off. Some models have a “hex” opening in the center of the disposal on the bottom. You can fit an Allen wrench in there to turn the blades to free them up.”

Besides pictures of the latest drain cleaning equipment, the ads also show pictures of “The Employee of The Week.”

“We don’t just advertise what we do, we also advertise who we are,” Sumner says. The print ads usually also include “Donnie Dollars,” coupons worth $25 to $100 off the next job. The coupons are named after Don Ward, the company’s general manager who joined the company in 1995 after selling the display ad space in which he now plays a leading role.

Why have Ward grab the spotlight? “Portraying a general manager enhances our image all the more,” Sumner says. “When people call us, they’re not calling ‘Moe, Larry & Curley’s Plumbing.’ ”

Master Plumbers

One of the most common objections to advertising is that all the catchy slogans aren’t backed up by anything substantial — all sizzle and no steak. But Sumner hasn’t forgotten about the steak either.

The company runs more than 30 service vehicles, including seven cube trucks that each carry more than $50,000 in drain cleaning and plumbing inventory. In addition, Sumner also owns backhoes and mini–excavators to tackle the big jobs.

Total employment tops 35, including 11 master plumbers, seven registered apprentices and three journeymen. The company’s ads all play up the fact that it employs more master plumbers than the other competitors.

“We want people to know that when we send someone out to their home, we send talent,” says Sumner, who spends considerable time training his new employees. Each new hire receives about six months training on jetters and other drain cleaning equipment, and must be approved by the other master plumbers before going on service calls solo. Even then, techs can get instant help thanks to NexTel phones. The company also maximizes each tech’s time by literally downloading overnight the next day’s schedule into each tech’s pager.

Although much of the action is in residential, Sumner also promotes its expertise in the commercial/industrial sector as well. Flyers such as the G.L.E.A.M. Team, for example, help drum up business in the food service industry. The recent purchase of a grease trap cleaner produced $100,000 in new business during the first month. In addition, three salesmen make calls to further promote this sector.

The business today is a far cry from the way Sumner and brother Ed, company president, started out in 1993 with one leased jetter. Any work they got back then was subbed from other plumbers.

“We used to be the guys who figured if the competition was charging $60, we’d charge $55,” Gary admits. “The thing that really changed was professionalism.”

Gary and Ed worked for their father’s plumbing business from childhood. Gary was only a teenager when his father died in 1975. Ed tried to keep the business going, but gave up in 1980 and eventually became a plant manager for a local Frito-Lay plant for 13 years. Meanwhile, Gary kept plugging away and had some real success managing a service center for a well-known drain cleaning franchise in the early 1990s. Under Gary’s leadership, the service center went from grossing $60,000 a month to more than $100,000 by emphasizing the maximum amount of work needed per call rather than rushing from one quick in-and-out call to the next. Finally in 1993, the brothers decided to make a go of the drain cleaning business.

Sumner started the big push toward advertising in 1995, and attended a seminar Frank Blau put on during the Pumper & Cleaner Expo in 1996. Shortly afterward, Sumner bought Blau’s flat rate system and computerized everything.

“Everything we’ve done since then has been toward building our image,” Sumner says. “We decided we wanted to be the top of the market.”