Catering To The Cape Crowd
Specializing in a variety of services including traditional boiler installation and repair, radiant heat, solar and waste oil burners, the Battles realize the special needs of weekend and seasonal residents, as well as year-round residents, and have developed special offerings. One such example is a computer monitoring system that hooks up to the oil tank and burner and calls W.E.B. when the tank is low on oil or when there is a system failure. And if it’s a nighttime call, their computer software will page whoever is on duty with a no heat call.
“The Cape has an oil population and there is a lot of competition in the oil business,” says Bill, the company’s founder and president. “You have the discounters and the full service companies, but with the monitoring system we are offering full service. Our oil price is about ten cents less expensive than the traditional ‘full service’ oil companies. We are able to do this, since we are a flat rate service company and have our costs where they should be.” Full to the Battles means the latest techniques in preventative maintenance and a variety of service plans designed to reward repeat customers.
Youthful Thinking: Promoting new technology and developing innovative marketing strategies has taken this four-man shop out of the Yellow Pages and into a strictly referral market. While Bill studied mechanical engineering at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, he also worked on plans to open his own contracting company. The business took shape in 1988 when Bill was only 21. Soon after he gave his brother Mike a partnership, joking “it’s cheaper than paying him by the hour.” Ready to jump into the industry full force, Bill and Mike were faced with their share of age discrimination. But with previous experience in their uncle’s shop, Hilltop Oil Company in Braintree, MA, they were set to prove critics wrong. “My uncle had no fear of throwing me in over my head,” says Bill, “which is probably why I started my own company.” Both admit being “outside” of everyone when they first started.
Reactions from some industry old-timers in local organizations as well as wary customers were a bit hard to deal with. Even Bill admits when he looks back at pictures from when he first started how anyone could have taken his word on anything — and let him work in their homes. Their fearlessness and commitment to training has definitely paid off.
Bill and Mike both enjoy balancing on the cusp of everything innovative — “That’s what’s going to separate us,” says Bill.
Recognized for their radiant work and their self-designed manifolds, the Battles dove headfirst into radiant, learning everything they could from their own mistakes and corrections, and by attending manufacturer-sponsored classes and seminars.
One of the first radiant baseboard installations Bill remembers as a definite learning experience was when he was talked out of putting outdoor reset controls on a system by a cost-cutting home owner. The baseboard would get hot enough to melt the plastic mounting clips. “I knew what was right, but I was also under the impression that the customer was always right. Now, if I think it needs to be done one way it’s got to be that way or I’m not going to do it because bad jobs will haunt you the rest of your life.”
Such attention to detail and commitment to perfection were traits that attracted one couple to W.E.B.’s services in renovating a 19th century home. “They’ve been the best,” said the homeowner. “Bill explains everything and understands that if I’m paying all this money, I want my money’s worth.” Begun in 1995, renovations include a new heating system, complete with radiant baseboard, radiant floors, and radiant walls in the bathrooms. Of primary concern was radiant heat for the kitchen floor. With a tight crawlspace underneath, a staple-up job would be monstrous. Since the owners had decided to build the floor up anyway, Bill discussed the option of a system on top of the floor, a plan that suited everyone’s needs.
Along with establishing a reputation for radiant, Bill and Mike have developed a commercial niche with waste oil burners. They recently installed a burner for a company with a large fleet of trucks which would have had to pay the removal costs of the oil. “We sell the burner as an environmentally friendly product,” says Bill. “With a burner they don’t have to worry about the life-time liability associated with having it removed. You simply burn it off. It’s free heat and a tax write off.” While there is some competition on the Cape for this type of installation, the Battles are the only company that offers maintenance service for a year and a two-year warranty on everything they do. This service plan also gets them back in the door for a least another two years.
Business Philosophy: “I go for the good, solid customer,” says Bill, who handles the majority of the estimates and primary interviews. With a strong base of 650 customers, Bill and Mike understand the importance of keeping those customers satisfied. “A lot of contractors go for the one time hit, and maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll call you back — I don’t go for that.” Instead, Bill and Mike cater to their repeat clients with special service contracts and priority service over a new customer.
To keep in touch with regular customers, they also have started distributing a newsletter. Bill and Mike customize each issue with articles on such topics as their new “safer” trucks with reflective stripes, and profiles of their employees. Since they don’t use the Yellow Pages, they do a lot of direct mail using their own customer base or they target a specific area of a town. They have also hosted open houses to showcase their offices where they display the latest boilers and pass out coupon books worth $200 toward future oil delivery, service calls and boiler replacement to the first 100 people.
Community service also keeps the company in touch with its customers. Mike, Mark and John serve on the on-call fire department in Brewster. According to Mike, having someone serving the community and familiar with fire safety instills a great deal of trust in customers. Mike did have one customer complain when he had to leave a job midway through to fight a fire. But the next year when that same customer’s house caught fire, Mike was the first on the scene. Needless to say, that customer no longer complains about Mike’s other responsibilities.
Earning trust and customer loyalty is something the Battles have perfected with the Cape’s retirement population. Considered “Golden,” these customers provide W.E.B. with steady business and numerous referrals. “Once they trust you and have faith in you, they never question you and will tell their friends about you — but you have to be straight with them,” says Bill. These are the type of clients he says, who after you install a boiler, will have their afternoon cocktails down in the basement and invite all their friends with the boiler as the topic of conversation.
One way they keep both these customers and themselves happy is with flat rate pricing. In small towns and retirement havens where people know everybody else, it’s important to have one price, says Bill. Before incorporating Frank Blau’s flat rate system, Bill says they were down in the ditches with everyone else — “And I’m still paying for the mistakes I made back then. Going flat rate with a heating service is the easiest thing in the world, since it isn’t an item that the home owner is going to be shopping for at the home center.” Bill admits that flat rate doesn’t attract the price shoppers, and if he wanted, he could push up his volume by doing time and material. But as long as he keeps his core constituents, he’s happy — “We’re not looking to be working crazy all the time.”
Instead of working crazy, Bill and Mike are working smarter. One of the mistakes they made when first starting out was in receivables. “If you’re starting your own business, and this is something I’m very adamant about, deal in cash,” says Mike. Their first year out, they had somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 to $40,000 out in receivables — too much for a small shop. “Now if my receivables get to $1,000 or $2,000, I start calling people.”
Another problem they’ve run into, again because of their age, are customers who assume they are young service techs who don’t know the business-end of things. Mike has numerous stories of finishing a job and customers saying, “I just talked to your boss and he said I can bill it,” not realizing that Mike and Bill are the bosses. “I’ve learned how to read people,” says Mike. “I can walk into a house now and I know if they plan on paying me, and whether or not they’ll give me a hard time when I’m done.”
All in the Family: While they can’t always trust their clients to come through, both Bill and Mike know they can always trust each other and their office manager Jackie, Mike’s wife. “A lot of people wonder how we can all work together, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Mike. Though he jokingly admits he hates when Bill drives the oil truck — “He gives me high blood pressure when he drives.”
“Working with family is totally different than with other people,” says Bill. “When you’re working with family, little things that irritate you can turn into a huge argument, where if it was just someone you were working with, you wouldn’t really care.” But Bill also says he wouldn’t give it up for anything. And when discussing future business plans declares, “we make it together or not at all.”
Future plans include moving to a new location complete with a showroom featuring a working radiant heat system. With their unique product offerings, dedicated service and commitment to family, the Battles brothers are sure to be heating up the Cape for a long time to come.