Captain Ahab should have focused on his customers’ needs. All they really needed was whale oil, and Ahab could have gotten that from any number of other whales. But instead, Ahab obsessed on fighting back against just one. And in the end, Moby Dick turned out to be a far better competitor than Ahab.

With ever growing competition from utilities and home centers, I think the best plan for contractors is to grow suspects into prospects, prospects into customers, customers into clients and clients into apostles.

Suspects don’t even know they have a need. Prospects recognize a need, but don’t know who they’re going to get to fulfill the need. Customers engage you to meet their needs. Clients — now clients are where the payoffs start. By servicing them well, time after time, you’ve developed a relationship with clients. They trust you to make good, honest recommendations that are in their best interests. They usually don’t question the advice or the price (when was the last time you seriously questioned your CPA, attorney or doctor?) Clients purchase your recommendations. And apostles — well, apostles are so overwhelmed by the service you provide that they evangelize about you to their family, friends, neighbors, business associates and whoever else will listen. An apostle is the highest form of customer. They are your unpaid sales force, generating the most powerful marketing of all.

While I haven’t worked directly in the trade, I’ve been around it for a number of years. This includes time working with manufacturers and franchisers, as well as some HVAC contracting experience. When I call a service contractor, I generally try to play Joe Consumer; I don’t want to pretend I know more than I do technically (and since I don’t know much, I would rather a contractor assume I don’t know anything). However, I always look at things from a critical eye when it relates to customer service and marketing.

Horror Story: A recent episode with a particular plumbing contractor is almost stereotypical and highlights why a good, valuable profession has such a terrible image. It’s worth noting that all of the calls were warranty calls. Price was of zero importance.

If the plumbing contractor in question had an operations and policy manual for their business, here’s what I feel it would say:

  • Change phone numbers often. That way we can minimize callbacks.
  • Don’t leave stickers on water heaters, garbage disposals, etc. and don’t leave magnets. Why make it easier to get callbacks?
  • Disconnect one phone on the weekend and forward calls to it. Why mess up the weekend? Customers can wait until Monday.
  • Don’t carry pagers or cell phones when you’re on call. The customer can wait until you get back to reach you.
  • Don’t take messages on the weekend. If it’s important, they’ll call back when you’re available.
  • Educate the customer about the gas utility. Make sure they know that if they call the gas utility and they find a gas leak, the utility’s liable to just shut off the gas and it may take you two or three days to get around to getting their gas back on line.
  • Track mud in the customer’s house. This is a liability issue. It shows where you’ve been and proves you haven’t been anywhere in the house you shouldn’t. It won’t take the customer long to clean up.
  • Use the customer’s tools. Why should you go to the trouble of getting your ladder or hose off the truck when the customer’s got them sitting in the garage?
  • Don’t replace the customer’s tools. When you’re finished with the customer’s tools, don’t try to put them up. First, this shows the customer you actually did some work. Second, assume all customers are nit picky about how they want their tools put up, their hoses coiled, etc. Thus, you’re better off not putting them back up because they would rather do it on their own.
  • Ignore scheduled calls. No one really expects you to show up on time, or even on the same day. You don’t want to start a trend.
  • Never carry the needed parts. No matter how much of a particular product you install, never have the key repair parts. That way you can tell the customer you can’t fix it right now and you’ll have to order the part. When they ask how long, tell them you have no idea. Don’t order needed parts. Maybe the customer will forget about it and the problem will go away. Only place orders after the customer has called repeatedly over a period of weeks.
  • Be individualistic. We don’t all need to look alike. We can each wear t-shirts (clean or otherwise — it doesn’t matter since they’ll just get dirty anyway), bib overalls, etc.
  • Be hard of hearing. If a customer complains that a vent pipe is popping, for example, pretend you can’t hear it. As a result, the customer should conclude he’s being the whiny, picky and unreasonable person we all know he is.
  • Blame the manufacturer. Make sure the customer knows they’ve got cheap, low-end stuff in their new home and it’s really not your fault.
  • Drive trucks with character. Never bother to repaint a technician’s truck that he owns. Just peel the old decals off so it’s possible to read the name of the last company the tech worked for. Not only does this give the truck a sense of character, like a suitcase with stickers from all over the world, it will let other techs know that people are leaving your old company for ours.
  • Get maximum use out of your trucks. Remember, a hundred quarts of oil still costs less than an expensive repair, so keep pouring in oil and wait as long as possible. You can also push vehicle inspections off at least one month past the inspection date before the police are likely to give you a ticket.
  • Put customers in their place. When the customer insists on something unreasonable, like having enough hot water, tell them they don’t understand and couldn’t possibly understand something complicated like a water heater. They should quit bugging you.
  • Argue. If all else fails, argue with the customer. Tell them that they have to call the service manager (then, hurry to the truck and radio the service manager so he can be unavailable when the call comes).

Sadly, everything on this list happened at least once and sometimes more than once to me. From a service marketing perspective, the performance was so inept, it almost seems like it was planned.

In our particular situation, we were one of four parties. The builder was at fault for specifying a standard recovery water heater when their marketing literature proclaimed quick recovery. The plumber was at fault for a myriad of customer service problems, for inefficiency (though that affected us only indirectly as their inefficiency resulted in an inability to fulfill commitments including ours), and for technical incompetence (their first and second thought was to change out parts, for which I’m sure the manufacturer paid even if there wasn’t a problem). The manufacturer (and distributor) was at fault for selling to anyone who can back up a truck up to the dock, for apparently inadequate efforts to train the contractors on the technical and marketing aspects of the business and for inadequate literature (Did you know that manufacturers do not print a single piece of literature that defines what is standard recovery and what is quick recovery?) We were at fault for occasionally making unreasonable demands simply because we were pushed so far it was our way of getting even — I’m not proud of it, but I’ve got to admit that while we normally try to be “nice” customers, we expended our reservoir of niceness (but we were always courteous).

Plenty Of Opportunity: For a progressive plumber, however, there’s opportunity here. First, by doing a few things right from a service standpoint, there’s the opportunity to stand out. By training people and instituting quality standards, there’s an opportunity to minimize callbacks. By doing minimal relationship marketing, there’s a chance to build a referral base and retain customers. By developing simple customer education type sales literature, there’s an opportunity to standout, sell replacements and sell up.

Are there other consumers with water heater problems like ours? Certainly there are. Our neighborhood’s full of them. They think that running out of hot water is normal (Once we finish with our outstanding issues with the builder, we plan on informing our neighbors otherwise, since everyone paid for quick recovery and didn’t get it. The builder has since changed its literature.) Regardless of builder liability, if someone were to offer to solve this problem for a reasonable price, I’m sure many people would pay for it. This is hot water! It’s something basic. Would a consumer put off upgrading their computer to solve a hot water problem? The conventional wisdom says no. I think that’s wrong, if the consumer is educated about the problem.

Why didn’t the plumber try to get us to upgrade when they came to replace the standard recovery unit with a quick recovery unit? They had to change out the unit anyway. Would we have paid an extra $50 or $100 for a better water heater at that point? I honestly don’t know. We probably would have. However, no one even asked.

I’ve heard complaints throughout the industry about retail and utility competition. The trade only has itself to blame. It’s pushing people away. There’s no effort to differentiate, to reassure customers, to educate customers, to offer choices, to try to upgrade or to actually sell. The manufacturers and distributors share part of the blame, but with a few notable exceptions, they’ve been able to cover their bases and take advantage of the retail channel so it’s really six of one, half dozen of another to them. In truth, the responsibility lies within the trade itself. If the independent plumber doesn’t start fixing it, then the retailers, the consolidators or some other outside entity will. The plumber has turned plumbing into a commodity; no one else has.

My experience includes working for a major HVAC manufacturer in marketing research and conducting many, many projects for manufacturers in a number of trades, utilities and contractor groups. Countless times, I’ve moderated focus groups and observed consumers in focus groups. Consumers have low awareness of anyone and anything in the trades. They don’t think about their air conditioners or their garbage disposals or their faucets until they break down. Then they want them fixed, but they want them fixed by someone they can trust. And they don’t trust contractors. A contractor must earn a consumer’s trust. It’s earned by showing up when promised, looking and acting professional, treating the consumer’s home like it’s a church sanctuary, listening to what the consumer is saying, offering advice and counseling on the problem, presenting choices and explaining the choices, fixing the problem, cleaning up afterwards and being courteous throughout. If the contractor does this, the consumer will eat of his hand. He can recommend a more expensive product and the consumer will buy. Why? Because he trusts the contractor.

Dr. Leonard Berry of the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University says that his research shows consumers want service providers to be Responsive (get there fast and do what the consumer wants), provide Assurance (make them feel they are making the right decision and instill in them the confidence that you can do the job well and take care of their possessions well), show Tangibles (give them things they can use to judge your service by, such as a clean, well identified truck, a uniformed technician, professional, typeset paperwork, and so on, since a service cannot be evaluated until it is consumed and the consumer will look for tangibles that indicate what they can expect from the service), offer Empathy (although the problem may be run of the mill to you, it’s not to the consumer and they want someone who understands that this is important to them) and most of all be Reliable (do what you say you’re going to do).