He’s done it once, and he’s doing it again. He is Kerry Lauricella. And what he’s doing is improving the image of plumbing contractors.

Lauricella and his 1-800-REPAIRS number is doing nothing short of uniting an industry. No dollar amount can get you into this program — you need to qualify for it.

“We’re looking for good business people,” says Lauricella, who is chairman of the New Orleans-based company. “This service is going to clean up the industry.”

This guy knows what he’s talking about. Lauricella already raised the bar on professionalism in the automotive repair industry. In 1982, he purchased the 800-REPAIRS telephone number to work with auto repair servicemen. Fifteen years later, he has more than 90,000 auto repair shops on board.

January 1998 marks the launch of the home repair side — which includes plumbing, air conditioning and electrical. Lauricella has 20,000 plumbing businesses on his side, with the number expected to grow.

The service is a “no-brainer,” according to Lauricella. Instead of a customer going to the Yellow Pages, he picks up the phone and dials 1-800-REPAIRS. One of 175 operators picks up the phone and diagnoses the problem.

In this instance, we’ll say our customer is facing a broken water heater with no idea who to call. He just moved to Atlantic Beach, NC.

The operator takes down the vitals and tells the customer a plumber will call him back shortly. The operator looks through 800-REPAIRS’ database and comes across Atlantic Coastal Plumbing, located in Atlantic Beach, NC. A perfect match.

Terri Poor — office manager at Atlantic Coastal Plumbing — receives the phone call from the operator. The key to the phone call: “Can you get to the customer’s house today?” If the answer is yes, Atlantic Coastal Plumbing gets the customer vitals from 800-REPAIRS, and pays a simple $5 for the call.

The customer now belongs to the plumbing company. Whatever Atlantic Coastal Plumbing decides to charge is the price. It is now a one-on-one business deal.

“It is a great referral service,” says Terri, who along with her husband Tim, runs the company. “There are a lot of people out there pretending to be plumbers who are not. This service legitimizes us and our industry.”

Tim says that even though he hasn’t received any phone calls yet, he believes the service will eventually bring 5–15 new customers a week.

“We like that nobody dictates what we set as a price,” says Terri, who took over the company in 1992. “We like how strict they are accepting people in.”

Joining In: Lauricella says after years of dealing with 800-REPAIRS he’s seen many handymen try anything to get in. But he demands the best. To be considered for the program, a contractor must prove his company is insured, licensed, offers a written guarantee and has some type of training program in place for employees.

“By telling America it’s free, and that we meet industry standards, we’re expecting a good response,” says Lauricella, whose company receives more than 100,000 phone calls a day.

Once contractors are accepted, there are two routes they can take with 800-REPAIRS. For $295 a year, they can purchase local rights to all calls. Any call within their area will come to their company. Some larger areas like Chicago may have up to 40 exclusively authorized contractors. The areas are separated by zip codes.

Before accepting the call, the company needs to guarantee they will service the call on the same day. If the company cannot service the call, it goes to a backup company.

Being a backup company — the second route — comes with no annual fees, and only a $5-per-phone-call fee.

“It looks like a great opportunity to get extra work,” says Frank Southwood, owner of Southwood Plumbing and Heating. “We think in four or five years it will be an important part of our business.”

Based in South San Francisco, Southwood says his company is not hurting for business.

“We’ll let 800-REPAIRS market the number for us,” Southwood says. “We’re willing to ride out the wave. We can always use extra customers.”

Lauricella plans on aggressively marketing the 800-REPAIRS number. The service is currently being promoted with direct mail and telemarketing to commercial and residential accounts across the country. He already put together a “National Safety Campaign” that includes 11 questions consumers should ask themselves regarding plumbing safety.

The 800-REPAIRS safety guide was created in conjunction with the Consumer Products Safety Commission and the United States Consumer Information Center in Pueblo, CO.

Lauricella carefully points out he is concerned who the number is marketed to.

“My biggest concern is jamming the systems,” Lauricella admits. “It’s could get out of control. We want to make sure we can handle the system and stay in touch with our users.”

At the time the system was debuted, 800-REPAIRS was owner of the largest call routing system ever built by AT&T.

Because of the different segments of the company and the number of shops already signed on, 800-REPAIRS will touch an average of 2 million people a day without any additional marketing. Lauricella says he is going to heavily focus on vendors shopping back and forth between each other.

“Auto repair shops have a use for plumbers, and vice versa,” Lauricella says. “They can offer each other a little discount. It works out really well for both of them.”

Lauricella says he is excited about the local marketing that each individual contractor can do.

“Think about how it will work out in schools and church bulletins,” he says.

Terri Poor says her company plans to heavily market the number with their materials.

“I think it is a great advertisement for us,” she says. “We’re going to be putting the number on our trucks, and putting some artwork on display. It’s not only going to benefit them — it’s also benefiting us.”

Watching Closely: Unlike the Better Business Bureau, which can tell you whether there have been a large number of complaints against any one shop, 800-REPAIRS takes pro-active approach.

Another important part of the agreement is that any complaints from customers will be answered to 800-REPAIRS in writing within five business days. If the contractor does not respond within the given period, all of his calls are held.

“We are not a warranty company,” says Lauricella. “We just want to make sure that one of our vendors is not doing shoddy work. Consumers are funny about the sort of things they complain about. We want to make sure it is a legitimate complaint.”

800-REPAIRS says they will try to work out all disagreements, but if one cannot be reached they will recommend another contractor.

“We don’t claim to have all the answers,” Lauricella says. “We’re open to suggestions from our vendors. They’re the ones that help us keep the standards high.”

According to Lauricella, 800-REPAIRS has an advisory board with members from all over the country that helps set the “industry standards.”

“Where else in America can you pay $5 for new customers?” Lauricella asks. “Try that with the Yellow Pages. We aren’t telling them how to run their business — we just expect the industry standards they should be meeting anyways.”

That’s how he’s doing it again.