When you go to the doctor complaining of some discomfort, the doctor writes out a prescription and assumes you’ll get it filled and take your medicine. As clear as this simple scenario is, you and I know people who take their time getting prescriptions filled, skip the proper dose or just ignore the doctor’s advice completely.

The same attitude apparently exists for some business owners in the service and repair business. I’ve recently seen and spoken to several hundred plumbing contractors as part of our traveling training seminars. These concerned business people came to talk about their symptoms — low margins, tough competition, difficulty keeping good techs, etc. I’ve trained and coached some of these people before, and I’m sure some will be back again. And yet they hesitate, if not refuse, to take the “medicine” prescribed.

Regardless of the area of the country or size of the town, I saw the same weaknesses. And they are the same Big Three that I’ve been seeing for the past several years:

1) Flat Rate: Five years ago, the industry asked, “Should I flat rate?” Then about three years ago after many successes, the tone changed to, “What are you waiting for?” Now with all the competitive pressure, customer demands and home warehouses, the question has become, “Why haven’t you?” It doesn’t make sense to delay.

It used to be a common assumption that it takes three to six months to convert your prices to flat rate. Not anymore. You can start flat rate pricing tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow. All you need is a good system. Did you know that in the Washington, D.C., area alone, there are 120 service and repair businesses using our flat rate system? It’s getting to the point where customers ask to see the pricing materials as soon as the tech diagnoses the problem. Customers know they don’t have to put up with any made-up price for their jobs.

And the excuse that it “won’t work in my town,” isn’t valid anymore either. It works everywhere. Businesses still using time and materials pricing have to face consumer complaints such as, “I saw that water heater at Home Depot for half that price!” or “You charge how much an hour?” Meanwhile, the tech using flat rate pricing is showing the customer how they can save money if they have some related, add-on jobs completed on the same service call.

2) Please Hold ... : Despite all the knowledge about poor telephone answering procedures, they remain an epidemic problem. Putting customers on hold for long periods of time, quoting prices on the telephone for jobs that have not been diagnosed and even encouraging customers to check out the local home warehouse’s prices are still commonplace occurrences.

How about your business? Are you spending $50 (a realistic average) for a call that doesn’t result in business because of your call taker’s lack of training, skill or discipline? If you aren’t aware of what they are saying to callers, find out. Hire a private shopping service to get some feedback on how they treat customers.

The problem is usually the owner’s failure to keep strict telephone answering procedures in place. And once these procedures are in place, training and monitoring call takers is a continuing task.

3) Untrained Techs: I can’t think of a business that would send untrained salespeople to customers’ homes and expect anything but disastrous results. Yet service business owners do it all the time. Your techs are your sales reps. Who else goes out to your customers’ homes to sell your jobs? You can’t afford to let them loose without training.

Small, seemingly unimportant techniques can make the difference between a job completed and a job turned down. How the tech greets the customer, for example, could change a customer’s mind toward or away from agreeing to have the repair work performed. In addition, appearance, having a clean, professional-looking uniform, may alter a customer’s decision whether to agree to service work. Training and monitoring techs is also a continuing process — keep taking this medicine, too.

Technician Dilemma: Here’s the dilemma I hear time and again, however, concerning techs. The Catch-22 usually goes something like this: “If I could find good techs, I would be able to train them, keep them motivated and make my business more successful. Of course, I can’t afford to hire the best because I can’t afford to pay them enough to induce them to work for me. And if I did increase their pay, my margins would be so slim that I wouldn’t be able to stay in business.” How can you get past this barrier?

First, we have to realize that the situation is getting worse. We have a full-scale disaster on our hands. Few new techs are entering the field and competition for good ones is increasing. With many shops paying as little as $15 an hour, it’s no surprise that we have found ourselves in this position. You get what you pay for, as they say. Low standards, questionable customer treatment and a hustle-to-the-next-job attitude doesn’t produce winning teams.

One solution is going to have to be providing some incentive for quality techs. More pay? That puts us right back where we started. Not exactly. Here’s a better way to look at the situation.

What we’re really looking for are people to perform two jobs, yet we only want to pay them for one. First, our techs are salespeople. They have to sell the job. How much do salesmen make? Certainly a lot more than $15 an hour.

Why not have your customers help you compensate your people so you can attract and keep the best ones — those who’ll make your business grow? Customers can help out by paying a higher price. I can hear the objections: What about the competition? Forget them. If you offer the best service through professional techs, cheaper prices are forgotten. (You don’t want those small job, price shoppers anyway.)

The only way to survive in today’s marketplace is to offer the best service — that might mean putting some part-time people on from 4:00-8:00 p.m. when customers come home from work and discover problems they want fixed before tomorrow. Or new company uniforms, instead of jeans and T-shirts. The best service costs, but customers will pay for it, gladly. For you, it’s the only way out of the Technician Dilemma.

If you follow the prescriptions I have given you, success is only a matter of time. Skip your medicine and you are taking unnecessary risks.