Taking a day off sounds nice, but the reality is that plumbing problems, by definition, have to occur at the most inconvenient time.

You should take a day off. Not even think about business. It will be so good for you! A mental health day — no work, all pleasure. It would be a day for family and spiritual renewal. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

Yet the reality is that plumbing problems, by definition, have to occur at the most inconvenient time. In the big rule book of life, it is written: •

  • Twenty-five percent of all disposals must fail on Christmas evening. •
  • Water heaters may only fall apart during a family reunion. •
  • Toilet stoppages are directly linked to the number of relatives one invites to Thanksgiving dinner.

The small shop owner is usually the one to the rescue. Out he goes into the night, or on Sunday, while the rest of the world snuggles in with their family or sings praises to the heavens.

My husband Hot Rod and I owned a plumbing and heating company in Utah, and this problem plagued us. We never really resolved it. We had three other fellows who worked for us, who were capable of going “on call.” But they rarely went. Hot Rod always did.

There were a few reasons why this was the case: •

  • Our employees lived 45 minutes from our service area. •
  • They knew that Hot Rod would handle on call. He always did. •
  • There was this erroneous belief that we could just tell folks that we would be there first thing Monday morning.

This is known as “denial.”

So every weekend, we just crossed our fingers and hoped that no one would call. But someone would, of course. Most weekend calls could be rescheduled. But what would you do when Mr. Moheeny called? And he reminded you that you were the one who put in his new boiler — yesterday. A new boiler that just leaked all over his freshly finished red oak floors. What would you do? You would go over there. Hot Rod did.

Hot Rod went out, most Sundays and every single Christmas in our married history. I can’t fault our guys. They needed a day off. And we never insisted they take on call duty. We just kept hoping that no one would call.

Our employees didn’t go out on call until they bought the business. Then, it seemed reasonable to go out and handle the emergency stuff. It is different when you are the owner. It makes sense. After all, when it is your company, the view changes. (This phenomenon makes me think that employee-owned companies should be the standard model.)

But how do you, a small shop owner, take a needed day off in the 24-hour world of plumbing and heating service?

Make One Day Different: Recently, I read about a smart business woman in Inc. magazine. Work consumed her life. Not just because of the urgent calls from customers, but also because she loved her business. Weekends came and went and she couldn’t bear to take a day off. Calling on her Jewish heritage, she decided to start honoring the Sabbath. She found a book about Jewish Holidays. The book explained that the Sabbath stands apart from any kind of work, “an enchanted island of time,” a day of rest. She and her family decided to avoid work, or any talk of it, from sunset to sunset on the Sabbath.

She reported that once she started taking this once-a-week vacation, her income doubled within the year. A result, perhaps, of returning to work rested and ready. Sounds very appealing.

But imagine the greater benefits of making one day holy: spending time with your family; talking to each other; praying; meditating; walking in the woods; running on the beach; or connecting with family and spirit. The image formed in my mind — a lovely, idyllic day of love and salvation.

Then, I heard a doubtful voice in my head say, “That woman wasn’t a plumber! How can you pull that off when Mr. Moheeny calls with water all over his floor?”

This is a tough one. I don’t have any pat answers to this dilemma. But let me share some information from my experiences and other small shop owners’.

Part One, The Phone: When your regular customer service rep takes a day off, you have a few options: •

  • Answering Machine. This will effectively screen all customers, especially the one fellow who is really mad at you for taking the day off — and leaves you 15 angry messages. If you use a machine, have the greeting indicate when you are going to respond to messages. Then keep to it. •
  • Mobile Phone. If you are the owner and you carry a cell phone on weekends, you won’t get a day of rest. Ever. Unless someone else answers it. You could alternate weekends with another employee. •
  • Answering Service. I don’t know why this is so, but most answering service companies are terrible at answering the phone. Isn’t that a shame? If you go this route, check on them all the time. I’m convinced that if you are a mean, nasty person with a short, clipped voice you must work for an answering service.

You see, the problem with anyone but you answering the phone is that they might tick off a potential customer. Particularly when whoever is doing the answering really doesn’t want to schedule a service call. This may be why you end up answering the phone yourself.

For you to hand the phone to someone else — either an employee or a tech — on your day off, you must: •

  • Define exactly what constitutes an emergency for your company. •
  • Have a written policy on phone call handling and stick to it. •
  • Train using scripts. •
  • Practice with each other to check understanding. •
  • Mystery shop to test real life application.

Define what you want your customer service rep. (CSR) to do and practice like crazy. You can respond to the bleeding, carpet-being ruined, underwater or in-danger-of-exploding emergencies. Then, schedule the “been dripping for four months” calls for Monday. But beware: The big, full service companies will kick your butt on these days. They have regular weekend shifts and enough guys to rotate on call without anyone turning into a crispy critter from burn-out. They consider every job an “emergency” and send a tech on his way. They will steal your not-so-urgent-repair-call customers right out from under your nose.

Maybe, at least for the time being, your “Sabbath” could be Tuesday. It doesn’t seem fair that you get the worst shift at your company. But it may be better than no day at all. For the time being. It is not OK to spend years getting the short-stick schedule. So, even if your replacement CSR isn’t as good as you are, at some point you must let go.

Part Two, Somebody Else: You can’t go on forever this way. Somebody else is going to have to go to the rescue. At least once a week.

Hot Rod and I sold our company for a combination of reasons. This on call problem was one of them. Being on call is like having your dog in the car when you run around doing errands. It’s not an overwhelming responsibility, but it’s always there. “I gotta go check on the dog.”

When we talked to our employees about selling the company, they asked us what had led to our decision. We talked frankly about the on call problem. They were concerned we hadn’t addressed the problem with them. We had. But we all kept denying that it was a big deal. We kept hoping no one would call on the weekend. We didn’t want these guys to quit, or burn out. You know how hard it is to find great employees. And they rightly figured they deserved a day off.

But rotating the on call days is a must. If you are the only person who works Sundays at your company, you need to work this out with your team — or you will turn into a walking vegetable and be of no service to them anyway.

The on call person needs to be well compensated for the extra effort, of course. Our former employees figured out a nice system when they bought the company. They rotate the after-hours calls, and the fellow who goes out keeps all the dollars generated from labor, overhead and profit. The company gets paid for the materials.

If you are a one-person company, find a competitor in the same situation. Work out a mutually beneficial arrangement. Make sure he is a great plumber — almost as good as you. And realize that you may lose one or two of your customers to him on your day off. The hero who responds usually gets the next call. But this flip-flop will work in your favor as well.

What Really Matters: You need to maintain your spiritual health. However you worship and whomever you honor, you need to take a day off now and then — to think, play, love, pray and not do any work. When you are faced with crisis or tragedy, your spiritual health will make a huge difference in your ability to survive.

Figure out a way to take a day off.