There are some bad apples in the industry, but it's not PM's job to draw attention to them.

The caller's name was Don. Unlike some who have engaged me in similar conversations over the years, he was not irate and irrational. Don was an industry stalwart who had held industry leadership positions and spoke in a reasoned tone. That's why I was glad to chat with him for the better part of a half-hour and listen to his complaint about me and PM.

Don said he ran a bath remodeling and plumbing repair business, and was a flat rater whose prices were above the norm in his mid-size market in the nation's heartland. Nonetheless, he was annoyed with a competitor in town who he thought took advantage of an elderly customer. This firm belonged to one of the organizations that gets a lot of ink in our magazine, which is why he took us to task.

Don saw an invoice in which the company billed an elderly woman around $1,100 for a new water heater and installation, plus socked her an extra $99 for pouring some drain cleaner down a tub drain, and another $99 for taking a couple of extra steps to do the same to the toilet. He wanted me to use this bully pulpit to condemn such gouging.

OK, I will.

People should pay more for added value, and some companies do provide more value than others in the way they perform. But it's hard to figure out what value this guy added charging twice to bend his wrist pouring whatever it was down the tub and toilet. For $99, one would think it was pixie dust. And while I support the concept of paying more for professionalism and quality service, it's also fair to evaluate companies via the grandma test. That is, would you recommend such a plumber to your grandmother? Most of us with reasonably good family relationships would say no.

Some contractors emphasize sales over service to the point of scandal. That's why I'm not a fan of straight commission compensation for plumbers. Not every commissioned plumber is crooked and not every wage earner honest, but common sense tells us that plumbers on commission have greater incentive to commit abuses, especially when the owner pressures them to bring in big bucks without much caring how.

I agree that these kinds of plumbing firms do not bring honor to our industry. Now, I'd like to explain why I don't voice indignation about them more often.

We're YOUR Magazine

It's simply because the offense cited here is not a problem for this magazine's contractor constituency. It may be a problem for consumers, but there are plenty of government and media watchdogs looking out for the public interest. You won't find any of them looking out for the interest of plumbing contractors.

That's PM's job. Ever since we started this magazine in 1984, we've made it our mission to promote contractor interests. Despite what many of you think, your interests are not threatened by the handful of PHC firms in any given market that do business like the one just described.

Quite the contrary, you should thank your lucky stars for them. They offer you a wonderful opportunity for your company to contrast itself. The essence of competition is to deliver more value for less money. Can that be any easier to do than when competing against gougers and cheats?

More troublesome are the bottom feeders. The big problem for plumbing service firms isn't that one or two companies in a market charge upwards of $1,000 to replace a water heater and $99 a shot to dispense some drain cleaner. A much bigger problem is that in virtually every market you can find dozens of people willing to do all of that and more for just a few hundred bucks, and the “going rate” tends to be closer to the lowest rates in town than the highest. Then the reputable contractors who charge what they need to make a decent living have to defend themselves against “rip-off” complaints of consumers goaded on by bottom feeders who don't have a lick of business sense.

You won't hear anything about this on the 10 o'clock news. That's why it gets emphasized here.

Image Control

Don insisted the bad guys hurt the entire industry by soiling the reputation of plumbers. This is a timeless argument. Back in the 1950s, PHCC spent most of the decade lobbying manufacturers to contribute millions of dollars for a nationwide publicity campaign to change the negative image of plumbers. Good thing they failed to raise the money. It would have been a big waste.

No amount of TV commercials can erase an audience's core beliefs, especially when they get routinely reinforced. Justified or not, the image of plumbers charging too much is indelibly etched in the public's mind. Even if we could wave a magic wand to instill integrity in every last plumber, the public at-large would still gripe about them. Face it, friends, you make your living off of poo-poo, which happens to be a staple of lowbrow humor and highbrow disgust. In India, members of the lowest caste are condemned to lives dispensing human filth. In America, a similar caste system exists in the minds of many people who think their you-know-what doesn't stink.

Besides, the negative image owes even more to the bottom feeders than the high flyers. People think even going-rate plumbers charge too much. That's because the typical plumbers who visit their homes look and act like they ought to work for pennies. Do you think any lawyer or doctor could charge $200 an hour if s/he dressed in shabby clothes and spoke in grunts?

Yet, this, too, is something you can turn to your advantage. That negative image means that the average homeowner expects Bubba Buttcrack to show up at her door. What an opportunity to make a great impression by defying that stereotype. All it takes is a clean uniform and a little polite conversation to make them think yours are the best plumbers around.

There's nothing your little firm can do to alter the overall impression people have of plumbers. But you have total control over the image they form of your company. Low expectations are a competitive edge for service firms that have their act together.

Unfair Charges

Finally, there's one more reason why I don't expend a lot of ink bashing the rip-off artists. It's because many contractors are unfairly maligned. Just because some contractors charge more than the going rate - even a lot more - doesn't make them a rip-off.

I think it's senseless to charge $99 per flick of the wrist. Regardless of that contractor's cost structure, he's asking for trouble charging so much for a simple little service. It offends people's intuitive sense of what things are worth. Better to bump up the price of more complex tasks.

Some business practices are downright criminal - such as splashing water on a basement floor and pretending a boiler or water heater sprang a leak. I won't waste a keystroke defending those creeps. But too often condemnation extends to companies that engage in the ethical selling of extras and upgrades. If a water heater is aging but still functional, is it unethical to give someone the option of replacing the product with something more energy-efficient? Next time you get called to fix one of those first-generation low-flush toilets, don't you think you'd be doing the customer a favor by offering to replace it with one that works better? Many contractors instruct their techs to give customers repair and replacement options. Does that make them bad?

Most plumbers have such an aversion to selling they reflexively cry “rip-off” to describe legitimate sales promotion. Is it outrageous for the fast food clerk to ask if you want fries with your order? Do you call out the consumer protection hounds when your auto mechanic reminds you that it's been 25,000 miles since your last brake job, and maybe it's time to get one even though they aren't yet grinding? Why is this the only industry in the world where it's a sin to push a little for a bigger share of the consumer dollar? Low-pressure pitches for extra business are part of the fabric of free enterprise.

The more typical plumber mindset is to change a stem for the fifth time in a 50-year-old faucet rather than sell the customer a new one. Can you imagine Home Depot putting up signs next to all their merchandise reading, “Don't buy any of these products until you first spend all day trying to locate an ancient part that might save a few bucks.”

Boundary Lines

It's not that hard to distinguish the rip-offs from the legitimate business go-getters. Technical competence is one criterion. Contractors who worship nothing but the almighty buck tend to hire solely for sales ability. Contractors who invest in capable technicians are serious about doing a good job for customers, and deserve to be adequately compensated.

Community involvement is another good sign. Many contractors who bear the rip-off label are pillars of their community and channel considerable profits back into charities and civic activities. Real con artists are selfish and tend to keep a low profile.

Repeat business is another good clue as to whether a company is sound or merely slick. For instance, my friend and former PM columnist Frank Blau has taken a lot of flack over the years for his business methods. He was an easy target, having described them in hundreds of articles and seminars over the years. Yet, I never heard any of his critics accuse his company of technical incompetence, and year after year Blau's company got upwards of 60 percent of its revenues from repeat customers. Either the citizens of Milwaukee are among the stupidest people in the universe, or they perceive good value in doing business with that firm.

Finally, you can tell a lot by how contractors treat their employees and suppliers. Gougers and cheats tend to act that way toward everyone, not just customers. They see people as commodities to be used and abused. Reputable contractors pay their bills on time and share their wealth with deserving employees. The hustlers tend to have revolving doors. When you see a contractor with a stable of long-term employees, you can be pretty sure it's a reputable firm, though perhaps expensive.

It's time to get off the backs of the contractors who meet these criteria. Let's harp instead on the masses of well intentioned but clueless contractors whose business incompetence is the real millstone around the industry's neck.