Our customers may or may not have all the facts, but they do talk to each other.

As the community plumbing advisor, I'm often asked for advice - sort of like the doctor who is constantly pestered at parties - such as, "Why do I run out of hot water after only 32 minutes in the shower?" Unlike the typical doctor, I sometimes seek out acquaintances in need of plumbers. I want to hear their adventures and misadventures with our profession.

Jeanie was one of those "clients." Her main house drain was clogged - whom should she call? I gave her three names. My first suggestion was Ken, an established "mom and pop" contractor. Established? Maybe more like entrenched. He's old school all the way - old machines, old truck, old ladder, old ways. I knew he'd be the cheapest choice. I told Jeanie to be sure to check his insurance, just in case. The other two contractors I named were larger firms where I happened to know some good drain cleaning professionals. I gave her some names to ask for so she'd get the best service.

So far, so good. Jeanie was going to get her problem taken care of, I was able to send a referral to people I know, and I was going to get up-to-date customer service information on my referrals. As a bonus, this meant that I didn't have to drag out my old drain machine that should have been scrapped after its 20 years on the job.

Too Cheap Or Too Pricey

Right out of the starting gate we hit a pothole. Ken, the mom and pop contractor, had an ad in the phone book but his number was disconnected. (Note to self: Be sure to tell contractors how important it is to take care of business so they'll be in business when their customers need them.) Next, Jeanie tried one of the bigger companies I had offered. She was able to request Lonnie, one of the professionals I had recommended.

Lonnie quickly had the line draining but wasn't able to do a full-bore cleaning due to a "bad spot" in the line. Since the line had a problem, he offered, for an extra fee, to take a look with his See Snake. Jeanie declined since she was already at the end of her budget. Lonnie left, and neither of them knew exactly what the problem was. (Note to self: What if sewer camera work was considered as a marketing expense in the overhead?)

Let Me Tell You About My Surgery

Since Lonnie had to limit his guarantee, Jeanie started asking around for more information about drain cleaning. In fact, this drain problem became her "surgery story." You know about surgery stories. Surgeries become a marker in history as in "... that was before my surgery." They also become part of a game of one-upmanship. "You think your triple bypass was bad? Let me tell you about my quadruple bypass with a frontal lobotomy. I still have heart murmurs but I don't care as much now." Jeanie's sewer story was like that. "He got the line open but it still has a partial blockage - we may have to excavate!" Then comes all the detail about soaked towels, soaked carpet, geysers under the air conditioner and the quest to figure out where all the water was coming from. (Note to self: I may punch out a dozen drains a day, but for my customer, one blockage is a major life event.)

Everyone that would listen heard about Jeanie's sad tale of occlusion. In one conversation, she mentioned that Lonnie had said something like, "Normally, we offer a 90-day guarantee but because there's a problem in the line, we have to limit it to 30 days." Her patient listener perked up. "Oh, that's the line they always use, word for word, in order to hook you into a big repair job." (Note to self: Oh, great, now we can't even tell them what's wrong without being accused as a scam artist!)


While telling you about Jeanie's misadventure into plumbing service, I made some notes. Let's briefly explore these to see what we can learn.

Note No. 1: Ken, the long time "mom and pop" contractor, couldn't even keep his phone number. Was it because he forgot to pay the phone bill? I doubt it. What probably happened is that he was juggling bills, trying to stay ahead and the phone bill finally juggled out of control. What makes this sad is that Ken was one of the best drain professionals in the area. It's hard to know exactly when his juggling routine began but two things are common with business jugglers: First, one missed step can bring everything crashing down. Second, jugglers live with the hope that the juggling act is only temporary until things get better. After all, who would go into business with the desire to juggle payables as part of the routine?

It's possible that Ken let his overhead get out of line but, according to the 1982 Dodge van I last saw him in, he wasn't spending too extravagantly. More likely, Ken just wasn't charging enough. Once his juggling act could no longer keep the doors open, he dropped the ball. Now, he wouldn't be able to transfer his legacy, his ethics, his genuine concern for customers to anyone else. His legacy died with his business. His reluctance to charge enough also forced his customer base into the hands of the unknowns - contractors who may or may not be as honest as he. For certain, nearly any contractor would be charging more. For an extra $50 per service call, Ken could still be in business but he chose to be cheap. Now he's gone.

Nickels And Dimes

On the other hand, Lonnie works for a big shop that keeps its phone bills paid. It keeps its late-model vans in good shape, stocked with plenty of equipment in order to offer fast, dependable service. To cover all these costs, Lonnie's company obviously has to charge more. In fact, it has a fee for just about everything. Which brings us to Note No. 2. What if some extra services, such as a televised video inspection, were included in overhead as marketing, rather than sold for a separate fee?

Keep in mind the final note I made about being called a scam artist. If Jeanie could have actually seen the offset in her drainpipe, Lonnie's credibility would have gone from negative to positive. If Jeanie had seen the problem with her own eyes, she'd have good reason to believe everything that Lonnie had told her. Since there's a gap in the information, Jeanie will probably fill it with conjecture when she tells the story. "I'll bet there's nothing wrong down there. You know how those rip-off artists are."

Obviously, we can't just roll every tool and service into overhead, but if we perform a service often enough, and the benefits are strong enough, it's certainly worth considering. (Note: We have a simple cost calculator in the Freebies section of www.serviceroundtable.com, which will help you calculate the cost of adding a service into overhead instead of charging extra for it.)

It's likely that stories like this are told every day in every market. In this single example, we saw what happens when an excellent contractor doesn't charge enough while another excellent contractor could have made more by charging less. We also saw an example of how our customers talk to each other. They may or may not have all the facts, but they do talk. We need to be the heroes of their conversations.

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