For most of my life, I've been on wheels of some sort. After the typical wheeled walkers and tricycles, I graduated to a real 20-inch Schwinn with a coaster brake. This ride took me to civilization and the nearest convenience store, more than a mile from our rural home. Later on, our old Cushman Eagle, retrofitted with a 5 horsepower Briggs & Stratton, opened up the farm roads for even more exploration.

But life really changed when I could ride to just about anywhere on my Honda CL350 (as long as I was back in time to get my homework done). These days, an Electra Glide is the mode of choice and the urge to ride is, if anything, stronger than ever. Unless the weather is downright nasty, a two-wheeler is my preferred mode of transport. On date nights LaVonne and I enjoy searching out barbecue joints using the most serpentine roads we can find. Getting there is half the fun.

Here's a pop quiz for you. What's wrong with the following sentence: “Riding to the nearest Wal-Mart means warming up the bike, donning helmets and leather while figuring out how to get back with a toaster oven, two gallons of milk and a box of Cheerios.” (See the answer at the end of the column.) If you're not a biker, you probably don't understand why we would go through the effort of bundling up for a brisk ride when the temps are in the thirties. You might wonder why anyone balanced on two wheels would even think of sharing lanes with a Hummer under the influence of a cell phone. You see, for a biker, the trip is reason enough for going somewhere. Getting ready is just the price of admission.

It's not that we have a death wish, but fuzzy dice dangling from the rear view mirror just doesn't produce the same thrill as foot pegs grinding or “gremlin bells” clanging on the pavement of the cloverleaf. Packing light, dressing warm, riding with the wind in your face and the pavement just inches below your feet are all part of the mystique that brings life to motorcycling. A crooked arrow on the road sign spells caution for automobiles but fun for bikers. Sure, we take a greater risk but, in turn, we get a better ride. More risk, better ride - sounds much like a contractor's lifestyle, doesn't it? Sometimes the risk is worth the ride; sometimes you end up picking gravel out of your elbows.

I can think of some similarities between bikers and our profession. For example, it's no secret that bikers of all types enjoy comradery and support that crosses most social barriers. Lawyers, doctors and plumbers may not run in the same social circles, but when we're astride our iron horses we all talk the same language: torque, chrome and road trips.

Plumbing and indoor comfort contractors enjoy similar comradery. “Post-meeting” confabs are some of the most popular attractions at conventions and seminars. After all the official presentations, contractors get to chat about what really matters to them. Fortunately, the Internet brings these informal discussions home where members of the PHC community can converse at their leisure and on their own schedules. I marvel at how contractors large and small communicate as equals when offering help and advice to one another. The “little guys” are able to communicate with uncommon common sense, while the larger contractors share from their wealth of hard-fought battles. It's like a 24/7 “post-seminar meeting” where everyone stops by for a chat and a cup of coffee.

Truly Efficient Customer Service

Proper packing is essential for a successful road trip on a motorcycle. Every item has to earn its place in the saddle bag. When loading for a road trip, start by packing the items that you absolutely know you're going to use on the trip. Next, if there's still room in the saddle bags, you can pack luxuries such as a second toothbrush so you don't have to share. If we were going in a truck, we could throw in just about anything imaginable yet still have plenty of room. (No wonder my old utility bed Ford weighed over 5 tons!)

But how does efficiently packing a bike relate to customer service? Imagine the bike as being your company. Everything you load onto the bike raises your cost of doing business.

On the bottom end of this scale, we find the typical service contractor who's trying to offer cruiser performance for a moped price. Imagine a moped carrying a rider laden with a heavy backpack, balancing a toolbox on the handlebars and dragging a drain machine along behind. Can it get him from Point A to Point B? Quite possibly, but it sure is tough on the overworked moped. Although it's possible to get the job done, no reasonable person would expect this poor little moped to be the most efficient method of transportation. After a while, the poor little thing is going to collapse from exhaustion.

On the upper end of the scale, imagine a fully dressed road ride with all the chrome, lights and custom paint. When this beauty of a rig comes down the street, it turns everyone's heads. But when it comes time to pay the bill, the customer has difficulty figuring out how a one-of-a-kind custom paint job actually added value to his service. Somewhere between this glamorous ride and the pitiable moped is a cruiser with the right combination of service and presentation that customers can appreciate.

So, on one end of the scale, we have a contractor struggling to offer cruiser service at moped prices, while on the other end of the scale we have a contractor who just can't say “no” to bloating overhead. Neither shop can really be construed as an excellent value for both customer and contractor.

Finally, if I'm going to be true to my motorcycle analogy, I must confess and acknowledge one other similarity between bikers and contractors. I admit that, even with gasoline pushing past $3 per gallon, it is very difficult to rationalize motorcycling. I explain it to my kids this way: I ride a motorcycle to have fun, endure challenges, take risks and join a community. These are huge factors that, for some of us anyway, overcome dollars and good sense.

Plumbing and indoor comfort contractors experience much of the same rationale, or lack thereof. Many contractors will run their business like a moped just so they can do what they love to do - fix things and make people happy. When on my scooter, I practice defensive driving and, usually, wear a helmet. I realize that there are two kinds of bikers on the road. Those who have “gone down” and those who will go down.

If you're a contractor who works for the love of fixing things and making people happy, you need to take some safety precautions as well. Learn what your costs are and charge accordingly, then be prepared to accept the consequences if you don't.

When I'm not serving plumbers of the Service Roundtable, you're likely to find me cruising on my six-speed Electra Glide. It's not too fancy, not too plain, but it sure puts the fun into hunting for those barbecue joints.

P.S.: Keep the bugs out of your teeth!

Answer to the quiz: Why would a biker ride to the nearest Wal-Mart when there are plenty of them that are at least 10 miles away?