When a plunger doesn't get the throne room back into operation, homeowners usually turn to their plumber for relief. For some plumbers, these calls are a necessary evil that are more trouble than they're worth, but others find special opportunities in drain cleaning. In the course of customizing pricing books for contractors from coast to coast, I've noticed four major camps in the plumbing and drain cleaning business.

The Drain Dabbler

Some contractors accept drain cleaning calls as a burden they must bear in order to be in the plumbing business. These contractors may pull an “expendable” inexperienced tech from another jobsite just to placate the customer. The tech will be armed with feeble equipment that was mediocre when purchased sometime last century. Once the drain is unclogged, the tech will assume the job is finished without giving a thought to actually cleaning the drain line.

This process may get the customer off your back for the time being, but you can bet his next call will be to another contractor.

Clogs On A Silver Platter

Another strategy is to price drain cleaning work so high that few will use your services. To begin with, the higher pricing implies that your customer is going to get better service, faster response or both.

The reality is that if your service professionals don't want to clean drains, then your customer is most likely going to receive mediocre to lousy service for an exorbitant price. They'll probably find better service elsewhere and may well take their plumbing business with them. If you don't want to do drains, do yourself and your customers a favor and just refuse the work in the first place.

Drain Disdain

Some plumbing contractors have very practical reasons for their drain disdain. To begin with, recruiting plumbers who are willing to clean drains can be a real challenge, especially in companies offering a plumbing/heating mix. Many plumbing professionals consider drain cleaning to be an unskilled craft and don't believe plumbers should stoop to that sort of work.

I'll argue that professional drain cleaning requires just as much skill and experience as professional plumbing, but there's no denying the fact that lugging a 200+ pound machine down and up the basement steps is just plain hard work. It's also nasty work. Given the choice between getting No. 5 pipe dope in your hair or getting splattered with sewer stuff, which would you prefer?

If you're in the “disdain for drains” category, there are several ways to handle the situation. One is to simply let your customers know that you don't do drain cleaning. Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe not. You know your customer has no choice but to call someone else, someone who may be a competitor, so never send them away without a recommendation.

Recommendations can be sticky because you're implying that the recommended drain cleaning contractor upholds standards that are similar to your own company standards. Invest some coaching into your favorite drain cleaning contractor in order to elevate his business practices while providing you with a reliable option to offer your customers.

As a high-volume client, you should earn some leverage when you're trying to get faster service for your customers. A good relationship with your drain contractor could also result in plumbing referrals for your shop. (Note: before accepting referral fees from your drain contractor, be mindful that a referral fee imparts a mercenary tone to the contractor relationship, which could taint your relationship with your customer.)

Drain Cleaning As An Opportunity

Many of my plumbing clients have recognized the opportunities that can be found in the occluded waste piping business. Make no mistake about it, there's much more to drain cleaning than trading vortexes for checks.

To begin with, a drain cleaning job is usually just the tip of an iceberg. Clearing the stoppage is merely treating the symptom. Why did the line clog in the first place? Sometimes it could simply be overloading the drain, but often there's a problem with the piping, the fixture or both. Every time a pipe clogs, it becomes a hazardous nuisance for your customer. Don't miss the opportunity to treat the problem.

There is a rapidly growing trend to use rehabilitation technology to replace or re-line faulty piping with minimal or no excavation. Whether the re-hab work is performed open trench or trenchless, the invoice will easily be in the thousands. A competitive drain cleaning service can provide a regular supply of leads for these big ticket jobs. When customers allow you to make repairs or drain treatments, you'll find your average invoices climbing.

Drains Are Serious Business

One strategy for drain cleaning is to set up a separate branch of your business, with its own operating overhead, in order to cover drain calls. This prevents your plumbers' performance numbers from being skewed by drain work pricing and it allows you to hire someone specifically for drain cleaning. You may not have enough volume to keep your drain-specific staff busy, so you should examine whether to charge higher rates as needed or to offload some of the drain cleaners' overhead expense to general operations when the root cutters are sitting idle.

What does it take to offer a competitive drain cleaning service? For starters, imagine your morning family routine as everyone is scrambling to get showers, last minute laundry and kitchen duty before rushing off to work and school. Suddenly, both toilets become fountains. Are you going to spend a half hour or more calling around for the best price in town or are you going to give a green light to the “free estimate in less than an hour rooter racer?” In the drain cleaning business, a large portion of the job value is delivered when the CSR says, “We can have someone out right away.”

Once your well-trained, well-equipped drain cleaning professional arrives on site, the price needs to reflect the rapid service without being exorbitant. To add value to the service, offer stronger, longer guarantees. These help you earn the right to higher prices, but they also keep your foot in the door for future repair jobs.

Here's how it works: Let's say you offer a one-year, no-clog warranty if you can get full-sized cleaning tools through the pipe. To begin with, this warranty requires proper clean-out access. If it's not already available, you have improvement opportunity No. 1. If the clean-out access is up to snuff, then clean the line with full-sized tooling. If you encounter difficulty in the piping, then there's a problem that needs solving - improvement opportunity No. 2.

If the pipe seems to be in good shape with proper access yet doesn't last a full year on a cleaning job, then perhaps there's an unforeseen problem in the piping. Since your customer has a warranty, he's likely to call you back. While you're there, it's time to run your See Snake down the line to see what's the matter. You may find improvement opportunity No. 3 at this point.

Be competitive. Not all drain calls convert to big-ticket repair, but every one of them reflects the reputation of your business. Being competitive in the drain cleaning business isn't about price as much as it is about service. Place the same emphasis on quality of service, equipment and staffing as you would your core business of plumbing. Be prepared to offer a rapid response with a job well done and you'll be setting the stage for the next level of service which solves the customer's problem for good.

After decades of plumbing and drain experience, Randall Hilton still gets a rush when he sees the water line “drop” in a clean out fitting. Visit Randall at www.UpFrontPrice.com, or e-mail him at Randall@UpFrontPrice.com.