Separating your dispatcher from call-taking duties can help grow your business.

It's estimated that 80 percent of all plumbing companies are three-truck outfits or smaller. You may delight in your small shop status; it is up to you to craft a vision of your company and hold true to your dreams. However, you may want to grow your company and find yourself stuck at the three-truck plateau. I've heard the theory that three trucks is the number that a plumber can keep an eye on - and his hands on - before he runs out of time or energy. To grow beyond that, a plumber would have to learn business skills and adopt formal operating systems. I buy that.

There is another reason why small shops stay small.

In a small shop, the customer service representative (CSR) and dispatcher positions are usually held by the same person. The person who takes the incoming phone call for service is the person responsible for making sure a plumber responds to the call and provides the service.

Here's What Happens

Becky the CSR/dispatcher arrives bright and early and greets the team: Mr. Plumber/owner and the three service plumbers. (Becky, by the way, is often Mrs. Plumber/owner.)

Becky checks the answering service or voicemail, and starts laying out the day's work. It is no fun to have the plumbers hanging around the shop wondering what they are going to do for the day. So, Becky will do everything she can to drum up enough calls to get the team dispatched and out the door. Whew.

Then, the phone starts ring-ring- ringing. Becky, wearing her CSR hat, will book calls. She will be pleased that this afternoon and tomorrow morning will be busy enough to keep the team in the field and making money. Becky the dispatcher will efficiently dispatch the calls as the first round of work is completed and the plumbers call in for their next jobs.

However, there will come a point when Becky the CSR starts creating problems for Becky the dispatcher. Becky will be reluctant to keep taking calls if Becky the dispatcher is running out of easy options for handling those calls. At this point, Becky the CSR will start shutting down her call-taking efforts. It may be subconscious, but it will happen. Becky will start burning calls in for service.

Becky may not be aware that she is doing this. She may just be a little less helpful toward the end of a busy day than at the beginning of a day with a wide-open schedule. If Becky and Mr. Plumber intend to grow their company, she better pay attention to this phenomenon.

Dynamite dispatching is essential for growing beyond three trucks. Dispatching is simply arranging for a plumber to solve a plumbing problem. A great dispatcher turns a booked service call into a completed service call - to the delight of the customer - without “blowing up” the plumber. A great dispatcher can call Mrs. Fernwicky for the third time to rearrange the plumber's arrival time without “blowing up” Mrs. Fernwicky.

Sometimes a call will come in at 5:30 p.m. for a leaky water heater, just as the plumber was planning to punch out for the day. A great dispatcher allows the plumber to let off a little steam, without taking it personally, so that the plumber has a better chance of being sweet and polite when he arrives at the customer's home. A great dispatcher pairs up plumbers with in-need customers - just like the social director on a singles-only cruise.

If Becky the CSR never books too many calls, Becky the dispatcher never has a chance to develop real dispatching skills. If your CSR books just enough calls to keep the plumbers comfortably busy, you'll miss out on a dynamic force that can cause your company to grow: More calls for service than you have plumbers to handle them. Make that happen and you will start recruiting and hiring. You'll be on your way to Truck No. 4.

Becky's goal as CSR: Book the call! No matter what. No matter how busy you are. No matter if Becky has to hang up, put her dispatcher hat on, and call the customer back to schedule the service call.

Advice From The Field

I decided to call a few pals to discuss the CSR/dispatcher challenge.

Jessica Stark of Precision Plumbing Services in Carol Stream, Ill. (also this month's Truck Of The Month; see page 78), has the ability to juggle the conflicting goals of the CSR and dispatcher. Owner Matt Morse gives credit to Jessica for helping him grow his plumbing, sewer and drain service company to 12 trucks - fast and profitably.

According to Matt, “Jess knows how to book the call. And she is unflappable, no matter how busy we get. She'll take the call. Then, she will do whatever it takes to keep the customer happy until we can get a plumber to the door. Jess has moved up the ladder as we have grown. We've added new team members in the CSR/dispatcher position.

“To get to the next level at Precision, we know we have to split these duties. We are great at booking calls. However, we can improve our dispatching systems, so that we can better handle the call load. I have been meeting with my team to discover ways to dispatch more efficiently and increase billable hours. Good dispatching has a massive impact on sales and profitability.

“We are rearranging our office space to allow our primary dispatcher to work without the distraction of the incoming calls, possibly in a separate dispatch office. And, I bought a 42-inch monitor to display the global positioning system (GPS) grid. This improves efficiency and morale. It's rough on the plumbers to send them back and forth across town, fighting traffic. (Note: GPS is affordable, even for the smallest of shops. Or, you could always track your trucks with pushpins on a wall map. Knowing where your trucks are? Priceless.)

“Our company's tag line is, 'Is today soon enough?' Our intention is to handle our customers' service problems today. That gets tough when it gets busy. We are offering a smaller service fee to customers who are not in a hurry as a way to bump less urgent calls to the next day. Feedback from technicians and CSRs and dispatchers is extremely important to solving these issues.

“Improving our dispatching has been a lesson in good communication. We make it a point not to pressure the plumbers by telling them how many unassigned calls are waiting in dispatch. As a result, they don't always understand the dispatcher's challenges. And the dispatcher doesn't know what it's like to knock on the wrong door.” Matt asked me to visit with Jessica and ask about her recent “empathy-building” experience.

Good idea! Jessica shared, “I went on a ride-along with one of our service plumbers, Brett Hobson. It was so much fun to get out of the office and into the field. Brett and I had a great time. On the first call, Brett discovered that another Precision Plumber had been out to the customer's home a few months before. It would have helped to know that before he knocked on the door. That's a dispatching issue. And, I could understand Brett's frustration when our next call assignment was 45 minutes away. We've agreed to have the plumbers spend time in the office, side by side with the CSRs and the dispatcher. It will be eye-opening for them, as it was eye-opening for me to ride along.”

Thanks, Matt and Jessica!

I also touched based with another terrific dispatcher to get his take on this discussion.

Paul DiMartino of Allstar Services in Pennsylvania was eager to share his thoughts. “A plumbing service company is a three-ring circus. It is barely controlled chaos. The dispatcher is the ringmaster. The dispatcher choreographs the action and works the crowd.”

Paul cut his dispatching teeth right out of high school when he got a job as a 911 dispatcher. He directed the emergency responders for four years, then graduated to plumbing service dispatching.

And, he is good at it. He has helped the Allstar team grow to 10 trucks. He understands that the dispatcher sets the stage for the plumber. If the dispatcher upsets a not-so-patiently waiting customer, the plumber starts his call with two strikes against him. Deft dispatching sets the tone for a successful customer experience.

Like Jessica, Paul's skills helped him get promoted. Now Paul is the operations manager. He is proud of his current dispatcher, Ray Mincarelli. “Things can get crazy. Tempers can flare. Ray is unfazed by the chaos. He just keeps moving things forward.”

Great dispatchers are not anxious, overly emotional or prone to panic. Great dispatchers are as cool as spring runoff. (Note: Look into behavioral profiling. Hiring a naturally cool dispatcher? Priceless. Check out

At Allstar, the dispatch office is set apart from the call center, far from the ringing phones.

“Ray is the last one in line, behind the president of the company, to answer the phone. We keep the CSR and dispatching duties totally separate.

“We've worked out a productivity bonus program, too. Using our GPS reports, we can track overall mileage for the service trucks. When Ray delivers to our agreed upon mileage goals, he wins.”

Clever! When the CSR and dispatcher are the same person, it creates an internal conflict. When you separate these functions and assign them to different people, this conflict can be positive and dynamic. Sometimes, it can turn negative and become counter-productive. I asked Paul how he handles this.

“In the service business, controlled chaos is the ideal; it's good to be busy. If the tension starts to build to the breaking point, I'll offer a challenge. For instance, if the team works together to hit a sales target for the day, I'll buy lunch for everyone.”

Paul was pleased that I was highlighting the dispatcher position in this column. “Dispatchers are the unsung heroes of service businesses.”

Thanks, Paul!

Dear Becky, if you want to grow, embrace your dual duties. Book those calls - all of them. Go! Then, put on your ringmaster's hat.