The following is a true story (much as I hate to admit it)

It happens. I was nervously preparing a speech to my church (for both services: 2,500 members or so) and as you might guess, I was just a tad behind getting ready. I decided to take a shower at the last possible second, since it’s considered bad form to reek at the lectern. Then, because I have remarkably sensitive powers of discernment, I noticed ...

No hot water!

That’s right. Go ahead and laugh. I took a shower that would give a penguin hypothermia. As a result, I completed the entire cleansing process in 2.8 seconds. Possibly God’s way of making sure I wasn’t late.

The water heater was in the home when we moved in 11 years ago. I figured it’d be on “the list” soon enough. We did the roof three years ago (no, I don’t remember by whom, haven’t heard back) and painted the following summer. (I referred the painter one $11,000 job, never acknowledged, never got re-contacted. Oh well. Guess I can’t remember him to refer him to the neighbors across the street.) The parenthetical remarks are marketing lessons, by the way.

Yet since we’re now contemplating a kitchen remodel, the water heater must’ve gotten jealous.

When I swung open the basement door to view the hulking heater, I thought I heard, “Fix me! Fix me! I’m gross and underappreciated!” in a rusty little voice. So by golly, we did. Called the plumbing company that also does our heating and air. Things went downhill from there.

Sales Mistakes

The rest of this story might be a tiny bit painful. Please realize that most homeowners would just be happy to get hot water again and most contractors will leave it at that (another marketing lesson). See, homeowners will rarely volunteer that they’re very “sellable,” mostly since the contractor doesn’t ask. And that’s because you aren’t thinking in the buyer’s “code.” This story reveals the code.

The Sunday answering service had no idea who I was. That’s understandable. Told her my problem. Tech called me back. “HAY!” he said at Volume 12, “CAIN’T GIT THERE FOR TWO HEURRS.” Understood. What he lacked in couth he made up for in conversational economy. He said he was busy, but his timing bore a remarkable resemblance to a NASCAR race. Ten minutes after the final lap, the doorbell rang.

“HAY! I’M RONNIE WITH and ...” since I refuse to put the rest of this article in capital letters for fear of grammatically correct hate mail, just know that Ronnie doesn’t have an “inside voice.” People two blocks away became startled when he spoke.

He did a good job telling me of his “trip charge” for a Sunday visit. Understood. Said it had gone up from $69 to $80 recently due to fuel prices. However, my wife promptly pointed out that fuel prices had “dropped dramatically, so was the trip charge going back down?” For the first time in our 87-year marriage (rounding up), I actually gave her The Look.

I gave Ronnie an out by complacently saying, “It’s a moving average.” But Ronnie interrupted, feeling compelled to defend it anyway. For five minutes he discussed the $11 rise. He told of customers who were mad about it, didn’t understand it and the problems the CSRs were having with explaining it. Frankly, this sounded more like “their” problem than mine, so guess who wasn’t interested?

Ronnie forgot that my “real” problem was no hot water. Never confuse your customer’s problem for a reason to vent your own or to create a problem that clearly wasn’t. It got worse.

When Ronnie and I ventured indoors, he stopped. “HAY! I GOTTA PUT ON THESE!” Sorry. He put on his shoe covers but instead of “gotta,” he should’ve said, “At , these are required to protect your property.”

Note the small sales infraction above: Justify your behavior, habits and practices as your “difference” on every opportunity. Otherwise, is it branding or a burden?

Eventually, Ronnie tells me he “can’t” get a gas water heater down there like I had. Said the last plumber fouled things up. Said it was too dangerous, code wouldn’t let him, plus if he did (though he’d already said he couldn’t), he’d have to move it way away, run more gas lines, lots of cost. He recommended full electric, but said there was another option for “instant” hot water - no tank but a bit more cost. Would get us the estimate on both.

Stop right there.

Two Sales Mistakes

He told me everything he couldn’t do, then compounded this with “bad history.” Sometimes this is done to support the upsell. But in this case, he told me what a mess things were, how the last plumber was an idiot, a code violator, etc. He failed to mention why his company had stood inches from this area repairing a sink drain, but never mentioned my water heater was a highly illegal Saturn V rocket, spewing carbon monoxide.

Ronnie had unwittingly entered the Serious Risk Zone. What if I had put in the water heater? Or my beloved, well-meaning, but now-deceased relative? Or an ill-guided representative from this company? Is Ronnie psychic or just regularly prone to insert shoe cover in his overly loud mouth?

Ronnie told us he couldn’t finish the job that day but shut things off to be safe, which we appreciated. Said his supervisor would get with us early Monday to report and suggest. He did. He said to remove the old one (a job and a half) and install a new 50-gallon, “low boy,” all-electric heater, it would be $850.

Two More Mistakes

First, the “exact” number of $850 is too round, imprecise. Prices weren’t broken down. Since I don’t browse the water heater section often, how am I to know if or how this compares? Is the labor $50 or $500?

Second is worse: He failed to quote us the “other” option that my wife was honestly interested in. We then would’ve had comparative value instead of mild sticker shock and actually gotten to choose.

Though very shaky in his sales presentation, we half-reluctantly bought from the company. (A lesson in there, by the way. They mail us several times a year, call us for reminders, thank-yous, treat us very well on the HVAC side, and we have an “agreement” with them. I’d call myself a “tentative” customer on the plumbing side. We’ll see.)

Would others have overlooked the missteps? Checked around? Bought more if asked? Ronnie also committed at least two more sales infractions above. Find them and send me an e-mail ( Your answers may make the next issue of PM.

Epilogue: Those of you convinced the economy is solely to blame for hurting sales, look inside to see if a little training investment might bring sizable returns. Anyone in touch with customers needs it. (Hint: Your CSRs commit even more infractions, which will be covered in a future column.) You are leaving money on the table that your customers want to spend to solve their problems. Leads and customers are too precious just to “wing it.” No training is quite draining.