Al  Gehrke, president of the Plumbing Contractors Association of Chicago and Cook County, recently shared an all-too-familiar tale of a plumbing contractor’s lot in life.

Gehrke owns Fettis, Love & Sieben (FLS), a plumbing and process piping firm that’s been around since 1924 and enjoys an impeccable reputation. Last year, Chicago magazine named it one of the best plumbing companies in the city. “Most of my plumbers have been with us for 15-20 years or more,” Al told me. “They know what they’re doing.”

One of the things they do a lot of is fix other people’s mistakes. A union shop, FLS is hardly the cheapest plumbing firm in town, so their job quotes sometimes trigger sticker shock. It’s not unusual for people to tell them no thanks, then call back asking for help after a low bidder or DIYer runs into trouble.

Al told me of a homeowner who paid another company around $4,000 for a sewer repair only to find the same stinky issues remained. To fix it, the company told her they’d have to open up the street, which would cost a lot more money. She called the Chicagoland Plumbing Council’s referral line and FLS ended up with the call. Gehrke felt sorry for her and decided to fix the problem at cost. “I figured maybe we’d get a permanent customer out of the deal,” he said.

So FLS did the job at the cut-rate price. But instead of thanking them, the homeowner accused the company of ripping her off by charging too much, even though the FLS bill was less than half of what she originally paid to the plumber that botched the job.

Gehrke shrugged off the episode with a wry smile. He’s been around long enough to know that in the plumbing business good deeds seldom go unpunished. I’m sure most of you reading this have similar tales of ungrateful customers.

That customer viewed this transaction like ordering a cake from a bakery. The baker does all the skilled work mixing the ingredients and baking the cake just right. Out of the oven, all that’s left to do is top it off with frosting, which can be done by a low-wage part-timer. This woman felt the original plumber did $4,000 worth of work, and all FLS had to do was put on the frosting. She couldn’t comprehend that FLS had to undo much of the previous plumber’s handiwork.

It points to a need to sell the value you provide. Ask any contractor what makes his firm stand out and he’ll say quality workmanship at a fair price. But when everyone says it, people let it in one ear and out the other. It’s not enough to provide value; you must convince people you do.

Here are some proven marketing best practices to put gusto into your value proposition.

  • Emphatic guarantees. Don’t simply point out some boilerplate in the work order saying you’ll guarantee materials and workmanship for a year. Emphasize that if anything goes wrong, you’ll send out a crew right away to fix it, no questions asked. Don’t even mention a time limit. Focus on the fixing, not the fine print. If your crew messes up in any way, ask the customer what you can do to make him or her happy. Then do it. Make amends with refunds, restaurant certificates or some other freebie.

  • Customer testimonials. These are powerful marketing tools. If you are any good, you’ll please the vast majority of customers, but most won’t volunteer their satisfaction. They need prompting, and you need to make it as easy as possible for them to put their high regard for you on the record. Often, they will compliment you verbally. When that happens, get ready to spring into action documenting what they said, and gaining their permission to use it for promotional purposes.

  • Provide a pipeline to the owner. Invite every customer to call you, the owner, personally with any complaints. Don’t think you’re too busy. No duty is more important than fielding phone calls from disgruntled customers.

    Studies have shown that only around 4 percent of customers with a grievance will complain to the company. The rest will simply stop doing business with you and bad-mouth your company to friends and neighbors. So cherish the complainers. They give you a chance to identify and correct problems, and usually become your most loyal customers after a problem gets resolved to their satisfaction.

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