Freedom to make decisions. Willingness to learn. Goal-setting. Accountability for performance. Increased training. Branding. Open-book management. Improved communication. Recognition for work. Family atmosphere. Charitable donations of time and money. Increased satisfaction from customers. Increased revenue and profits.
Rochester, N.Y.-based AP Plumbing underwent a culture change a few years ago that made all of the concepts listed above possible. When President Andy Prestigiacomo started the company in 1986, it was focused on new construction plumbing, service and remodeling. But 17 years later, it was clear the plumbing company would have to make some changes to improve business operations in order to grow in the declining economy.
In 2003, Vice President Alex Broccuto came on board. He and Prestigiacomo created a new business plan that included commercial, industrial and residential service. Although changes were instituted, eventually employees returned to old behaviors and attitudes.
“We knew residential service would take time and resources to implement,” Broccuto notes. “We came up with a mission plan to differentiate AP Plumbing from its competitors by the quality of the people we employed. These changes in employee standards and expectations revealed the employees who were willing to reform.”
Membership in the Nexstar Network best practices group in 2007 exposed Prestigiacomo and Broccuto to many proven systems for the residential marketplace, as well as policies to build the company’s reputation through hiring and retaining the right employees for its new culture. But learning about systems and procedures isn’t enough, no matter how enthusiastic an owner may be about the subject. Implementation by making key internal changes was the the basis for AP Plumbing’s transformation.
Prestigiacomo and Broccuto met with employees explaining their desire to grow and improve the company for customers and employees.
“Essentially, they wanted to raise the bar in the company as well as the industry,” says Lynette Raimondi, AP Plumbing’s operations manager. “To do that, we were going to have to change. We had a lot of resistance at the start; everyone was comfortable with what they were already doing. But Alex and Andy were determined to implement these changes.”
Some people quit or were let go, but those who stayed and put in the hard work to change the company culture began to see the payoff after several months, she adds. The freedom to make decisions and delegate tasks without being micromanaged increased employees’ confidence. Soft-skills training from Nexstar helped office and field personnel connect better with each other and with customers, helping cement relationships that would foster growth.
Consistent training in technical know-how meant fewer callbacks. It also meant field technicians closed more sales and generated more revenue.
AP Plumbing’s management team - which includes Prestigiacomo; Broccuto; Raimondi; Cy Jensen, dispatch/service manager; and Don Dugan, industrial/sewer and drain manager - changed along with employees. They began to approach employees for feedback and were rewarded with many good ideas to make the company more efficient. “Communication within the company improved and technicians became more willing to learn and share their knowledge,” Raimondi notes.
AccountabilityA very important change implemented by Prestigiacomo and Broccuto was appearance. They realized that not only are technical skills and quality products important to customers, but a neat, clean and friendly technician showing up at their homes would go a long way toward boosting AP Plumbing’s credibility in the marketplace. They were pleasantly surprised that not only did techs agree to start the work day clean-shaven in uniform, they also began to get to the office on time and had required paperwork completed.
“The public in general has a negative view of plumbers,” Broccuto says. “We want to help increase the standards in the profession to change that perception. A lot of role-playing goes on in service meetings to help our techs communicate more effectively to customers.”
AP also instituted a same-day service policy - serving the customer’s needs in a timely and consistent manner - that gives it an edge over its competitors, he adds. Accountability for each job is created by a briefing before the tech visits the customer and a debriefing after the job is completed.
“We also make a ‘happy call’ to each customer after a job is completed to check on the service they had with our technician,” Jensen says. “We encourage any type of input from the customer, good or bad, that our techs can learn from.” Customers can also post reviews of technicians and other staff members on the company’s Web site, www.applumbing.com.
Company and employee goals are prominently posted and each team member is held accountable for measurable results. Gone are the days of managers rationalizing poor performance.
Company of ChoiceAP Plumbing has been fortunate during the Great Recession to keep all of its employees working. In fact, the company has hired a few people to keep pace with its growing market share.
“Our people are our ambassadors,” Raimondi says. “Prospects come to us because of our reputation.”
Hiring the best employees gave AP’s management team the opportunity to promote from within the company, she adds, as well as to freely share the company financials with staff. Field techs were able to see how their call performance directly affected company profitability.
Office staff began to truly work together on projects without regard for who got credit for the finished work. That teamwork element is why Jensen stays with the company. “In the corporate arena, you’re a number, not a person,” he says. “That’s not true at AP Plumbing, which makes it a much more enjoyable place to work.”
“Other companies are concerned with just getting a warm body in the seat,” Prestigiacomo explains. “That’s not what AP Plumbing is about, and our employees recognize that. Knowing that AP is a right fit for them makes them more comfortable with our processes.”
Training is an important aspect of getting field techs and office staff more involved in the process of closing a service call. Raimondi had the following statement stenciled on the walls of AP Plumbing’s training room: “Every job is a signature of the person who does it. Autograph yours with excellence.”
“Individually, we all took a look in the mirror and asked ourselves if our actions helped move the organization closer to meeting its objective,” she says.
The training room includes working modules for fixtures, water heaters and pumps that allow techs to learn how to diagnose problems on-site, as well as how to accurately make repairs or recommend replacement. Additional on-site and factory training on new products and technologies is provided by AP’s vendor partners.
The company frequently sends office staff and managers to Nexstar seminars to learn about service systems, business planning, best practices for dispatchers and customer service reps, relating to customers and closing calls.
Those soft skills help everyone in the office improve themselves and the company, Jensen says. “It lowers the learning curve. We get the viewpoints of people all over the country who are dealing with the same issues we are, yet they may have a solution to a problem that we haven’t thought of.”
“The staff is passionate about what they do at AP Plumbing,” Broccuto adds. “It’s a family atmosphere. Andy and I spend a lot of time with employees. We’re available by cell phone 24/7. We even call AP a family business when we advertise for new employees.”
Some of the benefits AP Plumbing employees enjoy are: a simple IRA plan with a 3-percent company match; a health care package of which the company pays 75 percent; paid vacations; company-paid uniforms; pre-paid legal services; company breakfasts and lunches; dinner and sporting event gift certificates; an employee-referral bonus program of $500 to $1,000 if the referred employee stays three months; and numerous contests and awards presented throughout the year.
Donating time and money to improve the community is important to the AP Plumbing staff. The company has made donations to the local animal shelter, sponsored various high school sports teams, and participated in charity golf events and benefit walks for various groups. A group close to the heart of AP employees is the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Broccuto’s 4-year-old grandson has the disease.
Customers are also involved, Broccuto adds. Residential customers have the opportunity to select a charity or other group for AP Plumbing to donate to.
Increased GrowthAnother major shift in AP Plumbing’s culture came from moving to flat-rate pricing to grow the company’s residential customer base. This was another concept that involved intensive training, not only of employees but customers, too.
As AP Plumbing’s field techs and office employees began to evolve to become more consistent and more confident, customers noticed - and approved. Customer referrals have doubled; currently, about 30 to 40 percent of AP Plumbing’s customer base comes from referrals.
“Our customers have come to know our people and ask for them by name,” Prestigiacomo explains. “We encourage techs to hand out cards to customers to help build those relationships.”
The company is designated as a WomenCertified business, which means the staff of AP Plumbing completed training to better serve and communicate with its women customers to make them more comfortable when making decisions about plumbing repairs or other services.
“Statistics say that women make 80 percent of the purchasing decisions in the home,” Raimondi says. “We knew we needed to learn to sell to women more effectively to increase our conversion rates as well as profits, maximizing every opportunity. The role of the technician goes beyond turning a wrench. He is a problem-solver and safety consultant for customers’ homes or businesses.”
Of course, the company’s bright orange service vans help keep the AP Plumbing brand top-of-mind with potential customers. An updated Web site as well as television and radio spots also help spread the marketing message, along with the company’s jingle: “Always professional, always plumbing, always AP Plumbing.”
“Branding AP Plumbing takes place in everything we do,” Raimondi notes. “It’s the professional, scripted way we answer the phone, it’s how we drive on the road, it’s the respect we show our customers.”
But AP Plumbing executives say the company’s ultimate success points straight back to its employees.
“We’ve had substantial growth since we started this business mix,” Prestigiacomo says. “It’s a contribution by all that we’re doing this well.”
Broccuto adds: “Andy and I are truly blessed with our staff. Employee satisfaction is just as important to us as customer satisfaction.”