Service business can be as good as you make it

SERVICE WORK, as opposed to new construction, is supposed to be about as recession-proof as you can get in the plumbing-and-heating business. At least, thats how the thinking usually goes. When an old water heater gives out and floods the basement, the homeowner has to get it replaced right away. Or, when a toilet clogs and the homeowner cant do the job of unclogging it himself, he has to call a plumber

SERVICE WORK, as opposed to new construction, is supposed to be about as recession-proof as you can get in the plumbing-and-heating business. At least, that’s how the thinking usually goes.

When an old water heater gives out and floods the basement, the homeowner has to get it replaced right away. Or, when a toilet clogs and the homeowner can’t do the job of unclogging it himself, he has to call a plumber right now. Likewise, when a boiler quits on a cold winter night, the homeowner’s family can’t wait for heat or they’ll freeze.

The water heater floods the basement, the toilet overflows in the master bathroom and the boiler quits in the mechanical room regardless of what the economy is doing in the outside world. If you’re a service contractor, you just have to wait for your phone to ring. Right?

Yet, our survey of readers in the plumbing-and-heating service business shows the real world doesn’t work that way. Last year, when the economy struggled, so did the service business of most of the respondents to our survey. The phone didn’t ring as often in 2002 as it did in 2001.

Almost a third of the readers in our survey tell us that their service business did not grow last year. More than one quarter of the respondents say their service business actually went down. Only 42% saw more business last year.

While some customers undoubtedly put off some non-emergency service and maintenance jobs last year, we have to figure that calls for flooded basements, clogged toilets and no heat continued to come in. Quite possibly, those calls came in somewhere else — to a competitor down the street or maybe to a new construction contractor trying to pick up the slack with repair and maintenance jobs.

Our readers are more optimistic about 2003 with almost two-thirds expecting to see more service business than last year. They’re already off to a great start with the service calls generated by an exceptionally cold winter. But, if you’re a service contractor, you’ll have to do more than depend upon the weather to make this year a success.

Best practices groups such as Contractors 2000 are urging their members to step up their marketing efforts even as they consider tightening their belts in other areas. More than three-fourths of the readers in our survey already use the Yellow Pages to promote their service businesses. Almost a third advertise in newspapers.

What’s interesting is that a growing number of readers appear to be using more innovative forms of marketing as well. Almost as many readers — about 23% — now use the Internet to market their businesses as send out direct mail.

Of course, in the plumbing-and-heating service business, word-of-mouth is still some of the best advertising around. So, service contractors have to stay committed to doing the basics of any successful service business: answer the phone when it rings, return missed phone calls in a timely manner, show up for appointments on time, call ahead when delayed, treat the customer and his property with respect, perform the work competently, charge a fair price and resolve any complaints professionally.

I realize that fulfilling these basic requirements frequently is easier said than done, but contractors in the service business must first and foremost provide customer service. In fact, some service contractors are implementing creative ways to take better care of their customers.

Service contractor Roger Peugeot, as described in this issue, has regular shifts of service plumbers working on Sundays. In our October 2002 issue, we published a front-page story on how Andy Rodenhiser uses a global positioning system, dispatching software and other technology to get his service techs to his customers more efficiently. Such innovations give service firms such as Roger the Plumber and Rodenhiser Pluming & Heating a competitive edge in 2003.

The service business always will be less cyclical than new construction. Our survey shows, however, that service isn’t recession-proof.

If you’re a service contractor, the year ahead can be as good as most of you hope it will be. You just may have to work a little harder than in the past to make it that way.