Future Plumber: Where the past is prologue

THE EVOLUTION of plumbing may well be Tim O'Leary's "Future Plumber" company. For plumbers who are both progressive and aggressive, Future Plumber might represent your future. At the very least, it's a standard to shoot for. What makes Future Plumber different? Start with location. Rather than pump money into the Yellow Pages, O'Leary created a retail presence. "Guys look at the cost of our store

THE EVOLUTION of plumbing may well be Tim O'Leary's "Future Plumber" company. For plumbers who are both progressive and aggressive, Future Plumber might represent your future. At the very least, it's a standard to shoot for.

What makes Future Plumber different? Start with location. Rather than pump money into the Yellow Pages, O'Leary created a retail presence.

"Guys look at the cost of our store and shake their heads, but they aren't looking at it the right way. It gives us incredible visibility. And, it's visibility with the right kind of people. Someone walking out of Macy's isn't looking for rock-bottom prices."

He continues: "Just look at what some companies spend for Yellow Pages. I put that same money into merchandising my company, and I've got the equivalent of my own home show 300 days a year."

Inside the store, located in the parking lot of Fairview's South Oaks Mall, O'Leary has attempted to create an "experience." His goal is to bring people to his store because they learn and it's fun. Some of the demonstration displays include:

The Toilet Challenge. Customers are invited to scoop a bean curd/ miso paste mix from a bucket to see how a working, high-performance toilet handles it. "Little boys love it, though it is kind of disgusting," O'Leary admits. "It does sell lots of toilets."

The Plunger Toss. Customers make a javelin toss of a plunger through a toilet seat. Future Plumber has run promotions offering $100 off the price of a replacement toilet for anyone who makes it.

The Faucet O'Plenty. Water is piped up a clear tube to a sealed faucet, where it spills out and runs down the sides of the tube into a tank. It appears that the faucet is suspended in air with water perpetually flowing.

The Clear Crunch. A 1-HP garbage disposal is mounted with a clear, Plexiglas housing so that people can see it in operation. Future Plumber nearly gives away disposals so the company can provide one of it's custom sink rings, with the company's name, phone number and Website URL stamped in the ring.

The Taste Test. Compare city water with water purified on the spot from Future Plumber's RO System. To illustrate how affordable it is to make your own bottled water, a bottle of Future Plumber water is set on the floor besides a dog dish and stuffed animal.

The Plumbed House. A scale model of a two-story house helps people to see a home's plumbing system.

The Mobile Warehouse A full size replica of the cargo area of a Future Plumber truck allows people to see how much inventory is carried on every call.

Dispatch Central. Future Plumber's dispatch center is located in the store. A rear screen LCD projector shows a map of the town with truck locations according to GPS.

Dispatch Central is Future Plumber's actual call taking/ dispatch location. Customers cannot walk in; they view it through a large window. Future Plumber's small office staff works inside Dispatch Central, which is paperless. If O'Leary's goal in the design of Dispatch Central was to create a room that resembled NASA or NORAD. He succeeded.

Walk into the store and you're greeted by a smiling coed hired from a local college and handed a pair of shoe covers with the Future Plumber logo, phone number and Web-site address. Putting them on is optional for customers (though many good naturedly do) but mandatory for employees.

"If we don't expect a coworker to wear shoe covers in our store and office, why should we expect them to wear shoe covers in the customer's home?" O'Leary asks. "We practice like we play so that we'll play like we practice."

In addition to the demonstration displays, the store is filled with educational exhibits regarding plumbing, water conservation and the environment. O'Leary uses the educational nature of the store to attract classes on field trips.

"The kids take our literature home and bring their parents back," he says. "Coming to Future Plumber is a little like visiting a science museum. It's an experience."

It's an experience that rings up sales. The company's average ticket is twice the industry average with more than 50% of all purchases financed.

"People buy on payments, but most plumbers sell on total price," O'Leary says. "I would much rather talk about another $20 a month than an extra $1,000 up front."

Because the company focuses on a 10-mile radius of the store, efficiency is higher.

"There's enough business in a 10-mile radius to keep a company 10 times our size busy 24/7," O'Leary claims. "Besides, there's no profit in windshield time."

Efficiency is further gained from the paperless office. Future Plumber requires vendors to invoice electronically and does all it can to encourage customers to schedule service online. When paper is unavoidable, it's scanned upon receipt, filed or routed electronically, and then discarded.

Invoices — containing detailed explanations of the work performed based on the flat-rate codes, causes for repairs and suggestions to prevent future repairs — are printed at the truck and handed to customers. Payment and order dis-position is keyed at the truck and wireless uploaded to the company's computer system.

At the end of each day, truck stock orders are automatically e-mailed to suppliers who deliver the material shrink wrapped for each truck the next day. Because of the field automation, Future Plumber's plumbers never fill out forms or paperwork by hand.

If the customer does not own a service agreement, promotional literature is automatically printed with the invoice. The literature states the work performed and benefits of a service agreement and illustrates just how much the customer can save. Because customers pay for the service agreement through a small monthly credit card charge, almost everyone buys.

Repeat customers, who already own a service agreement, are presented with company-wide special promotions or a specific promotion based on the work performed that day (e.g., a toilet promotion for stoppages).

"We try to control all processes to give the customer a consistent experience," he says. "But it all breaks down when the plumber faces the customer in the field. Too often guys would write cryptic explanations of work performed, which led to complaints. By automating the invoice, we reduced complaints, boosted add-on sales and increased participation in our service agreement program."

Service agreements are particularly important to Future Plumber for their customer retention benefits. O'Leary will go to extremes to keep customers out of the Yellow Pages. Besides custom disposal sink rings, the company uses 1-in. toilet billboards mounted on anti-siphon valves, magnets and stickers, and it even has small sections of PVC cast with the company's name, phone number and Website URL. Metal tags with the same information are soldered on to iron and even copper pipe.

"My competitors think I'm crazy to have PVC specially cast. Sure the tooling was expensive, but every time we rebuild a sink, our contact information is put in place permanently. I want to make it easy, easy, easy to find our number without opening the Yellow Pages."

In the Yellow Pages, Future Plumber focuses on in-column ads for every brand of product the company sells. Its own Yellow Pages ad is small.

"I don't like the Yellow Pages," O'Leary says. "I don't like the cost, the overly large coverage area, the sales tactics or the fact that almost all of my competitors are in the book. Besides, as the Internet grows, the Yellow Pages lose effectiveness."

Instead of spending money on the Yellow Pages, O'Leary has invested in his store and in cable TV ads he can use to focus on his target geography. He buys the cable spots in bulk and grabs discounted remnant (i.e., unused) spots when available to drive down his average 30-second spot price to less than $5. He saturates his market.

It's too bad Tim O'Leary and Future Plumber do not really exist. They are fabrications to illustrate what is possible, today. Real contractors are using each of the technologies and techniques described here, though no one is using all of them.

Of course, one day someone will. And that future plumber will earn the spoils of success.

Matt Michel is CEO of Service Roundtable, a Web-based alliance that's helping to create future plumbers. For $50 a month, contractors get sales, marketing and operational tools every week. To get a copy of his e-book, "50 Comanche Marketing Tips For Building Your Service Business," call Liz Patrick at 877/262-3341, by e-mail at [email protected] or visit www.ServiceRoundtable.com