Learn to hang up on Dial-a-Plumber

At 11:30 P.M. on a blustery winter's night, after chasing numerous no-heat calls, the answering service paged with yet another call. "This guy's calling everyone in the book," they forewarned me. I hate that nonsense, don't you? What's even worse: The ones who call more than one contractor and wait to see who's going to show up first. They often act surprised when the others begin arriving. "Oh, I

At 11:30 P.M. on a blustery winter's night, after chasing numerous no-heat calls, the answering service paged with yet another call. "This guy's calling everyone in the book," they forewarned me.

I hate that nonsense, don't you? What's even worse: The ones who call more than one contractor and wait to see who's going to show up first. They often act surprised when the others begin arriving. "Oh, I didn't think you'd show up."

Somehow, we manage to maintain our tempers and be civil under circumstances that would seem to justify just the opposite!

On more than one occasion, I've arrived on a call only to find another contractor was just a few minutes ahead of me and has already begun the work. At other times, I've been the first to arrive and listened as the owner chased off the later arrivals.

I've listened to more than one plumber give the customer a dressing down that was well deserved. The customer, when questioned, almost always shows no remorse and, if anything, acts like it's OK to play Dial-a-Plumber.

Can't you picture plumbers speeding down city streets, whipping those horses under the hood into a frenzy, careening around corners with tires screeching, fittings flying off the shelves, sticking closet augers into the spokes of the adjacent chariots and running each other off the road, just so they can be the first on the scene to clean that clogged sewer line!

What I can't comprehend is how homeowners don't understand that we're entitled to a wee bit of common courtesy. As I've explained to several "customers," not only do we have to excuse ourselves from whatever we were doing with our families, it costs money to put that truck and employee on the road.

As a way to relate this to their lives, I've asked them how they'd feel if their boss called them up for mandatory overtime and then only paid the first one to arrive. I've also told several that I'm going to send them a bill for the wasted trip, which typically results in a lively discussion.

It would be a different story if we all took our good old time returning phone calls after "normal" business hours (if there is such a thing in this business), and then refused to make a commitment to arrive within a short time.

We aren't getting out of bed, missing dinners or family gatherings just for the money! It's the desire to provide great service, build our businesses, create customer loyalty and our love of the trades.

The other type of customer to watch out for: The one who claims he doesn't care how much it costs, "just get here quickly."

Experience has taught me that they care a great deal about the cost after the problem is fixed. They care so much, in fact, that they typically won't pay and they had no intention of paying in the first place.

That's a sure-fire trip to small claims court and, even then, it's likely to be little more than wasted time that could have been spent in a positive, productive way.

Now, getting back to the guy who the answering service had already warned me was "calling everyone in the book."

Naturally the line rang busy on the first several attempts because he was still working his way down the list in the phone book. When he answered, I identified myself as the plumber returning the call regarding his problem.

'Which one are you?' he asked again, his voice now dripping with disdain. 'The one not coming!' I replied as I hung up the phone.

He asked, in a belligerent tone, "Yeah, which one?"

"Well, how many did you call?" I inquired.

"A bunch. I wanted to see who'd bother returning my call since most of you guys are too lazy to call anybody back. Which one are you?" he asked again, his voice now dripping with disdain.

So now, on top of being tired from the long hours and hungry because I had missed my dinner, I was fully irritated with this jerk. I really wasn't in the mood for an inconsiderate dolt treating contractors like dirt. I decided I was going to have a bit of fun with this one. It was time to get even for all those stinking Dial-A-Plumber characters.

"The one not coming!" I replied as I hung up the phone.

I chuckled as I headed off for an all-too-short short winter's nap that was sure to be interrupted.

The next day dawned gray, windy and cold. The morning's calls were frequent and most were emergencies for either no heat or frozen pipes.

Mid-afternoon, as I returned from several calls, I was informed that the previous night's Dial-A-Plumber customer had spent his day tracking down every single plumber he had called the previous night. He had figured out which one we were and then proceeded to give my bride, our office manager, an earful! Seems he was just a little miffed by my phone etiquette. My smug satisfaction from the previous evening vanished into thin air!

We've since changed our after-hours policy to service existing customers only, provided their account balance is not past due. Not only has this eliminated the Dial-a-Plumber types, it has kept us free to respond to loyal customers who deserve rapid service after hours.

This policy has also been a good sales tool for recruiting new clients. They like the idea that we're going to be there when they need our services instead of their having to wait while we are tied up with someone who hasn't used us previously. And it's also an incentive to keep accounts paid in full.

By adopting this after-hours policy, we can be selective regarding new clients that we'll accept after normal business hours.