Netgains

BY ROBERT P. MADER Of CONTRACTORs staff The dot.com era boomed and busted and plumbing contractors didnt even notice. Not that the Internet is going to go away any time soon. The Web has turned, however, from a get-rich-quick scheme for Northern California computer nerds into something that businesses do anyway, just like they publish catalogs. Or not. If one scans the pages of a directory of members

BY ROBERT P. MADER

Of CONTRACTOR’s staff

The dot.com era boomed and busted and plumbing contractors didn’t even notice. Not that the Internet is going to go away any time soon. The Web has turned, however, from a get-rich-quick scheme for Northern California computer nerds into something that businesses do anyway, just like they publish catalogs.

Or not. If one scans the pages of a directory of members of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association, it’s remarkable how few contractors list a Web address, although quite a few more give their e-mail addresses. Contractors that have a Web site probably do other marketing programs too.

Contractors with Web sites will tell you a couple completely opposite things. Some contractors like mentioning brand names on their sites, while others are philosophically opposed. And some contractors say a Web site is just another marketing tool, while others say they can directly trace business from their site.

‘Just good business’

The Web site for Carder Plumbing, Sand Springs, Okla., (www.carderplumbing.com) shows the company’s range of services with images, for example, of video inspection equipment, water jetters and snakes. Pages for frequently asked questions, such as what to do if your sink clogs or if the pilot light goes out on the water heater, are also on the site. There is a link for service calls.

“We think that every company that does business with the public should have a user-friendly Web site for the public to respond to,” says Steve Carder, incoming president of PHCC-NA. “It’s just good business practice.”

Carder Plumbing has had a site for three years. It was designed by Carder’s Internet provider, which has Web design services and previous experience working with the service industry.

Carder believes that customers assume that a plumbing contractor offers the usual products and services, so his site focuses on other services such as video inspection and water jetting.

The cost for site maintenance and hosting is next to nothing, he says. He will, however, spend some money to update the site in concert with a new marketing program.

“We haven’t done anything in a year, and it needs a facelift just to update it and to make it fresh,” Carder says. “We’ve hired a marketing agency that came up with new look for the company and all the advertising will be the same, both Yellow Pages and newsprint have a new look, and the Web site will match.”

Carder says he just became a Trane HVAC dealer, so he will put that information on the site. Nevertheless, he’s wary about putting links to manufacturers on his site; he worries that once a customer leaves, he’ll get sidetracked and never come back.

The site generates a little bit of business. Carder says he can point to two to three service jobs per month that come through the site.

Red Carpet Service

Like Carder, Doug Santoro of General Plumbing in West Palm Beach, Fla., hired a marketing company to produce his site (www.generalplumbing.com). The company bought the domain name five years ago just to have something on the Web, and it put its current good-looking site up two years ago. Santoro’s marketing firm, Virginia-based The Boner Group, won an award for design of the site, he notes.

The site emphasizes Red Carpet Service. Video from the firm’s TV commercial, which is available on the site, shows a tech rolling out a red carpet.

All parts of the site are accessible from the home page and appear in a 4-by-4-in. pop-up box on the home page. The boxes cover capabilities, products offered (without mentioning brand names), services offered, explains the service contract offering, plus there’s an online contact box. The picture of “Chris” the service mechanic shows a neatly attired, good-looking tech wearing protective booties and carrying a soft-sided tool case — the site mentions that employees won’t scratch any furniture with a toolbox.

Santoro hired a marketing company because “everything we do in-house comes off like a manual,” he says, noting that many contractors tend to show pictures of trucks or wrenches. The marketing company created a complete package that includes broadcast and cable television ads and billboards.

Santoro does not believe in mentioning products or brand names on a site.

“There are so many products that you’ll leave out one and that will be the one the customer is interested in,” he says, “and he’ll think you don’t handle it.”

He’s also leery about doing co-op advertising with any manufacturer because he’s afraid the manufacturer will seek too much control over what he does.

Santoro says he’s never gotten business directly from his Web site.

“That day has not yet come,” he notes.

He’ll occasionally get a contact, but it’s often from somebody out of state looking for free advice.

Keeping up with technology

In contrast, Roland Harmon of Central Plumbing, Heating & Cooling in San Diego says he gets 25 to 30 jobs a month from his site (www.centralplumbing.com). The home page is reassuring to customers and emphasizes “Fast response”; “One call does it all”; “We’ll be here tomorrow to service what we sell today”; and “Customer satisfaction is our No. 1 priority.”

Buttons down the left side of the page include About Us, Drains, Plumbing, Heating, Cooling, Coupons and Call Us. All the buttons open another page that describes the range of services. The drain cleaning page plugs Bio-Clean. Both the heating and cooling pages show Central Plumbing’s Bryant affiliation with a link to the Bryant Web site.

Harmon can’t imagine not having a site.

“I believe there’s a lot of people on the Internet and if you don’t have a Web site, it appears that you’re not up with technology,” Harmon says. “I don’t care what industry or business you’re in, a lot of people have Web sites in every business that you can think of.”

He believes that consumers use Web sites to get a feel for a company before they call.

Harmon knows that his site works because the firm tracks every incoming job, broken down by category such as the Web site, from Yahoo or through Yellowpages.com, and every month the company creates a report.

“It works as well as my Yellow Pages ad,” he said.

He promotes his site, which has been up for three years, on business cards, service stickers and magnets.

A friend of his designed the site. The order in which items appear on the site seems to fall into their natural order. Harmon believes that most people look up his company and call him primarily for drain cleaning and plumbing work, so those appear on the site first.

“I feel that if I can get a plumbing customer, then more than likely they will have heating needs and cooling needs,” he says. “So I go fishing for drain and plumbing customers first and work them from there.”

Harmon features Bryant on his heating and cooling pages because he’s one of Bryant’s premier dealers.

“You can go to their site and get a lot of technical information,” he notes.

Many contractors seemingly don’t take the Web as seriously as Harmon. More contractors probably will have to gain more experience with the Web and marketing programs in general before they will embrace it. For commercial/industrial contractors some kind of Web presence will likely become mandatory.

CONTRACTOR looked at a number of plumbing contractor sites that don’t seem to take an Internet presence seriously, such as one site that contains pictures of one of the owners making faces at the camera. One wonders if he’d print a brochure that looked like that.

Eventually, however, a Web site will become just something else a contractor does to promote himself, just like those refrigerator magnets.