Skip navigation

The customer is always right even when he’s wrong

Plumbing contractor Al Schwartz on making a good first impression on the customer

Scenario No. 1: ABC Plumbing & Heating gets a service call about a commode that keeps on running. The dispatcher assigns the call to “Ramblin’ Rick,” one of his best service plumbers. Rick rolls on the call and arrives at the appointed time to the “Mr. & Mrs. Customer” residence. So far, so good.

Rick’s truck looks like it’s been the lead vehicle in a convoy to Baghdad. The company logo is visible, but the truck itself is dirty, battered and dented with what looks like a ream of multi-colored paper spread across the dash and it has a cracked windshield. Then there is Rick. He knocks on the door and Mrs. Customer opens it to find herself face-to-face with what looks like a homeless man sporting torn jeans, tennis shoes, an AC/DC T-shirt, full beard, a gap-toothed grin and a “Death before Disco” tattoo clearly visible on his arm. Even after he introduces himself, Mrs. Customer is not completely sure she wants him in her home.

Rick goes right to work repairing the offending toilet tank, taking ten minutes or so to locate that flapper and overflow tube that is somewhere in the back of his truck. Despite the delay, Rick does a good job. He is polite, personable and competent. He works quickly, prepares the bill, gets paid and leaves. Upon his exit, Mrs. Customer breathes a sigh of relief, checks to make sure her valuables are still there, and goes back to whatever it is she does all day with, at best, a mixed impression of ABC Plumbing & Heating.

Scenario No. 2: XYZ Plumbing & Heating gets a service call about a leaking faucet. Same story as our first scenario, but the dispatcher gives the call to “Smooth Steve.” Steve is a decent mechanic, but not in the same league as our friend Rick from the previous episode. Steve arrives at the home of Mr. & Mrs. Customer at the appointed time. His truck has been recently washed, displays the company logo and phone number prominently and has no discernable defects. Mrs. Customer opens the door to find a clean-cut, smiling man wearing a clean uniform with his name and the company logo above the breast pockets. Steve introduces himself, and when invited inside, stops to don a pair of surgical booties before crossing the threshold.

Steve puts down a drop cloth in the immediate area where he will work, repairs the faucet, but advises Mrs. Customer that it is an older model which will, most likely, leak again in the near future. “Oh, Steve,” Mrs. C asks, “What do you recommend?” Of course, Steve replies, “I can replace that faucet for you while I’m here. I have a couple of new models in my truck.” Steve goes out to his neatly stocked van and selects two faucets for her to choose from. Soon Steve is back on the road and Mrs. Customer is happy with her new faucet and a favorable impression of XYZ Plumbing & Heating.

These examples are obvious in their opposition, but not fictitious. Not by a long shot. In our daily lives perception is reality and your customers have a sharpened sense of it. Regardless of the skill level of our imaginary plumbers, the fact of the matter is that the customer will make a judgment based upon the impressionthat they form on that first meeting. As the saying goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

We can pretend that, in our politically correct society, judging people by their looks is not a good thing, but we know that in reality we all make value judgments every day based upon nothing more than first impressions. You are in business to make money … period. In the two scenarios presented here, which company is more likely to get referrals and repeat calls? Why? The answer is as obvious as it is politically incorrect.

There are many things you can do to “dress up” your company’s image and presentation without incurring great expense. Things like washing your truck(s) regularly, reviewing your stock and inventory with the eye toward modernizing and standardizing it, having your personnel dress uniformly, and making sure that they represent your company in a professional manner are a few low to no cost ideas that will pay off handsomely right now. Holding training sessions to make your employees aware of how they need to interact with the clients is a good idea as well. It also gives you the opportunity to get feedback from your field people, which is always helpful in maintaining your relationship with your crew(s) and gives you a better understanding of any problems that they might have.

You might feel uncomfortable about telling your best guy to clean up and make a better impression on your customers, but frankly, it’s your business. You have every right to demand that it be presented to the public, and your prospective clientele, in a good light. I’ve said it before, and will again: in these perilous business times, you must make every effort to hone your business to a razor edge if you expect to survive, let alone prosper. Keeping in mind that the customer is the one to whom you must tailor your services cannot be over stated.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].

Read more articles by Al Schwartz