How small contractors can use retailers to their advantage

May 15, 2014
For our own protection, we had a clause in our contract that stated that we would not warranty any product bought from another vendor and we would charge a lot extra to fix any problems. Instead, we offered a “guided tour” or consultation with the prospective owner to help make sure she could make the designer choices she desired. Customers loved this idea and actually paid us quite a bit for this service. The retailers liked that we brought customers into their stores and used us as their go-to plumber.

Okay, this idea may not work for everyone, but it sure put a bunch of unexpected bucks in our pockets when we did remodeling work, and we were a small three-person outfit when we started this method of cementing customers to our company for life.

For our own protection, we had a clause in our contract that stated that we would not be responsible for warrantying any product bought from another vendor AND we would charge extra at $XXX.00 per hour for the time needed to replace or repair any product not bought through our company that could not be installed correctly, if at all.

This was done particularly to protect ourselves from people buying designer plumbing products over the Internet who didn't know jake about plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc., but thought they did! However, acknowledging that we could not offer the same quantity of choices available in the retail outlets or over the ‘net, we offered a “guided tour” or consultation with the prospective owner to help make sure the designer choices she desired would be compatible at installation time. Besides, retail sales is a whole other animal!

Customers loved this idea and actually paid quite a bit for this service, finally acknowledging that subcontracting choices were complicated and professional advice was worth paying professional prices for. My wife or myself accompanied them to a retailer, or sat at their home with them and “toured” the various Internet sites, making sure all was compatible from the git-go.

How do you feel about retailers or about customer-supplied products? Talk about it on CONTRACTOR's Plumbing Talk Forum.

(Looking back, we were ahead of our time with this practice and it was my first inking of the value of laptops — now tablets or hybrids — over any kind of catalog or flat rate “books.” Face it, printed books are out, tablets are in. The longer you fight it the more you'll fall behind. All you have to do to view the future is watch young folks — your future employees — walk around with their heads up their electronic devices. You can fight it or change, your choice.)

These personalized meetings insured the customer could choose what she desired; the remodels went off without any unforeseen hitches; the general contractors we worked with (I always worked with GCs, not for them) were so suitably impressed we were able to beat the low-bid bottom feeders; we got our material markups through charging for our expertise; and we cemented life-long customers for the service side of our business.

This well-compensated practice even ended up getting our firm free marketing by getting many of the stores in our area on our side. The stores recommended us as their go-to plumber because we brought folks into their store, worked with and technically advised their people, and didn't attempt to sell the products ourselves if their guarantees were valid, etc.

This was just another way we adapted; attempted to think differently instead of complaining; why, I assume, I've stayed current with modern technology at my age; and am pretty danged certain them-there Flat Rate books are soon — if not already — going to be a thing of the past like the print edition of the ol’ Yeller Pages.

Want more ideas? Think about using Skype, or Google Hangouts to “talk” with clients — maybe your call-takers will even have face-to-face chats with potential customers. Or, if you're smaller, you might try Google Groups as an easy way of sending out your monthly newsletters or special offers. I mean, the list goes on-'n-on.

And I'll end with my usual self-promo: Recognizing that small companies don't have a lot of money for individual consulting, I'm forming groups of smaller, like-sized companies called “mastermind groups” where we could exchange ideas, questions, and advice. It will be super low cost, and it wouldn't be competitive because I'd make sure we all came from different parts of the country … or world. This would put you on a par with the bigger outfits, and would be especially directed towards the business practices of our subcontracting trades. Google “Mastermind Groups” to see reasons to join, and let me know if you're interested. Three to five folks can get our first group started, and your first week or two would be free to see if it was worth it.



Ed O'Connell, the Founder Emeritus of O'Connell Plumbing Inc. in San Rafael, California, is the business coach for small contractors. He can be reached in Fairfax, California, at home/office: 415/453-2291, or via email at [email protected].

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