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Attention all plumbing contractors: just say no to stings

May 7, 2014
Matt Michel's tips to advoid stings: Integrity is no protection. Steps to protect yourself.  How to kill a stings.  

Television stations love to sting plumbers. It’s always good for a ratings boost during Sweeps.  Get ready for the next one. It’s July 3 to July 30. Somewhere in the country, one or more television news crews will reach out and try to sting someone. 

Integrity is no protection: You may think you have nothing to fear from a sting. After all, you are honest and are sure your plumbers are honest too. Well, you’re pretty sure. 

Integrity is not a cloak of protection from the TV cameras and selective editing. A news crew can make something as banal as bringing a toilet up to code look like grand larceny. Worse, your plumber when confronted by a local Mike Wallace wannabe can very easily say the wrong thing.  Surprise can look like guilt.

More incompetence than corruption: While plumbing has its share of shady operators, TV news crews are more likely to catch a plumber who screwed up than one who is screwing someone over. There’s far more incompetence than corruption in the plumbing world and even the most seasoned mechanic is susceptible to an honest mistake from time to time. That won’t save him from looking like a crook.

Stings hurt the entire industry: Contractors who are made to look bad in stings worry about the damage the sting will do to their reputation and business. Fortunately, it’s unlikely to make much difference. First, the viewing audience for any news show is limited. Only a small percentage of the market had their TVs on and tuned to the news station when the sting aired. Fewer were paying attention.

Moreover, consumers have short memories. They are unlikely to remember the names of any companies involved, regardless of how they came out. If they do remember the name of a company, it’s likely an association with the sting, not how the company did. Thus, a company can emerge from a sting smelling like a rose, but the public only remembers that the company smelled different.

What the public does remember is that generic plumbing companies were portrayed poorly, appearing dishonest, corrupt, and untrustworthy. Stings don’t hurt one company. They hurt every company.

Complicit contractors make stings possible: Plumbing stings would be impossible without an “expert” to set up the sting and provide commentary. When the police do this, it’s called entrapment. If it’s wrong for law enforcement, it should be doubly wrong for a tradesman to entrap fellow tradesmen.

Why do they do it? Some do it out of a sense of self-righteous moral superiority over their peers.  Others are flattered by the attention. The most disgusting are contractors who opportunistically agree to help the TV station because it gives them an opportunity to target their biggest competitors. Yes, this really happens.

Protecting yourself: Stings can happen any time of the year, yet they are most likely to happen during Sweeps.  Check the Nielsen website so you know when Sweeps occur. Before a Sweeps month, stress the need for your plumbers to be aware of, and suspicious of any service calls requiring incredibly simple repairs, such as disconnected wires, closed angle stops, tripped breakers, leaking flappers, etc.

Instruct your plumbers that it is company policy that all media contact comes through you. If one of your plumbers gets caught in a sting, he should smile and apologize that he can’t explain or say anything because only you can talk with the media.

If the media contacts you, above all else, do not lose your temper. If you are uncertain of the facts, show concern, thank the reporter for bringing this to your attention, and state that you are going to get to the bottom of the situation. 

If it’s clear that your employee made a mistake, own up to it. Admit it. State how it happened and what you are doing to prevent it in the future.

When the media gets it wrong, craft a response that you and your employees can provide to anyone who asks, but do not otherwise respond. Do not give the story more life. Do not extend the news cycle. Let it die and let people forget.

Killing stings: If you are called upon to be the expert in a sting, politely refuse and inform the reporter that you feel obligated to alert other plumbers in town about the possibility of a sting. Then do it. Call everyone you know personally. Contact the local trade association. Direct you CSR to call competitors. Make it easier for the reporter to sting another trade. 

Matt Michel is CEO of the Service Roundtable, contracting’s largest business alliance. Are you ready to take your business to another level? The Service Nation Alliance is expanding and has limited openings with exclusive territories for plumbing contractors seeking elite status.  To learn more, visit or call 877.262.3341 and ask to speak with a Business Advisor.

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