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Repeat business or one time job — how do you treat your customers?

May 11, 2017
The way you treat your customer and his personnel is almost as important as your bid price. Good subcontractors cultivate their general contractors and in many cases a relationship based upon mutual trust and integrity ensures a steady work supply for both. 
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Large project subcontracting and service work are different sides of the same coin. If you are a business whose primary work lies in large commercial/industrial, or even large scale residential projects, you more than likely have to produce bids for each project with which you are involved. Bids on large projects are tightly figured (sometimes too tightly) as the nature of your competition requires a “sharp pencil.”

In order to be successful in your bidding, price is not always a factor, but it is usually prominently featured somewhere in the mix. Doing repeat business with a general contractor, or several general contractors can be facilitated by several factors that do not, necessarily, derive from price. 

If you have done work for a particular contractor before and your company does quality work, meets or exceeds phase scheduling and you have integrity when dealing with the contractors, architects and engineers, your price on any given job is not as critical as it would be when dealing with a general contractor with whom you have no track record.

Developing good personal relationships with the general contractor’s field personnel, project managers and supervisors can generate enough good will that you may even negotiate a project or two without having to resort to the mercurial bidding process. Throughout, the way you treat your customer and his personnel is almost as important as your bid price. Good subcontractors cultivate their general contractors and in many cases a relationship based upon mutual trust and integrity ensures a steady work supply for both. Sometimes, that relationship either doesn’t develop or withers because the sub or general decides that there is not future in continuing that relationship. For the most part, however, both parties understand the need for dealing honestly with each other. Yes, there is some give and take in areas like change orders, but by and large a solid, honest relationship will bear fruit for the long term.

Contrast that relationship with a service shop whose customer base is not general contractors but homeowners and small business owners. Every customer deserves your best.  Your best on-time service, your best quality work and your best pricing. You can approach your business any way you want to, but treating your customers fairly and respectfully should be the benchmark you strive for. As with large residential and commercial/industrial contractors, relationships built upon integrity work the best.

Some shops, mostly in large population markets, go for the big profit picture on every job. Their thinking seems to be that there are plenty of customers in the pool, so retaining repeat business is not a paramount consideration. Nor is reputation. However, most shops do not treat their customers as disposable commodities. Especially in the digital age, gouging customers is a bad idea from the start. The idea of having and retaining customers for the long haul is what most service businesses strive for. 

Cases in point 

Scenario No.1: A customer calls you with a problem on a gas fired domestic water heater. It turns out that the thermocouple is bad. You replace the thermocouple, charge a service call plus the part. If the heater is old, sedimented and ready to be replaced, you tell the customer about it.   Customer asks for an estimate, you provide one and leave it at that. Now, you could stress the frailty of the existing unit or detail new technology in water heating equipment, soft selling the replacement, but you leave it to the customer to decide.

Scenario No. 2: Same situation, bad thermocouple. Instead of replacing the part the serviceman preaches gloom, doom and the next water heater apocalypse. He quotes the cost of a new unit and the customer balks. The service guy grudgingly replaces the thermocouple and overcharges the customer, figuring that he won’t get a second chance at this fish.

The customer in both scenarios is a tech savvy person and checks on what he has been told. In the first instance the customers notes that the plumber did the right job and at a reasonable cost. As well, the quote on the new water heater is in line with what the customer was able to find on line, allowing for labor, profit, etc. The customer is satisfied with both the work and the estimate. When the time comes, he will likely call that plumber back to do the install.

In the second case, the same customer checks the same things, but finds that he was overcharged for the part, the labor and the quote on a new water heater. He/she is not only unlikely to call that plumber back, but in today’s world, he/she would probably place a derogatory comment of Yelp or some other social media site. The Internet is so pervasive and wide reaching that even in a large market your company can be tagged and flagged as undesirable. Even if you’re of the “once and done” philosophy you won’t be able to survive very long with media scrutiny.

Assuming that you are invisible and/or unaccountable is a fool’s errand in today’s digital world. If you run your business with integrity and treat your customers with respect, you’ll be in business for the long haul. Try to make a killing from every customer and you’ll be a statistic before very long.

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].

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