There are many ways to improve your bottom line. There is inventory control, solid and accurate estimating, sharp materials ordering and handling, expert utilization of available manpower, and waste management and scheduling. It can also be said that project selection, that is bidding only specific types of work, can improve a company’s profit picture.

Some attention needs to be paid to a very important, and often neglected, part of your business: customer relations. For service businesses, customer relations are the fountain from which word of mouth referrals and a great deal of future work springs. Repeat customers are what make up the bulk of service businesses income stream. Most successful service companies (and if you are still in business reading this column you can certainly be called successful) recognize this. With few exceptions, companies which primarily perform service work, whether commercial, residential or industrial, operate in a limited geographic and population area, so getting and keeping good customers and their repeat business becomes the brass ring.

The Three Ps
When you, or one of your people, come in contact with a customer, you are projecting an image of who, and what, you are. It's not always necessary to "chat up" a customer in order to provide good customer relations. You can provide your customer with a level of appreciation for you and your company by being aware of, and using, what I call the "Three Ps," which are:

  1. Prompt: Arrive on time for your appointment. If you will be delayed, call your client. Once you've surveyed the problem, give a good estimate of the time you will need to effect the repair.
  2. Presentable: Make sure that you and your vehicle are looking good. A uniform is the best way to achieve a good first impression. A clean uniform is even better. Carry more than one uniform in your truck, or a full coverall, just in case. Keep a box of hospital shoe covers in your truck and use them when entering a customer's home.
  3. Professional: It is always possible to present a professional air … even if you are stumped by the problem at hand. Having the right tools and materials at your immediate disposal, and making the repairs quickly, with little wasted movement (like going out to your truck four or five times), will leave a lasting impression on your client.

Answering questions about the bill in a calm, courteous manner is also something that gets lost in translation regularly. Put yourself in the customer's shoes; how would you feel getting a large bill with only one or two lines (labor and material) and a bottom line number? Be ready to explain the bill, list your materials and their respective retail costs, as well as your labor rate and any other ancillary data such as sales tax.

Contracting
Contractors who do not specialize in service, repair or remodel are often lax in recognizing the benefits of good customer relations. This could be due to the fact that much of their work comes from open bidding services like Dodge Reports, where every subscriber might be bidding on the same project, or it could come from having a large pool of generals to bid to. In any case, neglecting customer relations in favor of the mythical, mathematical equation about bidding "X" number of projects will yield "Y" favorable results is not smart.

Human contact and interaction is at the heart of our business. An argument could also be made that being a low bidder is what's at the heart of our business, but we all know that is not strictly true. Personal relationships often dictate who will get a project, whether or not they were low bid. It is common practice to provide incentives to a client in order to influence their favors. One look at the lobbyists in our nation's capitol can tell you that. Golf outings, tickets to sporting events, dinners and even vacations are considered a part of the "cost of doing business." I'm not saying that those material things do not open doors or influence people. I'm saying that a solid, long term, mutually beneficial relationship is built on more than one-sided gift giving.

A general contractor is concerned with the same things you are, only they are a little higher up on the food chain. Things such as value engineering, using your particular knowledge to help the project architect and/or engineer to solve a sticky problem pays big dividends with all concerned parties. Architects and engineers, after all, must know a lot about a lot of things. You on the other hand are an expert in your trade and as such can give insight into problems which specifically relate to your area of expertise. Helping these professionals to look good, or to 'save face' racks up lots of "I.O.U." points and can put you in the position to negotiate, rather than open bid, future projects.

Remember; "The customer is always right" even if he's wrong. Building a solid relationship pays back big.

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 allen@proquilldriver.com.