To Delight the Customer
"You may or may not be aware that we solicit comments from users of our products. Every one of our products is shipped with a postage-paid reply card so installers can tell us what they think.
"An interesting sidelight of this is that lots of installers just give the cards to the homeowners. We lose our feedback from the installers, but the homeowners have interesting and useful insights, as well.
"Among homeowner responses, there is an overriding theme – lack of value and trust. A disappointingly high number of responses from homeowners arrive with often-caustic comments about the inadequacy of the field technician, the shoddiness of his work, or the extraordinarily high costs involved. People have given us prices at which our equipment has been sold to them, showing 100% markups over prevailing wholesale levels in that area. Along with these prices are labor charges that might even embarrass a Ferrari mechanic. Very often, this is linked with complaints of system or product operation that appear to be installation-related.
"Don't get me wrong. I'm not against a fair wage for a day's work. What is interesting, though, is that these homeowners believe they paid a lot of money for very shoddy installation or service work. Several have compared their service technician to a bad automobile mechanic who keeps replacing parts until the problem has gone away, without ever knowing the real cause. We've even had some homeowners call us for recommendations of service companies that we might know of who were capable of properly servicing boilers. It's scary.
"Why am I telling you this? Simple. The bad service companies give the whole industry a bad name. People expect rip-offs, not professional solutions to their problems. Companies whose products are used by such contractors also suffer, as the product is viewed as shoddy. And the industry suffers, as consumers come to believe that no one understands how to make steam and hot water systems work properly. So why should they buy them?"
I called and asked if he knew what part of our industry was installing the equipment that was generating so many complaints. Was it the fuel-oil dealers? The plumbers? He couldn't say for sure, but since his company manufactures hydronic-heating controls, which they sell mainly in the northeast, it could have gone either way. Or both ways.
He went on to explain that a number of the complaints had nothing to do with the way his company's products performed, but rather with the way the contractors installed the boilers. "For the most part, boiler and controls manufacturers don't include reply cards for the installers' use," he said. "Ours is usually the only card in the packet the installer hands the homeowner at the end of the job. So we wind up getting complaints about how the boiler was installed, or how the homeowner had a bad experience when he called for service." In fairness, he added, "I realize we're catching people when they're angry, and that this isn't a scientific survey, but there are so many of these cards coming back to us that I think it's significant. And it sure is disturbing."
I asked what types of systems generated the most angry responses from consumers. "Without a doubt, it's steam and older hot water systems" he replied. "What you call the 'Dead Men' stuff. Some companies don't seem to understand these old systems, but that doesn't stop them from working on them. The results, from what we're seeing, are often disastrous."
I asked him if he thought homeowners sometimes get what they ask for. I was thinking about the homeowners who won't deal with anyone other than the low-bidder.
"That may be true," he said. "I don't have all the answers. I'm just a guy sitting in an office who gets these angry consumer complaints in the mail. I suppose that if the contractor can't get a fair price, he can't do a good job. But then, on the other hand, we have these people complaining about the high prices they were charged for shoddy service work.
"I know there are people out there who aren't taking the time to do things right, and I really believe that's hurting our industry. Whether they work this way because they're the low-bidder, I can't say. I do think, though, that many of these contractors have a philosophy that says, Get in. Get paid. Get out. They think there's an infinite number of customers out there and that none of these people talk to each other. They're wrong."
I asked him what he thought needed to be done. He paused for a moment, and then said, "I wish contractors would just spend time thinking about how they could delight the customer."
He was still frustrated when we said good-bye, but I loved what he said about those in business spending time thinking about how they might delight their customers. That's not all there is to being in business, of course. You have to make money, but you also have to count on repeat business, and on folks talking about you to others in a positive way.
In 1926, Norman Whitelaw, one of my favorite Dead Men, wrote a book he called, How to Heat the Home. Near the end of that book he offers this advice to contractors:
1. Buy right, sell right, and make a profit.
2. Establish your credit by being prompt in making collections, and prompt in paying your bills.
3. Employ careful, competent workmen – clean in their work, and respectful to the customer. Remember, a good workman is not destructive; he is constructive. He examines every foot of pipe and each fitting before putting it under floors. He does not soil carpets or woodwork. He does not break the plaster or walls in the home, nor does he allow the ceilings to be flooded, either through open air valves, or other carelessness.
4. When a customer enters a complaint, investigate the cause at once, and apply a remedy.
5. When you submit a bid that carries a fair profit, maintain that price, and it will command the respect and confidence of your customer, and win in the race with the irresponsible cut-rate competitor.
Five rules from a Dead Man that should delight any customer. These timeless tips call for preparation, though. You have to find good people. You have to train them well. And then you have to keep them happy. You have to adopt a business philosophy that recognizes the importance of making a profit while playing fair. If you do lousy installation work, you'll get lots of word-of-mouth advertising. People will talk about you for a long time, and nowadays, they'll probably talk on the Web. Mr. Whitelaw's advice made sense then and it makes sense now.
Willing to give it a try?