The recession hit Pat Grogan’s business hard, but he stayed the course with quality service and an emphasis on customer information
Pat Grogan got off to a fast start with his plumbing business in 2005, growing at a pace that far outstripped his business plan.
He started with just a pickup truck, a van, a landline phone that forwarded calls to his cell phone in the field, and a plan that called for the firm, Pat the Plumber to buy, equip and staff one van a year for its first three years of operation in and around Topeka, Kan.
Sometimes even the best-laid plans can go better than expected. With a catchy name and a distinctive logo, the business caught on with customers almost instantly. “We had three vans in the field in something like three months,” says Grogan, who has been a licensed master plumber for 15 years.
In less than two years, Pat the Plumber had four technicians in the field, an office manager, and Grogan’s wife, Jennifer, pitching in when needed. Grogan also added an outside project manager who handled customer contact and some sales.
The recession that struck in 2008 set him back, but he’s making it through with high-quality, reliable service, performance guarantees, and an emphasis on information and education.
Weathering the storm
The “hiccup” – Grogan’s term for the crash of the national economy – hit the plumbing industry hard, and Pat the Plumber’s business fell off dramatically. “It was bad,” Grogan says. “It was the worst I’ve been through. When that stuff hit, we had to get streamlined.” He cut the field staff to two technicians and eliminated the project manager and office manager positions.
The business faced challenges on several fronts. Like others in the service industry, Grogan found many customers were seeking minimal services, just enough to get them by. When people had problems with backed up drains or sewers, “They would just want it cleaned out or augured and that was it,” he says. “They often wouldn’t want the original problem repaired. We ran into that time and again.”
In the meantime, many plumbers who once specialized in new construction found that business dried up and sought new markets. Plumbers who had once turned away repair business, were now actively seeking it, and Grogan found himself competing against some bids that were below his costs. “It was a real gut check,” he says. “It forced you to run your business smarter.”
Seeing is believing
Grogan made it through by taking the steps to control costs without sacrificing high quality. Almost any plumber can unblock a backed-up drain or sewer line, but Grogan believes customers need and should expect more. Information and education are among his most important offerings.
Pat the Plumber uses the RIDGIDConnect system to store and share reports and inspection videos online. The system makes it easy to show customers exactly what their plumbing problems are and understand clearly what solutions Grogan and his team are proposing. The information answers many customers’ questions and eases doubts they might have about the repairs.
“Case in point: We had a plastic sewer line that we inspected for a Realtor,” Grogan says. “It was in terrible shape. There was water standing throughout the line.” The Realtor had already ordered the home’s sewer line inspected in anticipation of a sale, and the first plumber had said there were serious problems. But the Realtor knew such problems were rare with PVC sewer lines in the area and wanted a second opinion.
“A lot of people say once you put in plastic, you’re done,” says Grogan. “But it has to be installed properly. We did a full-color inspection and posted the whole file to our website. After we were done, the Realtor knew it had to be replaced.”
That situation highlights two advantages that set Pat the Plumber apart. The first is the ability to share video easily via RIDGIDConnect with all parties involved in a real estate transaction by simply giving them an access code to see a file at the website.
The system gives him confidence to offer free second opinions as a way to sustain his business. By giving customers a clear picture of the problem, he builds their confidence and often prompts them to call on him for the repairs.
Second, Pat the Plumber guarantees a quality job. Grogan notes that if his company had installed that PVC sewer line in the first place, the owner would not have had to pay to correct the problems before completing the home sale. He’s a big fan of the HGTV program, “Holmes on Homes,” and agrees with the star’s motto: “Right is right.”
“If we had installed that sewer, we would have been digging it up for free,” he says. “We give a 20-year warranty on all of our sewer installations and repairs, so you know we plan to do it right the first time.” Grogan has the confidence to back his work for 20 years because he makes sure he and his technicians get a full understanding of the problem and the solution before any repairs start.
“One thing we take the time to do is to interview the customer,” he says. “We find out the problem – the symptoms. We find out the root cause behind the problems. We find out their situation. And only then do we make a proposal that can work for them. We give them the options, and we only make recommendations that are good solutions.”
As a matter of fact, if Pat the Plumber employees determine that a drain or sewer line needs to be replaced, but a customer insists on a patchwork repair, Grogan won’t do the job.
Another customer benefit comes from Pat the Plumber’s membership in the Nexstar Network, a business development and best practices organization for service contractors. Pat the Plumber offers a Service Partner Plan for a monthly fee that covers annual inspections and discounted services and also entitles customers to a lifetime warranty on sewer line installations and major repairs.
They’ve got the look
Pat the Plumber’s focus on customer service extends right down to what the employees wear on the job. “Our uniforms are very, very strategic,” says Grogan. “We have belts without a belt buckle. They’re scratch-free. We have extra long shirts and even extra-long T-shirts so they don’t come out when we’re on the job.
“We want to set the standard for the industry. We’re trying to change the common perception of plumbers. I want customers to enjoy the service they get from us. I want them to be excited about the outstanding service. That’s what we try to create every time we go out.”
Grogan knows perfection isn’t possible, but even an occasional slip can be an opportunity. “We really try to get feedback from our customers,” he says. “We’ve dropped the ball a couple of times on jobs, and we want to learn from it.”
As the economy has slowly started to come back, Grogan sees signs of improvement in his operation. He has noted a higher call volume and “customers wanting to do more preventive maintenance again.” He and technicians Clayton Bevitt and Dean Harding also noted that customers are more interested in full repairs.
“They’re getting it fixed for good instead of making do,” he says. “People don’t want to experience the backup twice.” With business rebounding, Pat the Plumber also hired a new office manager, Kylie Mason, and added a third technician to the field in the fall.
Taking care of the team
In the past two years, Grogan has seen a complete turnover in his staff and he believes that is another reason he is better prepared now to return to a growth cycle. “It’s taken me a while to learn this, but it’s all about people,” he says. “You find the absolute best people you can possibly find, and you take care of them better than any other company might do. If you take the absolute best care of your people, they will take care of your customers.”
Grogan puts a heavy emphasis on training, both for himself and for his staff. He takes advantage of the training programs offered through Nexstar Network and continues the effort in his own business. A room at the back of his shop does double duty as a display room and training facility. There’s a full bathroom, a full kitchen, and a range of plumbing equipment including three types of water heaters – gas, electric and tankless. The crew arrives at 7 a.m. each Thursday for training sessions that average two hours.
The focus on his staff has apparently paid off. For the past two years, out of nearly 400 businesses in the Nexstar Network, Pat the Plumber has ranked in the top ten in customer satisfaction.