Quality Work Done Right Builds Drain Cleaning Business

By emphasizing workmanship, good equipment, and professionalism, contractor gains a foothold in competitive market north of Boston.

Quality Work Done Right Builds Drain Cleaning Business

Russell Joe Jr., owner of Quality Sewer & Drain 

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Russell Joe Jr. knows the value of quality work. He’s built his business around it.

“Like it says on my website, customers deserve quality work done right,” says Joe, 34, who took a rather circuitous career route before following in the footsteps of his father, Russell Joe Sr., and establishing Quality Sewer & Drain Cleaning, based in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 2016.

Whether it’s the equipment he invests in, the work he performs, or the way he presents himself to customers, Joe is all in on the Q-word. It’s a trait he learned from his father, who still operates Quality Plumbing and Sewer Cleaning in Niagara Falls, New York, a business that’s now 29 years old.

So far, the younger Joe’s approach is working: In 2018, he expects to double his gross revenue compared to 2017. Residential work generates about 60 percent of the company’s revenue and commercial jobs produce the balance. “I’m blessed that after two years, I’m self-sustaining,” he says. “I’m at a point where I can pay my bills, put some money away and still grow the company slowly. I think I’m winning.”

Along with the quality ethic, Joe credits much of his success to his father, who passed down endless amounts of knowledge — and continues to do so today. “If not for him, I couldn’t do what I do,” he says. “And if I have a question, he’s always just a phone call away.”

Roundabout route

Joe’s path to becoming a drain cleaner was anything but straight. Though he grew up in the trade and started working part time for his father at 16, he actually attended a trade school to become an electrician.

After graduating from trade school in 2002, Joe worked for two years as a commercial/industrial electrician. Then he literally switched tracks and became a railroad conductor for seven years. “I figured that it was better to experiment a little while I was young,” he says. After that, he changed direction again and became the general sales manager of a luxury-car dealership in Massachusetts for about three years.

“But as a single dad, I wanted more schedule flexibility and the ability to control my own destiny,” he says. “I’d watched my father do it and saw an opportunity in drain cleaning, so I opened up my shop. It’s been way more rewarding because you know you’re the boss and you know it’s your own company. You complete tasks for homeowners who are in dire need, or get a restaurant with a clogged drain up and running again. It makes you feel good.

“Every day it’s something different — definitely a challenge,” he adds. “Plus, I get to spend more time with my daughter, too.”

Joe’s aha! moment came when a friend had to call a drain cleaner in to fix a sewer problem. Joe watched and was astonished at not only the lack of professionalism, but also the mess the contractor left behind. “And the company didn’t even investigate to see what the cause of the problem was,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, you can throw a snake down a drain and not do an inspection and walk away with that kind of money?’ I figured I could do the job 10 times better, so I dove in.”

Startup struggles

Any drain cleaning entrepreneur who started out from scratch and endured growing pains can relate to Joe’s early struggles. There was plenty of competition in Danvers, located in what’s known as the North Shore area, north of Boston. But he saw a chance to differentiate his business, based on quality.

After draining most of his savings account with about $20,000 in startup costs, mostly for essential equipment and a service van, Joe set about on the difficult business of getting the word out and developing a customer base. “There were many sleepless nights,” he recalls. “I was completely new to the area and opening up a company without any contacts. I didn’t know anyone in the industry who could throw me a lead or referral. It was scary.”

But he marketed his company with direct-mail flyers and social media like Facebook and Instagram. He also took the shoe-leather route, knocking on doors as he traveled from business to business, trying to gain a foothold with commercial customers, too. “Before I knew it, the phone started ringing and ringing and word-of-mouth referrals started coming in from customers,” he says. “I also got positive Facebook and Google reviews.”

Like a good marketer, Joe always makes a point of asking customers where they heard about him, so he can tell which promotional platforms are most effective. “If they say they found me through Google, I ask them to give me a good review if they think I did a good job,” he explains. “Google reviews are huge. They even helped me get calls from plumbers, and I now do drain cleaning for three companies on a weekly basis and get referral calls from time to time from about a half-dozen other plumbers.”

To Joe, quality takes many forms. But none of it is all that complicated: Answer the phone. If you can’t, call back promptly. Show up neatly dressed, wearing company-logoed apparel. And clean up after yourself.

“Drain cleaning is messy work — no way around it,” he notes. “But you don’t want to show up in jeans, sneakers and a Bud Light T-shirt. And even if you do great work, if you don’t clean up, the last thing a customer will remember is the mess you left.”

Reliable equipment counts

Operating on a tight budget made buying reliable, profit-enhancing equipment a must. In addition, Joe had to buy functional machines that could handle a wide variety of applications. As such, he invested in two RIDGID drain cleaning machines: a K-1500 sectional drain machine with 100 feet of 1 1/4-inch-diameter cable and a K-50 machine that offers either 25 feet of 5/16-inch-diameter cable as a sectional machine or 60 feet of 5/8-inch-diameter cable as a drum machine.

Joe also relies on a Milwaukee Tool trap snake for unclogging toilets and urinals; a RIDGID NaviTrack Scout locator; and a Wopson pipeline inspection camera made by ShenZhen Wopson Electrical. His service vehicle is a 2012 Chevrolet 2500 Express van.

“The camera has been a huge investment,” he says. “It’s not the fanciest one on the market, but it was the best I could afford and it’s done wonders for me. So has the NaviTrack Scout locator.”

To determine how much to charge customers, Joe says he shopped around and also consulted with a friend who does sewer cleaning. One thing he knew from the start: He would not lowball his rates because it might hamper his ability to pay for the equipment.

“I’m definitely not that kind of guy,” he points out. “I’m very competitively priced. I charge a flat rate, not an hourly rate, except for commercial jobs, where I usually charge a flat rate plus an hourly rate, depending on the job. I’m not the cheapest but not the most expensive, either. My goal is to provide quality work at reasonable rates. That’s my father’s slogan, so I borrowed that from him.”

Social networking

Social media such as Facebook and Instagram has been instrumental to growing the business. Joe uses Instagram, for instance, to help him build relationships with other contractors that can lead to referrals.

“We all post pictures of what we do or maybe what we’ve pulled out of a sewer line,” he says. “I even run small contests where I ask people to make a comment and tag and follow my page, then randomly select a winner from everyone who responds and give them a prize, like a Knipex Tools pliers. Some of it is just fun and silly.”

Instagram also serves as a great digital clearinghouse for contractors to share tips and advice. Joe says he has connections with contractors from Australia to California who share likes and dislikes about camera heads, jetters and the like. “I’ve made amazing friends all over the place,” he says. “It’s not so much marketing, but networking that provides more exposure for possible subcontracting work, not to mention advice. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there.”

As an example, Joe points to a recent job where he arrived to find a clogged 250-foot-long sewer line — much longer than his equipment could handle. But through an Instagram connection, he knew a colleague with a waterjetting machine whom he could call for help. “He came out and helped me after-hours,” he notes. “I never would’ve known him without Instagram. I didn’t make a ton of money on the job because I subcontracted him to do the work, but I got a customer for life.”

Facebook also helps Joe cost-effectively acquire new customers. A look at his company’s Facebook page shows plenty of five-star ratings and “Likes.” “Russ is the best!” reads one review. “We have had problems with our kitchen drain for years. After using various vendors, I found Quality Sewer & Drain of Danvers. Russ responded quickly to my call. He showed up with his handy camera and was able to view all the trouble spots. He cleaned out the drain pipe properly and even took the time to put the camera back in to be sure he got everything out. It was a success. Call Russ for your drain and sewer problems; you won’t be disappointed!”

Another customer notes, “After trying to unclog my downstairs toilet for four hours and going through two rolls of paper towels, I gave them a call. (Russ) showed up in under an hour and fixed the problem in about 10 minutes. Really nice guy and (he) even cleaned up all the paper towels that I had left all over the bathroom floor. Highly recommend.”

Big ambitions

Looking ahead, Joe definitely sees further growth on his radar, but not so fast that it jeopardizes his ability to provide quality customer service. The company already has grown enough that he’s moving from a home-based operation to a 700-square-foot shop with an office in Danvers that offers enough space to store equipment.

In order to become more of a full-service outfit, Joe is also considering buying his own jetter, which would reduce his reliance on subcontractors when larger jobs pop up. “It would be nice to be able to handle everything on my own,” he says.

Furthermore, Joe is even considering the purchase of a vacuum truck to offer septic tank pumping service. “I get call after call asking if I pump septic tanks,” he says. “There are a lot of little towns north of me where homes still are on septic systems. But we’ll see. I want to grow a little at a time — not too fast. If you grow too quickly and invest too much, there’s a much bigger chance of failing.”

Joe also would eventually like to hire an employee, although he says it may take awhile to find someone who’s dedicated enough and shares his goals and business philosophies. In the short term, he’s thinking about working with a local technical school to find a good candidate for seasonal summer work that could lead to full-time employment.

In the long run, though, Joe doesn’t plan to play small-ball forever. “I’d like to eventually be the biggest and most reputable drain cleaner on the North Shore,” he says. “I didn’t get into this business to stay in the middle of the road. If I’m going to do it, I want to be the biggest and the best.”

Scheduled maintenance is good for business

If given the choice, Russell Joe Jr. — the owner of Quality Sewer & Drain Cleaning in Danvers, Massachusetts — would rather clean a restaurant’s sewer line on a scheduled visit during normal business hours than during an emergency call at 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday, when the business is packed with customers.

That explains in part why he encourages his commercial clients to buy into the concept of regularly scheduled maintenance. In fact, he’s also starting to see more interest from residential customers.

“I have about 30 scheduled-maintenance contracts with restaurants and apartment-complex owners in town,” he says. “It’s better because once you get into a place, you learn where the problem areas are and can address problems faster. It’s not like you’re walking into a hidden surprise.

“Sometimes it’s fun to go in and play detective and figure out a problem, especially if other companies couldn’t,” he adds. “But it’s also nice to know what to expect.”

In addition, scheduled cleanings provide steadier cash flow as opposed to relying on random emergency service calls. Most of the contracts call for quarterly cleanings. Others are just every six months or once a year, while some restaurants require cleaning every other month.

A soft-sell approach works better than a hard-sell strategy, he notes. He always emphasizes to clients that his recommendation is just that — a recommendation. But it helps to have a video inspection that can bolster his recommendation, and presenting himself professionally helps close a deal.

Joe says there’s another selling point aside from the reduced risk of emergency calls at the worst possible time: Customers always know about the condition of their sewer lines, which enables them to plan for fixing problems before they become bigger and more expensive to resolve.

Joe doesn’t use formal contracts. Instead, he verbally explains to customers how scheduled maintenance works, then writes up the basic terms on a receipt. He doesn’t lock customers in to, say, annual contracts; they’re free to stop the scheduled cleanings any time they want. “But I’ve never had anyone back out of one yet,” he says. “I think formal contracts can turn off customers. I’d rather build a better bond with them, based on trust and quality workmanship, than lock them down and tie them into a specific term. My reputation is everything, and that’s what I’m building.”


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