Plain Dealing Earns Customers' Respect and Loyalty

Straight Flush Drain Solutions makes creating satisfied customers its top priority

Plain Dealing Earns Customers' Respect and Loyalty

Bradly Schwertz feeds cable from a RIDGID K-400 drum machine into a blocked sink drain.

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Four and a half years ago, Joe and Danielle Lienhards had a sewage backup in a rental property. Rather than wait for a service call from a local firm, they borrowed a RIDGID sewer cleaning machine and cleared away the blockage themselves.

That spontaneous act of self-reliance turned out to be the launching point for Straight Flush Drain Solutions, the couple’s Great Falls, Montana-based multiservice pipe cleaning company. 

“I laugh now because I came up with ‘Straight Flush’ without even thinking about the poker angle,” he says. “They said I needed a name that was straightforward, that gets right to the point. I thought, Well, we want stuff to flush straight down into the pipes. So I settled on ‘Straight Flush.’”

Satisfied customers

Today, Straight Flush answers distress calls in a service area that stretches 100 miles in any direction from Great Falls, with occasional jaunts into Wyoming and other surrounding areas. It is steadily building its business on the back of professional competency and small-city friendliness. The latter is critical because business and social lives intersect frequently in small metro areas.

“Sixty thousand is not a lot of people,” Joe Lienhard says. “It’s a small town. We see our customers in the grocery store and at the movie theater. I never want my employees to be in the position where they want to hop to the next grocery aisle so they won’t have to talk to someone who was a disappointed customer.”

His wife, Danielle, is also adamant about satisfying their customers. “We have to do it right the first time. If we don’t do it right, we have to make it right. There’s no way to get around that. I always look at jobs from the customer’s point of view. In general, I think customer service in many companies is not what it should be. Our goal is to have every person have the best possible experience.”

Straight Flush customer experiences range across a spectrum of services, from sewer line jetting to grease interceptor pumping and dewatering to plugged toilets. The company has, year after year, expanded its portfolio of services within the core wastewater handling industry. It does so with pride. The company website puts it this way: “It’s a nasty job but a necessary one and we’re proud to do it.”  

That statement characterizes the spirit the Lienhards bring to their business. They compare the work their employees do to that of an educator or an insurance agent — that is, the company educates homeowners to avoid costly failures and reassures them about the integrity of their infrastructure.

Residential services do comprise the bulk of the firm’s business, from clearing kitchen sink drains to jetting laterals. A corollary service is inspection of sewer lines for residential real estate companies. When called in by a real estate agent, a Straight Flush crew runs a camera through lines to determine if there is a break or separation in a system. As a bonus, a future homeowner learns what type of pipe is buried under the lawn.

“We tell new homeowners that drains are just like maintaining your car,” Joe Lienhard says. “Knowing what material the pipe is made from tells them how much they will have to maintain the pipe. Clay pipes have more joints where roots can come in, for example. When you know those joints are there, you can systematically control the roots.”

Vitreous clay is the most common type of pipe in Great Falls, but there is Orangeburg pipe, too, the fiber conduit made of pulpwood and pitch. It is an old and less durable piping, he says. “When we find it, I tell homeowners to start budgeting to replace it.” The identification of PVC pipes, on the other hand, is a reassuring discovery for a homebuyer.

Equipped for anything

Two years ago, the company started relining failed pipes using the Quik-Shot inverted bladder system (Pipe Lining Supply). To date, the largest lining job has been a 130-foot length of 4-inch lateral pipe. Just in the last quarter, Straight Flush began to repair larger pipe using the QuickLock point repair system (Pipeline Renewal Technologies). This new offering has expanded the company’s service area: A company truck was driven south in early November to a Wyoming ranch for installation of a QuickLock patch.

Trenchless pipe repair is especially suitable for places like Montana where November through March is a true winter season. It gets cold and can stay that way for a while. Consequently, pipes sometimes are buried 6 feet deep to protect from freezing. “That makes it especially costly to dig it up,” Lienhard says.

So, the company has invested in the underground inspection and repair tools that avoid the big dig. Its Quik-Shot and QuickLock equipment is complemented by Envirosight push and crawler cameras, RIDGID cable machines and mini-cameras, and jetting machines by Jetters Northwest and Shark Cart. A Great Falls supplier, NorMont Equipment, is the source of many of these tools, as well as equipment troubleshooting expertise.

For some jobs, Lienhard calls on his Vactor combination hydrovac unit. It’s fitted with a 1,000-foot hose and a Warthog switcher nozzle (StoneAge). He has trailer and cart jetters for smaller jobs. All the equipment gets regular workouts. “The pressure cleaning work is growing quite a bit.”

However, persuading residents to jet their lines — instead of just cabling through an obstruction and calling it good enough — is not always easy, Lienhard says. “Some people don’t understand that jetting can do so much more cleaning. There’s a good, better and best way to respond in a standard pipe blockage situation, and the best is jetting. It gets the pipes so much cleaner and the homeowners won’t have to call on us again for a couple of years.” Still, upselling a property owner to more expensive jetting can be a challenge.   

Because rural properties surrounding Great Falls have many septic tanks, the company has one of its four technicians pretty much assigned to septic work. The tech drives an International truck outfitted for the task. Other vehicles rolling from the equipment yard include two 2018 Dodge ProMaster 1500 cargo vans and a 2017 Nissan NV2500 cargo van. A Ford E-350 van hauls the company’s CCTV equipment.

The crew is cross-trained so that “we all know how to do everybody else’s jobs,” Lienhard says. “But, if someone is more passionate about something, I’ll let that person focus on it.” For example, one crew member is convinced the company should be doing more municipal jobs, so Lienhard gives him hours in his week to call small towns around Great Falls and try to drum up the work. “It’s a slow process, but it’s starting to pay off.”

Each week the crew takes a maintenance break to clean the trucks and service equipment, followed by a refresher on machinery operating techniques. Recently, for instance, the company got a new jetter nozzle, so Lienhard grabbed heads of lettuce and practiced blowing them through a pipe. There is also periodic classroom training, and each year everyone attends the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show in Indianapolis.

Determined to succeed

The workload of the company varies from season to season. In the summer months, Straight Flush takes on cured-in-place relining jobs. Winter sees more septic work and clearing of frozen lines — as well as more dewatering jobs in commercial and restaurant properties. The volume of work for the latter service ramped up when a regional grease services firm dropped Montana from its service area.

“That left a huge void in our state,” Lienhard says. The two or three companies that provide the service now find themselves working together and undertaking jobs outside their normal service area. Straight Flush responds to such calls with one of its pump trucks. It hauls the greasy waste to a shop where a Flo Trend Systems Sludge Mate dewatering unit separates solidified grease for later disposal in a landfill.  

While Straight Flush benefited from the regional firm pulling out, Lienhard doesn’t entirely credit serendipity for the resulting good fortune. He cites author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, in which Gladwell concludes that, while circumstances help determine outcomes, personal determination is a key marker of success. It isn’t just being in the right place at the right time.

So it was that when the former boatswain’s mate in the U.S. Navy and his wife had a sewer problem, they not only rolled up their sleeves and fixed it themselves, they decided to fix other people’s sewer problems, too. This entrepreneurial instinct runs in the family.

Danielle Lienhard’s grandfather operated an appliance repair business, her stepfather a plumbing and heating business. Both were one-man shops. She played a central role in Straight Flush taking the next business step and employing people. Danielle has a degree in finance and, just two months after she and her husband opened the doors of Straight Flush, she parlayed her real estate license into ownership of a real estate office. Clearly, these are ambitious business partners.

Yet they hedge a bit about the future of the sewer cleaning company. “I’d love to see it grow,” Joe Lienhard says, “and have different stores around the Northwest. I go to conventions and see people building companies, and I smile and say to myself, ‘Why can’t that be us?’ Realistically, we could grow to a pretty good size just in Montana and surrounding states.”

For now, Lienhard is enjoying the work today and appreciates the labor and genius of those who preceded him. “We fell into an industry that is so neat. We get to work with infrastructure and utilities that our grandfathers and great-grandfathers put into the ground. We are able to go in and find things they were sure would never break and rehab them using new technology, fixing them for another 50 or 100 years. It’s so neat to be a part of that, to be a part of the work of the great generations.”

Training over experience

Joe Lienhard doesn’t interview credentialed sewer technicians when he adds to staff at Straight Flush Drain Solutions in Great Falls, Montana. He looks for professional character — and for veterans.

 “I have no desire to hire someone with drain cleaning experience,” he says. “If a candidate for the job can carry on a conversation and is personally presentable and of good character, I can train him to do everything else. There’s an art to the work, but it’s not that difficult.”

The fact that each member of the Straight Flush crew is — like Lienhard — a veteran of one of the military branches is not just happenstance. “It’s something we look for,” says wife and co-owner Danielle Lienhard. “It’s not a coincidence.”

The substance of this hiring approach is that, while skills can be learned, initial impressions can open the door to using them. Joe Lienhard stresses appearance and attitude in his employees because he wants to instantly assure new customers that they have contracted with reputable, “truly professional” people.

To that end, a Straight Flush tech arrives at a job dressed in a white polo shirt with navy blue pants and black shoes and belt. Before a plunger, cable or jetter hose is inserted into a plumbing fixture or line, the tech slips on some coveralls to protect his uniform and booties to protect the customer’s home.

“We want to take care of our customers,” Lienhard says of this routine. “The biggest thing is to be as fair as possible. We want them to know upfront that their task is something we can handle. But we also want them to see right at the door that we understand their house is their most valuable asset and we want to keep it clean.”

He says this considerate mindset is incentive for techs to always do the very best job they can. “It is an amazing marketing tool, as well. When people who have been customers see us, they smile and tell someone something like, ‘He pulled my grandson’s toy out of the toilet.’ Those are the best kind of professional relationships.”


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