With an emphasis on customer education, this third-generation plumbing company keeps making the grade — for 69 years and counting.
Master plumber Ed Zeitler has learned an awful lot about plumbing and running a company during his 37 years in the trade. But the owner of Zeitler Plumbing, based in northeastern Wisconsin, says he’s learned one thing in particular that has carried his company through thick and thin: An educated customer is a loyal customer.
That’s why Zeitler Plumbing technicians are required to always explain to customers the problem they encountered, what they did to fix it and, perhaps most important of all, how the customer can prevent it from happening again, says Zeitler, 57, a third-generation owner of the business, which he co-owns with his wife, Bonnie.
“I expect several things from our technicians: Do a good job. Wear booties. Clean up after themselves. And educate our customers,” says Zeitler, whose grandparents, Edward and Margaret Zeitler, established a hardware store in 1948 in the small town of Cecil. The Zeitlers also offered customers plumbing, heating and electrical repair service. “For example, a lot of times no one tells customers that it’s bad to put coffee grounds down a garbage disposal. The grounds are like sand and wear down the parts. If you educate customers, you might be able to save them a service trip down the road.”
But doesn’t Zeitler want more service calls in order to make money? Sure, he says, but not at the expense of developing customer relationships. In fact, there are times when Zeitler says he’ll talk to customers on the phone after normal business hours and walk them through a repair, or maybe help them figure out a temporary fix that’ll hold until a technician can get there.
“By doing that, customers gain confidence in you,” he explains. “I’m not looking for one-and-done jobs. I want to build good relationships with customers. If I save them money, who are they going to call the next time they need a plumber? It’s not always about going out and making a quick buck. Too many companies these days are more concerned about chasing after the almighty dollar instead of helping the customer.”
DEEP ROOTS IN PLUMBING
Zeitler learned the trade, and picked up a lot of his business philosophies, from watching his grandfather and father, John Zeitler, run the family business. He also worked for his father when he was a teenager. After Edward Zeitler died in 1959, John Zeitler bought the family business.
In 1976, a fire destroyed the store and John Zeitler decided not to rebuild it because independent hardware stores were taking a beating from competitors such as chain hardware stores and big-box home centers. Instead, he built a new facility between Cecil and nearby Shawano, and eliminated the heating services.
After a stint in the military that ended in 1980, Zeitler completed his plumbing apprenticeship while working for his father. Then he worked for a large plumbing company in Green Bay before buying the family business in 1995, following his father’s death.
Top-notch customer service has been a hallmark of the Zeitler operation for decades, which explains why some families in the area have been clients for 50 years or more — second- and third-generation customers. “I probably know the mechanics of their homes better than they do,” he says with a laugh. “I think having such long-standing relationships with customers is unusual because loyalty is almost nonexistent these days. I think it reflects how we treat people well and develop good working relationships — a sense of trust.
Zeitler also points out that in a survey sponsored by a local media group, Zeitler Plumbing has been voted the area’s best plumbing outfit for three straight years (2014 through 2016). “We certainly don’t ask people to vote for us,” he notes. “So I think the fact that so many of them would take the initiative to fill out a form and vote for us says something about how we treat our customers.”
While Zeitler Plumbing eliminated electrical and heating work from its service offerings over the years, it also added others — most notably septic tank pumping back in 2002. It occurred in a rather random fashion. As the owner of a local pumping service was pumping a septic tank at a house Zeitler owns, he happened to mention he was looking to sell the company and retire.
“I got to thinking about it and a month or two later, we owned the company,” Zeitler explains. “We just sort of fell into it. I was younger back then and looking for ways to expand and grow the clientele base.”
Septic tank pumping generates a small percentage of the company’s total revenue. But the service still adds value to the business because pumping the tanks often leads to plumbing work. “It helps increase our brand recognition and gets us in a lot of doors we otherwise wouldn’t be able to open,” he says.
To pump tanks, Zeitler Plumbing invested in a preowned 2002 International truck outfitted by Progress Tank. It features a 4,000-gallon aluminum tank and a pump built by National Vacuum Equipment.
To serve plumbing customers, the company currently runs two service trucks, a 2014 Dodge ProMaster van outfitted by Monroe Truck with a storage system made by Monroe and a 2001 Chevrolet pickup truck equipped with a utility box made by Knapheide. The company also owns a Spartan 81 drum machine for cleaning small drains, three Electric Eel drain cleaning machines and one Milwaukee Tool hand-held drain cleaning machine. “It’s very convenient for working in tight spots,” Zeitler notes.
In addition, the business owns a RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection camera; a Magikist low-pressure, hot-water jetter used to remove ice from frozen lines; and a small Honda pressure washer, used mostly for lateral-line jetting.
IT TAKES A TEAM
Roughly 10 years ago, Zeitler Plumbing employed five technicians (including Zeitler himself), plus office personnel. These days, it’s just Zeitler, master plumber Jesse Athey, helper Anthony Tucker and office secretary Kathy Hollenback. Zeitler says the company is currently in “rebuilding mode,” but a shortage of qualified plumbers is definitely hampering growth.
“Trying to hire a master or journeyman plumber is pretty much impossible,” Zeitler says. “There’s just not enough of them around. The shortage is starting and there’s going to be an even bigger void because young people aren’t getting into plumbing.”
In retrospect, Zeitler is proud of maintaining the family legacy. Every so often, he’s reminded of his father when he works at the homes of longtime customers. “I go to jobs and see his handwriting on a 2 x 4 or something,” he says. “I think that if he were around, I’m quite certain he’d be proud of what we’ve done.”
Brand recognition: Radio ads raised plumber's business profile
Word-of-mouth referrals often serve as a plumber's best, and least expensive, form of marketing. But at Zeitler Plumbing in Cecil, Wisconsin, third-generation owner Ed Zeitler says radio advertising has also played a key role in helping his family business thrive.
Zeitler's father, John Zeitler, started running radio ads in the 1970s. The centerpiece of the short ads is a catchy company slogan his father created himself: A flush is better than a full house. And that slogan raised the company's profile even further in 2007, when an advertising salesman from a radio station suggested that Zeitler's children get involved. Zeitler thought the idea had potential and agreed to give it a try.
It turned out to be a good move. Having children record the catchy slogan made the ads endearing and the slogan even more memorable. Over the years, all three of Zeitler's children — Jacob, now 22 years old; Katie, 19; and Megan, 15 — have taken turns recording the slogan, making them mini-celebrities in the community.
"We know the ads have been effective because customers mention them a lot," Zeitler says. "They tell me, 'I hear your children on the radio all the time.' And when the kids were younger, people would come up to us in, say, a grocery store, and kiddingly ask them if I was paying them to do the commercials."
Not everyone thought the slogan was funny, though. One day an anonymous caller left a message on the company's answering machine, chastising Zeitler for his poker-playing ignorance because a flush really doesn't beat a full house. "That was pretty funny," he says.
Even though the radio ads have been airing for years, Zeitler keeps on running them. The way he sees it, people are always moving in and out of the area, and newcomers will probably need a plumber at some point. "We want to be the one they call," he says. "I believe a business has to advertise constantly."
Listen to some of Zeitler Plumbing's radio commercials at www.plumbermag.com.