Trademark Ties Help Gain Edge on Competitors

Calgary plumber uses data-driven, number-crunching strategy to ensure customers get the best service possible – delivered by Canada’s best-dressed technicians.
Trademark Ties Help Gain Edge on Competitors
Jay Bruzell uses a RIDGID SeeSnake camera during a pipe inspection.

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Then Brham Trim established a plumbing company called Action Auger in 2001, his business strategy was simple: Be the lowest-priced plumber in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

“I called every plumber and found out what they charged and set out to become the cheapest plumber out there,” Trim says. “I couldn’t have been more wrong. I lost money my first year in business and was within a month or two of closing my doors.”

Today, Action Auger, known as The Gentlemen Plumbers for the clip-on ties its technicians wear, has 25 service trucks, 40 employees and serves customers throughout the southern half of Alberta. Since 2001, revenue has increased about 7,850 percent. It is also one of the larger plumbing and heating companies in Canada.

What prompted this dramatic business U-turn? A dramatic increase in prices, for one, along with an intense focus on customer service, a decidedly unique marketing approach that differentiated the company from competitors, and an emphasis on business analytics that enables the company to spot small problems and deal with them quickly, before they become bigger problems.

“I think one of the main reasons we grew so fast is because people like how we do business,” Trim says. “We offer our customers a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee — if they’re unhappy with anything, we refund their money. At the end of the day, customers feel like they can’t lose when they do business with us and that’s why they keep coming back.”

Investing in trucks, equipment

The company’s service trucks play a large role in ensuring customer satisfaction. After starting with smaller cargo vans, Trim eventually settled on GMC 4500s with 16-foot box bodies made by International Truck Body (ITB). Internally, each of the company’s 25 trucks — equipped to handle plumbing and heating calls — is outfitted with storage systems from ITB or made in-house. On board is a Garmin GPS that works in conjunction with Fleetmatics fleet tracking software.

Taking what Trim calls a “go big or go home” approach, trucks feature such upgrades as hardwood floors and polished stainless steel trim. Some trucks have built-in exterior cargo boxes with flip-up doors that provide extra storage space as well as fast and easy access to often-used tools. Other trucks carry inverters that can supply electricity for power tools.

“After about one year in business, we switched to the box trucks when we needed to buy a second truck,” Trim says. “They carry more parts and equipment, so we don’t waste our time or our customers’ time.

“Plus, they make for great billboards. They stick out and people notice that,” he says of the distinctive vinyl wraps that cost about $4,500 each. “They’re a very worthwhile investment.”

Each truck carries a cart-mounted RIDGID water jetter (3,000 psi at 3 gpm) and Spartan cart-mounted jetter (2,100 psi at 2 gpm) for clearing tough clogs in 2- to 6-inch-diameter pipes. Trucks also carry a Spartan Tool cable drain cleaning machine for augering 3- to 6-inch lines and a smaller Spartan drum machine for 1 1/2- to 2-inch lines.

“We like the drum cable machines because they minimize splatter,” Trim says.

A smaller DRZ drain cleaning machine, made by General Pipe Cleaners (a division of General Wire Spring Co.), is used for clearing P-traps in sink, shower and bathtub drains.

“We also use RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection cameras,” Trim says. “We found them to be invaluable, so we put one on every truck. It was quite an investment, but the cameras take the guesswork out of pretty much everything.”

For pipe wrenches and other tools, Trim prefers the RIDGID brand.

“They’re expensive, but they last — you get what you pay for,” he says.

For power tools, the company invests in DEWALT or Milwaukee products, for the same reason. The Gentlemen Plumbers also recommend BioSmart to customers — a microbial drain additive made by BioOne/One Biotechnology that devours fats, oil and grease.

The price is right

While Trim’s initial cheapest-plumber-around approach seemed like a sure-fire strategy for success, he quickly learned there’s a steep downside to undercharging for services. The bottom line: He couldn’t afford to give customers the best possible service. There wasn’t enough money to pay someone to answer phone calls 24/7. Or to buy a nicer-looking vehicle — one large enough to carry a full load of parts to avoid profit- and time-killing runs to supply houses. Or to purchase better uniforms to convey a more professional image. He also couldn’t afford to do drug testing and criminal background checks on prospective employees, which hampered his ability to hire quality technicians.

“I realized that it’s not all about price,” Trim says. “It’s all about value and providing customers with everything they want.”

So Trim took the plunge and adopted a flat-rate pricing structure that effectively doubled his hourly rate and ensured he’d make a profit on service calls.

“I learned that customers hated being surprised by the price of a job, so I wanted to give them the exact cost to do the work up front so they can decide from the start if they want to do the work,” he says. “That was a game-changer — customers loved that.”

Gradually, the strategy worked. Soon Trim was able to hire someone to answer the phones. He could afford to offer the best workmanship warranties, buy better and bigger trucks, purchase nicer uniforms and drug test prospective employees.

“I also could finally afford to pay my bills,” he says. “I could afford to train employees better, too, which contributed to improved customer service. That allowed us to build a strong client base. Things just kept snowballing and getting better and better and better.”

Runs in the family

Ironically, Trim never planned to be a plumber, even though his father, Marty, his grandfather, Wilford Trim, and three of his brothers were plumbers.

“I worked a lot of weekends with Dad and hated it because all my friends were out playing while I was working,” he says. “In retrospect, it was great because it taught me the value of hard work … but I didn’t want to be a plumber. I felt that people viewed plumbing as a trade for dirtbags.”

Trim went to college instead, taking preliminary classes required to get into dental school. But after a couple years, he realized he didn’t want to be a dentist. So Trim followed his father’s suggestion and started his own plumbing business.

“I was only 22 years old, so figured if it didn’t work, I still had age on my side,” he says.

One thing Trim did right from the get-go was successfully set his company apart from competitors. The point of differentiation? Technicians wore uniforms and clip-on ties. The marketing strategy was so effective that it eventually led Trim to rebrand the business because customers kept calling and asking if Action Auger was the company with “the gentlemen plumbers.”

Trim was influenced by what he saw while working for his father — plumbers at parts warehouses that looked grubby and grimy. And he hated that plumbers were always, well, the butt of jokes.

“I wanted to create a perception that would help build a better name for plumbers as a whole,” he says. “If the first impression you make is positive, it helps build trust and likeability.

“It also helps our marketing efforts,” Trim says. “When your company name is The Gentlemen Plumbers and your servicemen wear a tie, it all comes together. If it’s just Joe Smith Plumbing, there’s no differentiation. People remember the ties.

They not only create a good impression, they also serve as a great marketing tool.”

Business-like approach

Returning to school several years ago, Trim earned a master’s degree in business administration, which further honed his desire for using analytics to run his business more efficiently and profitably.

“To me, business is just a big chess game,” he says. “You’re always trying to figure out the next move, but unlike chess, the rules in business are always changing. I love being able to make decisions — especially important ones — with all the facts in hand.”

The company tracks nearly every facet of its operations. Trim constantly reviews reports that monitor everything from the average invoice amount per technician and the number of calls each one makes to how many memberships they sell in a preferred-customer program and how many complaints customers lodge against them.

“We know who’s performing and who’s not,” he says. “In essence, we can tell what’s happening in real time. Without this, we might have guys operating on cruise control for a month or two before we’d realize what’s going on.”

Analytics also pushed Trim to drastically cut spending on phone book advertising by about 95 percent in recent years. Moreover, technology enables the company to track with great accuracy which advertising venues work best and eliminate those that don’t deliver an adequate return on investment.

For example, the company has over 400 different phone numbers and uses business management software to track which ones generate enough revenue to justify continued use of a particular ad campaign. That includes different phone numbers on service trucks in various service areas, on various regional internet websites, in phone books and even on refrigerator magnets in different markets.

“We can go right down the line and decide where we can most effectively spend advertising dollars,” Trim says.

Looking ahead, Trim anticipates continued growth for The Gentlemen Plumbers.

“I’m excited about the future,” he says. “We’ve positioned ourselves strategically to be No. 1 in all of our markets … and we’ve positioned ourselves to ramp up and get better and better. In the next five years, I anticipate a lot of consolidation in our industry, which should provide plenty of opportunity for growth.”


Attitude versus skills: It’s not even a contest

After running The Gentlemen Plumbers in Calgary, Alberta, the last 15 years, owner Brham Trim has learned a thing or two about hiring employees who can meet his high expectations for customer service. One key lesson: Technical skills can be taught. Attitude? Not so much.

As such, in Trim’s eyes, a less-skilled job candidate with a great attitude trumps one with great skills and a poor attitude — every time. Moreover, drug testing and criminal background checks are a must to ensure that technicians are the kind of people customers can feel comfortable having in their homes.

Even with all that, Trim admits it’s difficult to tell in a one- or two-hour job interview who’s going to be a good employee and who isn’t. To underscore the point, he was on the fence about hiring two individuals who are now his top-producing technicians.

“I look for attitude and then for skills,” he says. “We can train someone to be a plumber but we can’t train someone to be a go-getter or have a great work ethic.”

Like many plumbers, Trim has a difficult time finding qualified job candidates. So he takes an unorthodox approach: Whenever he encounters a great employee in an underpaid industry — a waiter in a restaurant, for example — he gives them one of his business cards and urges them to call if they’re interested in a career change.

“No matter where I am, I’m always looking,” he says.

Once an employee comes on board, they’re quickly taught The Gentlemen Plumber routine for customer service: Introduce yourself to the customer. Wear shoe covers. Make some friendly conversation. Ask the right questions to get to the root of the plumbing problem. Explain the company’s fixed-pricing program and tell how much the job will cost. If the customer agrees, do the work.

“At the end of every call, we do a complete home inspection,” Trim says. “That not only gives us an opportunity to do more work while we’re there, it also helps the customer avoid another future dispatch charge. And we can fix things that could develop into more expensive repairs if left undiscovered.”

Technicians are also required to ask customers if they want to become Diamond Club members for $7.95 a month, which includes a camera inspection of the home’s sewer lateral line, a 20 percent discount on repairs and a $30 discount off the usual $69.95 dispatch charge.

Why such a structured routine? Trim says it ensures that no matter which technician makes a call, the customer always gets the same high level of service.

Technicians also participate in one-hour-long training sessions four or five days a week before they hit the road. Topics include new developments in technology, customer service techniques and discussions about problems technicians encountered the day before — an invaluable training tool, Trim says.

“One guy may have an answer to a problem another guy encountered, so you go from one guy knowing something to 30 guys knowing it, and everyone is that much better,” he says. “It’s amazing how it snowballs.”

Sometimes technicians get trained too well, in a sense, and go on to form their own companies — and become competitors. But Trim says that’s a risk well worth taking.

“The bigger question is what if they stay and you haven’t invested in them?” he says. “Then they end up costing you more money with screw-ups and customer complaints. It’s just not worth it.”



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