Growing Through Customer Satisfaction and Knowledge

Along with diversified services and technology investments, keeping customers in the loop spurs rapid growth for Tacoma plumber

Growing Through Customer Satisfaction and Knowledge

Underground lead Jeff Chong, left, and warehouse lead David Burnett go over a truck stock replenishment form using ServiceTitan software at the Harts Services shop.

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Spending years in the plumbing industry allowed Richard Hart to collect good intel about what a good plumbing company should be — and shouldn’t be. In 2013, he morphed that vision into a reality when he established Harts Services in 2013 in Tacoma, Washington, based on one key principle: Always communicate extensively with and care about customers.

“We’ve fulfilled our vision of being a company of master communicators,” says Hart, who owns Harts Services with business partner Dan Hartsough. “We emphasize excellent communications. It starts when customers first call us to the time a dispatcher calls to tell them when a technician will actually arrive. And it continues when a technician listens to customers to get absolute clarity on the situation, then answers all their questions and provides options for solving the problem.

“I worked for three or four companies that didn’t communicate well with customers, and that was a big reason why I didn’t want to work there,” he continues. “I didn’t want to keep working with upset customers who were overpromised and underdelivered in terms of service. That’s why we always strive to underpromise and overdeliver.”

That philosophy, coupled with an emphasis on diversified services, investments in efficiency-enhancing equipment and advice from external professional groups, has served the company well. From humble beginnings, the company has doubled its gross sales nearly every year, culminating with more than $4 million in 2018.

During the same time period, employment rose to 33 people and the company’s initial emphasis on service and repair plumbing expanded into drain cleaning, jetting and inspecting sewer lines, trenchless pipeline rehabilitation and horizontal directional drilling.

GOING THE EXTRA YARD

“When we first opened the company, we didn’t envision growing this big, having this many employees or offering this many services,” says Hart, 35. “But it all stems from a place of caring — always doing the right thing — which I feel serves our customers at the highest level. We always do everything we promise we’re going to do, but we also make a point of doing a little bit above and beyond that, too.”

For example, if technicians see a bad valve while replacing a water heater, they’ll throw in a new valve at no charge to the customer. While that may make an accountant cringe, it makes perfect sense to Hart.

“It only takes a few minutes to do and it’s the right thing to do,” he explains. “If you do a little extra, you’ll always get a little more in return. It’s all about karma. Do the right thing and the return is golden — and you create customers for life.”

The approach seems be working; as of mid-January, Harts Services had earned an average customer rating of 4.9 out of a possible five stars on Google reviews, based on 794 reviews.

“We work off of the three-win rule, where the company, the employee and the customer all have to win,” Hart explains. “If just one loses, everyone loses. We live off this. If a customer is upset, for example, then the employee didn’t make sure the customer won. Or if we don’t provide a great customer experience, our profitability isn’t as good, so the company doesn’t win. Sometimes we even give customers their money back.”

A CULTURE OF CARING

The company’s slogan is “we care more,” which is emblazoned on its service vehicles. But this applies to more than just customers; the same philosophy permeates the company. Hart says it is critical to attracting and retaining quality employees in an industry where it’s very difficult to do so. “Great people make a great company,” he emphasizes.

As an example, consider a program the company calls No-Man-Left-Behind Fridays, which fosters a culture of teamwork. Here’s how it works: The first technician who returns to the shop on a Friday afternoon has to check in before leaving work to make sure everyone is going to get off work at a reasonable time.

“If not, we send the technician who’s finished working first to whatever job site needs support,” Hart explains. “So a technician who gets back to the shop at 3 p.m., for example, might get dispatched to help a colleague who’s on a nightmare commercial job. Maybe three guys will end up going out there. In effect, nobody goes home until everyone goes home. They’re all like family, rooting each other on and helping out when things get tough.”

Creating that kind of family atmosphere helps to attract and retain employees. To build that kind of culture, Hart says he and Hartsough try to hire employees who are as highly motivated and enthusiastic as they are. “Not everyone works out, but our retention rate is pretty good,” he says.

To thoroughly vet job candidates, as well as give them a good feel for the company’s culture, they go through a three-stage interview process. The steps include attending a companywide meeting held every Wednesday, where company officials talk about everything from sales and revenue goals to jobs that went well or off the rails, and going on a service ride-along with a veteran technician, Hart says.

The company also emphasizes employee accountability. For example, within five minutes after technicians leave a job, a customer service representative calls the customers and asks them to rate the technicians on a scale from one to 10. If the customer rating is less than eight, the rep finds out why.

“And if the score is less than five, we turn the technician around and send him back there,” Hart says. “Our goal is to get all good reviews. But if we get a bad one, we talk about it at our next Wednesday meeting. We talk about the good ones, too, so all of us know how awesome we are. We all feed off each other.”

TRADESMAN AT HEART

Hart entered the trades in 2000, when he was 18 years old. “I definitely wasn’t that kid who was going to college,” he says.

After working as a plumber in Hawaii for most of his career, Hart and his wife, Jordan, decided to move to Tacoma, where her family lives. Initially, things didn’t work out well; Hart worked for several different plumbing companies. In fact, he was even considering moving back to Hawaii when Hartsough, a longtime friend, suggested Hart open his own plumbing company.

“He came up from California to help me start it,” Hart says. “But then he realized how good we could do, so he stayed and we became 50-50 partners. Early on, he was developing processes and helping us get work while I was out in the field.”

As the company grew, so did its fleet of equipment and vehicles. The backbone of the company is its fleet of 11 bright-orange Mercedes-Benz Sprinters (all 2016 or newer models) and four installation trucks (one Ford box truck and three Dodge and Chevrolet utility-bed trucks). Hart invests in Sprinters because of their spacious cargo area, ample legroom for drivers and diesel engines that get 22 to 26 mpg. Plumbing technicians use eight of the Sprinters; the other three are dedicated to drain cleaning.

The Sprinters are equipped with VT Hackney/Hackney storage systems that enable each truck to carry between $7,000 and $8,000 worth of inventory, including three different styles of popular faucets. “The trucks are so big that we can basically invite customers into the back to show them different types of faucets and other items,” Hart says. “They’re like showrooms on wheels.

“Customers can order other faucets if they don’t like the three we have on the trucks,” he adds. “But if they love one of the faucets we have, we’re ready to install it right then and there.”

EFFICIENT INVENTORY CONTROL

The Sprinters’ size also minimizes time-killing trips to supply houses for repair parts. Unless it’s a specialty part, odds are that technicians have whatever they need. This also increases customer service because they don’t have to wait as long to get their plumbing problems resolved. Furthermore, it ratchets up profitability because technicians can do more jobs than they otherwise could, Hart notes.

“Back when I worked as a tech, I went to a supply house every day — almost every time I needed a part,” he says. “By virtually eliminating supply-house trips, I’d say we can do five jobs per day, compared to the three we could do before. With eight plumbing-service trucks, that’s huge in terms of revenue.”

Other equipment includes Milwaukee Tool corded power tools; five Quadra Plex portable drain cleaning machines; three truck-mounted waterjetting machines built by Jetters Northwest (3,000 psi at 12 gpm); a MaxLiner USA pipe lining system; three RIDGID SeeSnake Mini pipeline inspection cameras; an R2 pipe bursting machine and a Basement Buddy horizontal directional drilling machine, both made by RODDIE; two mini-excavators built by Takeuchi; a micro-excavator manufactured by IHI (now owned by KATO Works); and two 14-foot dump trailers from PJ Trailers.

To ensure trucks have adequate inventory, Harts Services uses ServiceTitan inventory replenishment software that works in tandem with Barnett (a Home Depot company), a parts-supply company. ServiceTitan charges a monthly fee to use the software.

Here’s how it works: When technicians use parts, they simply use an iPad to reorder them. “We’re completely paperless out in the field,” Hart points out. Then the parts get delivered from a local Barnett warehouse to a small warehouse set up by Barnett within the Harts Services facility.

Barnett doesn’t charge any fees for this service; the only requirement, aside from passing a credit check, is that clients must purchase a minimum amount of parts and materials each month, Hart says.

“The warehouse occupies less than 2,000 square feet of our 8,000-square-foot building,” Hart says. “All the parts are inventoried on consignment. We don’t pay for them until we take them from the warehouse and put them on our trucks. It’s a pre-positioned inventory system run by one of our employees.”

The system pays for itself by eliminating trips to supply houses. “At the end of the day, we have a whole warehouse in our shop,” he says. “From water heaters and faucets to garbage disposals, fittings and pipes, almost everything you can name is in our shop — about $80,000 worth in all.”

MORE GROWTH EXPECTED

The company’s success in its first five years has given Hart the confidence to set ambitious goals for future growth: $20 million in gross revenue by 2025. That will require hiring more employees, buying more equipment and gaining more market share in the coming years. As Hart puts it, “We’re firm believers that what got us here isn’t going to get us there.”

To increase the brand recognition required to spur more growth, the company has embarked on a marketing campaign called Paint the Town Orange. It includes both billboard rentals and TV commercials that feature the company’s distinctive orange-with-black-trim Sprinters.

The company also entices customers to let Harts Services post yard signs on their lawns for three months at a time. How? By offering participants a chance to win $100 in a monthly random drawing.

“The signs need to be there for a minimum of three months,” Hart explains. “I deliver the check personally. We do a drive-by after we draw a name, just to be sure the sign still is there.”

The company typically has about 500 yard signs installed. Along with the TV commercials, trucks and billboards — plus technicians’ uniforms that feature the company’s orange logo — Hart aims to have Tacoma residents seeing orange everywhere they go.

“By the end of the year, we want everyone to know who we are,” he says. “It’s all about branding. When someone thinks about hiring a plumber, we want them to see orange in their head.”


Networking with other plumbers sparked dramatic revenue growth

Many businesses struggle to grow, despite their owner’s best intentions and efforts. Harts Services in Tacoma Washington, which has roughly doubled its gross revenue every year since 2014 and posted more than $4 million in sales in 2018, isn’t one of the them — but it very well could’ve been without the business coaching provided by the Nexstar Network and CEO Warrior organizations.

“They’ve been huge contributors to our growth,” says Richard Hart, company co-owner. “They help us push past that uncomfortable zone, where you don’t want to offer customers new services because you’ve never provided those services before, yet you know you need to in order to provide first-class service.

“I think that as human beings, we sometimes scare ourselves into doing nothing,” he adds. “But these groups open up our minds to things we otherwise wouldn’t be so willing to do. Without them, we’d probably still be trying to become a $2 million-a-year company.”

(Membership fees for the two organizations vary; visit www.nexstarnetwork.com and www.ceowarrior.com for details.)

A key benefit to membership in the organizations is the ability to pick the brains of other plumbing executives that provide critical insights into strategies that worked or didn’t work. It might be something as simple as learning how to roll out a new in-home, water-filtration product that Hart saw at a trade show. Or it might be something as large as developing an internal parts-warehousing system that increases profitability by virtually eliminating technicians’ trips to supply houses.

“Having access to other business owners is huge,” Hart says. “Take our inventory system, for example. We went to five or six different companies around the county, picked them apart and created our own parts-inventory system. (It combines ServiceTitan inventory-management software with parts supplied by Barnett, a Home Depot company).

“Now our inventory system is world-class,” Hart says. “And we couldn’t have done it without all of the networking — the open-door policy these groups provide. These other companies treated us like family and taught us so much.”



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