Navigating Service Calls for Maintenance Companies

When dealing with maintenance firms that represent large corporate entities, there can be a lot of details to worry about beyond the actual plumbing work

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One of the most frustrating things to encounter as a service plumber is working for a maintenance company that dispatches calls to large corporate stores in your service area. The employees they have working the phones can be brutal negotiators, beating the service tech up about how long it will take, how many people are going to be needed, what materials will be involved in the repair — and all before you even begin working. Before doing the work, you have to jump through sign-in and paperwork hoops that are designed to throw you off your game. But there are ways to stay consistent.

Understand the game they are playing

The maintenance company that dispatched you to the call has a contract with chain stores. For example, you may get dispatched to Dick’s Sporting Goods to open a clogged urinal, but the agency that dispatched you will be XYZ Maintenance. XYZ Maintenance has a contract with Dick’s Sporting Goods Corporate. Its goal is to get out of paying your bill, and if it can’t completely get out of it, its reps will delay, argue, and bargain down your rates and prices.

Since many maintenance companies are getting smashed by licensed plumbers on material markup, they have now even started asking what exact parts are needed so that they can next-day deliver the parts to the chain store. Anything they can scrimp on, they will. Their strategy is to trip up the plumber with paperwork errors, protocol nonpayments, failure to check in or check out, etc. They purposely make their paperwork instructions vary so that you can’t get used to what is expected. 

Stay within parameters

You need to get the thought of doing a thorough job and diagnosing the root problem out of your head. This is more of a formality than it is a service call. These people are bean counters and only care about following instructions and numbers. As long as you follow their rules and take your time incrementally, you will be fine.

First, read the call report and only react to the specific call. If it says, for example, “store reporting backed-up sewer,” you should not concern yourself with any other issue you might see on your way to the backup.

The next item to pay attention to is the “NTE Amount” or not-to-exceed amount. This is where many techs get tripped up. Say your commercial service call fee is $90, and your flat rate fee to open a sewer is $300, making for a total invoice of $390. If the NTE Amount is only $300, you need to call in immediately and explain that your charges exceed the NTE Amount and tell them by how much. If they say, “Can’t you come down?” simply reply, “I don’t come up with the prices, it’s just what we charge.” They will either agree or decline. Don’t let them push you into a negotiation. It is a very matter-of-fact process when you treat the call like this. Draw a line in the sand and say, “That’s my cost, take it or leave it.”

Follow the rules

The first order of business here is to follow the lengthy instructions of the paper. Usually it requires you to call and check in using an interactive voice response system. You will need to enter various information, including work order numbers, PIN numbers, etc. Sometimes it will give you a check-in confirmation time.

Once you check in, you can go diagnose the backup. When you are completed with the call, you need to check out. Sometimes it requires you to take “before and after” photos, as well as speak to a representative. These are the details that get switched up in order to trip you up.

Also, pay attention to how you word things both on your invoice as well as in your telephone conversation. If you are there to open a sewer, make sure that you constantly say the phrase “attempt to open your sewer” as opposed to “open your sewer.” If you say “open your sewer” they will refuse payment if you can’t open it. It’s important to pay close attention to phrases and keywords like that when speaking with their representatives.

Service tips

In my experience, the two most common calls are clogged drains and Sloan Valve repairs. One tip: When working on drains, take a long tape measure and measure the distance from your clean-out to both far corners of the building. Take note of this distance and only run that distance of rods. I can’t tell you how many times we have run rods and gotten the rods stuck in the neighboring business floor or out in the parking lot. The maintenance companies will say, “We only asked you to open our sewer; you should have stopped at the demising wall” or “The parking lot is the owner’s responsibility, not ours or our client’s.” Measure how far you need to go and go that distance. Then call and tell them, “Your drain is open, do you want me to continue into the neighboring businesses store or parking lot?” Let them back themselves into a corner.

About the Author

Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has 22 years' experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College. 


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