Plumbing Firm Develops Strong Relationship With Customers

California plumbing contractor takes what he knows and teaches it to grow his company and to earn customer’s trust

Plumbing Firm Develops Strong Relationship With Customers

Technician Angel Salgado uses a ROTHENBERGER USA crimping tool to begin his repair on a copper pipe, using 1/2-inch copper couplers that are crimped rather than needing to be soldered.

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Building a company that prides itself on earning a customer’s loyalty for life and continuing to do so after two decades in business can be tough to do.

California-based Four Star Plumbing has been accomplishing that goal since owner Robert Frank started the company in 1994. Even through growth, the company hasn’t swayed away from its core goal of earning loyalty.

“It’s been painstaking for sure,” says Kelli Frank, Robert’s wife and vice president of the company. “A lot of trial and errors, a lot of costly mistakes, a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”

Over the last 25 years Robert has moved from just himself out of his garage with one truck to four fully stocked, emergency-ready trucks and a staff of four technicians, two apprentices and two office staff working out of a new facility in San Clemente, in Orange County.

“It was all done through word-of-mouth and working a lot of property management jobs,” Robert says. “I had relationships with property managers and that helped me tremendously in the beginning of my business.”

ALWAYS A PLUMBER

Robert had an early introduction into the plumbing industry, helping his dad at his plumbing company on jobs in the Los Angeles area when he was high school. He had no doubt what he wanted to do post-high school.

He enrolled at the LA Trade Technical College for two years and from there joined the union and earned his journeyman’s license, all while still helping his dad, Jack, periodically.

“I did other union jobs, helped my dad, new-construction jobs and then my dad passed away when I was 24,” Robert says. “There wasn’t much going on with his business and he had just one older truck, so I ended up dissolving the company and moved to South Orange County.”

Robert worked for a plumbing contractor there for about a year and half while earning his contractor’s license. In 1994 he decided it was time to venture out on his own.

“I started up Four Star Plumbing and fixed up my dad’s old 1974 Chevy Silverado with a utility bed and used that for a couple of years,” he says.

In 2004 it was time to move out of the garage and into the company’s first commercial space in order to be able to park a truck and store inventory.

TIME TO GROW

By 2007 things were starting to change a little bit faster. Kelli started working with Robert that year, coming to the business with a background in sales, management and business development.

Shortly after starting with the company, she and Robert knew it was time to grow the business and teach a crew to do what Robert does. Otherwise Robert would have to work into his 70s.

“We decided to join forces, and I left my job and came to work with him,” Kelli says. “I thought I was going to start by picking up the phone and doing sales, but I truly have not been able to market this business and be dedicated to the marketing side until a year and a half to two years ago.”

Instead of marketing, the first two years were focused on hiring a team.

“Rob had helpers, which were great, but a helper is very different than having somebody going out to represent you,” Kelli says. “We tried hiring people who were seasoned, and that had its challenges.”

After a lot of trial and error using that method, the two decided instead to go after someone green in the industry. That way they would be trained the way the company wanted them to be.

“We might as well hire somebody that has strong character and work ethic and teach them what Rob knows and wait a couple years before we can actually let them run a truck independently,” Kelli says.

But it wasn’t as simple as finding the right fit for the company. Along with growing came the need for finding benefits packages that were not only affordable, but would entice employees to stay. There was also the process of creating the employee handbook.

“We were taking a business that was just a one-man shop into something that is a template to bring on multiple people to have it run at the same capacity and quality that Robert was doing,” Kelli says. “There was a lot going on there those first two years.”

Then there was making sure all of the training Robert had was put onto paper step-by-step so employees could be trained the way he did it with the same workmanship and business ethics.

“We spent a lot of time working on our processes before we could continue to grow,” Kelli says. “I think one of the worst things that any company can do is grow so fast that now the quality lacks.”

STANDING OUT

That quality is only a part of what makes Four Star Plumbing stand out from competitors in Orange County. Robert says other ways include his company’s professionalism and level of customer service.

“We take pictures of every job; our dispatching software (FieldEdge) is amazing,” Robert says. “It sends the customer a text message or email when we’re on our way with a picture of the technician.”

It was important for both Robert and Kelli to have that professionalism as they grew the company.

“Rob has built up his reputation over the years, and it’s our job to make sure that we stand up to that as a company,” Kelli says. “From the time a customer calls our office to the time that we leave the job, it’s a professional experience. Our people are educated, they’re well-spoken, they’re trained, they’re qualified and they’re happy.”

Being honest is also important for the owners.

“We’re upfront about everything,” Robert says. “What it’s going to cost to have us show up, what our services are and I think people appreciate that.”

FINDING THE LEAKS

When Robert started Four Star Plumbing one of those first services he knew he had to offer was leak detection, but it wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today.

“We didn’t have a lot of leak detection in LA,” Robert says. “There’s a lot of raised foundations out there, or if there was leak detection back in the day, it was done with a stethoscope.”

It was easier with a hot-water leak. Customers would be told to turn the water heater off at night, and then about a half-hour before a technician’s arrival, turn it back on and the plumber would just look for the warm spot and jackhammer the floor for a spot repair.

The days of using a stethoscope are gone now and the company instead uses Goldak equipment, with every truck equipped with a leak detector.

“The leak detector is such an important part of your equipment, but you also have to be trained in leak detection,” Kelli says. “You have to know what to look for, you have to know what the different scenarios are and it’s still a process of elimination. You need to have a crew who knows what they are doing.”

Many of the company’s customers on the leak detection side are homeowner associations where a 2-inch cold water main runs between eight to 12 units.

“Those leak detections are fairly difficult sometimes,” Robert says. “They’re all manifolds, but the units don’t have their own shut-offs. You could have water come up in one unit, but the leak could actually be under the slab two units away.”

That’s where some skill and training come into play.

“Sometimes a leak will even seal itself up and not present itself, so there are different approaches,” Robert says. “Sometimes we have to call a dry-down company in, have them dry up the area and then we look for the wet spot.”

To help with locating those leaks that are hard to find or sealed up, each truck has a CO2 tank aboard. The technicians will pressurize the line with 100 pounds of CO2, blowing it open to where the leak can be seen.

SETTING UP THE TRUCKS

If it seems like there is a lot on the Four Star Plumbing trucks, it’s because there is. The company has four trucks — a mix of Ford and Chevy. Robert’s favorite, though, is a Ford that looks like a van cutaway with the van-shaped front and the utility-bed back.

“It’s all 11-foot bed, so the techs can still get access to the utility bed on the back of the truck. You can almost stand up in it,” Robert says. “There are trays on the inside for parts.”

The Chevy Silverados also have a utility bed with a closing back. All of the company’s trucks have been customized with Rhino Lining and LED lighting throughout the vehicles. Most of the trucks have a lift for heavy sewer equipment.

“All of them are set up relatively the same,” Kelli says. “All of our hand tools and parts we access regularly are on the side where the sidewalk is so that our guys don’t have to go into the street. We try to make everything so that it’s effective for work.”

Each truck is equipped with sewer and drain cleaning equipment from Spartan Tool and General Pipe Cleaners/General Wire Spring, able to work on small 1 1/2- to 6-inch lines. Hand tools used vary from Milwaukee Tool for the cordless tools to DEWALT. While the company does solder its copper fittings, it also has AquaPex press equipment from Uponor, if needed.

“The trucks are really organized, from our material to the tools,” Robert says. “They’re clean because it makes working that much easier. You could probably eat off the floor.”

ACCOMPLISHING THE MISSION

Kelli and Robert take pride in maintaining their goal of earning a customer’s loyalty for life, but it isn’t an easy thing to do.

“It’s a really big hurdle for anybody in the service business and anybody in construction,” Kelli says. “Plumbers get a bad rap. Homeowners already think they don’t want to pay for plumbing because it’s inconvenient and it should just work. Plumbers are dealing with people who feel like they are getting ripped off or being overcharged.”

Four Star Plumbing technicians are transparent and upfront with customers, letting them know what the fees are upfront as accurately as possible and along every step of the project.

“Long gone are the days when you send the plumber into the bathroom and he comes back out three hours later and gives you your price,” Robert says. “That’s the way it was done back then, but you don’t do it that way anymore. People are educated, plumbers are educated, so we have to approach it as such. Our job is to educate our customers because an informed customer is going to be the one that is in control and they’re going to be satisfied at the end of the call.”

Robert and Kelli have three-, five- and 10-year goals, and with both in their early 50s, it is almost time to start thinking about the future.

“There’s a few things we’re looking at, whether we do franchising, sell part of the company, retain part of it or acquire another,” Kelli says. “This is where we are at in the heart of our conversations right now.”

Most important, though, the two don’t want to see the company lose what they’ve built over the years.

“First and foremost, the two things that are most important to us are that we leave a legacy behind for our children and the second is that our employees would benefit from that legacy and they too would have something to pass on to their children,” Kelli says.


Finding what works

When it comes to finding the right dispatching software for a plumbing company, it can take some trial and error. Kelli and Robert Frank had that as they were finding the right solution for Four Star Plumbing.

The company, based in San Clemente, California, started with using a simple Google calendar and a whiteboard to plan the day.

“That didn’t last very long,” says Kelli, vice president of the company.

After doing research, the company moved to a software program from dESCO (which is now FieldEdge). At the time they started with the program, it wasn’t a web-based program.

“With QuickBooks and a whiteboard, it was difficult,” Kelli says. “We had to identify all of our customers and learn how to identify each of the associated jobs that would come with that customer.”

However, moving to the software program provided a simpler solution. The program allowed the company to take customer information in a parent account and then add subaccounts under that to keep track of what they did for every address in each community.

“It allowed us to do proper invoicing, proper proposals, and take pictures and attach them to our records,” Kelli says. “Pictures are key because as we’re growing, we have technicians out there and that is how Robert checks all the jobs that he hasn’t personally gone out to himself.”

Now with FieldEdge, all of that functionality is available to the company in a web-based program, making the technicians’ jobs even easier. They’re able to clock themselves in and out of jobs and take pictures on a job and upload them immediately.

“That actually has streamlined our processes in the office,” Kelli says. “It allows them to capture signatures in the field, invoicing in the field, proposals in the field. We can see payments, and we can see when they are on the job or traveling.”

It has also benefited the company’s money handling.

“It has really helped us keep an eye on our billable and nonbillable hours,” Kelli says.




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