What Makes Your Plumbing Business Unique?

Defining service opportunities can reduce stress and optimize growth potential.
What Makes Your Plumbing Business Unique?
Anja Smith

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In the uber-trendy world of entrepreneurship, there is a saying that “the riches are in the niches.” The idea is the more specific and well defined your service is, the better your business will perform.

In plumbing, business opportunities are practically ubiquitous. Everyone wants their plumbing to work and everyone needs us eventually. Because of this, it is easy to think our industry is the exception to this “niche” advice.

But let’s take a step back and look at it from a different angle. Yes, the demand is good; no, great — maybe even phenomenal. But likely, the supply is as well. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you aren’t the only plumber in town.

That’s the frustrating thing about the time we are doing business in. It is simultaneously both easier — and more difficult than ever — to start a business and gain new customers. The internet has changed the service industry forever. A reputation has become incredibly easy to cultivate, but every mistake can seem amplified and haunting, thanks to review sites and social media.

Sometimes you need to say “no”

When you try to be everything to everyone, you are going to get yourself into trouble. Managing your business, your schedule and your team becomes harder when you just hang a shingle as a “plumber” and take every job that comes your way. Learning to say “no” to a potential customer might be the best thing you ever do for your business.

Yes, you are technically capable of performing any task related to plumbing. That is what your license says. Great, pat yourself on the back. Now get that idea out of your head, because it isn’t how you build a business. Narrow your field of focus, become a specialist, and be the best plumbing company you can be.

The first step is understanding how to define your ideal customer. There are ways you already do this in your company without even realizing it. Usually, these come in the form of external limitations. Location is a good example of this. Most likely, you are only licensed to work in a defined geographic region. That external limitation is one defining characteristic of your ideal customer — they must live in the area you are licensed for.

Set boundaries

What if we looked at the rest of our strengths and weaknesses as black and white as we do our licensing? If you are an excellent problem-solver but stink at project management, then new construction and remodeling are off the table for you. Service plumbing, however, could be a real contender. Now your ideal customer is anyone in your geographic area who wants to keep their existing plumbing in good working order. When you look at it this way, it is easy to say no to a remodeling job that comes your way.

Don’t be afraid to consider the kind of business you want to run, either. Build your business around the lifestyle you dream about. If family time is your first priority, then running a 24/7 emergency service plumbing company might not be the best idea.

Consider other important factors that aren’t necessarily related to the job, but that affect the business. Getting paid is a great example.

If cash flow is critical, then residential might be a better choice than commercial clients who will expect terms and can take a long time to pay.

Once you’ve put these boundaries on your business, then it’s just a matter of looking at what possibilities remain. Don’t ever look at a road block as an immovable object, but rather as a puzzle you just haven’t figured out yet. Sometimes learning who your ideal customer is takes time, iteration, and years of learning what you are willing to do and not willing to do.

That’s actually a really cool and fun opportunity. It’s one not a lot of entrepreneurs get. Many industries define when and how you are going to do business. Plumbing provides a huge amount of flexibility in terms of deciding what the day-to-day operations of your business looks like. The challenge is putting your head down, ignoring your competition and embracing that opportunity.

Identify your market

Next, you have to understand your market. From the standpoint of trying to connect with customers, a well-defined business identity is a huge advantage. Suddenly, rather than trying to figure out how you are going to compete with the advertising presence of every other plumber in town, you are able to laser focus your advertising spend.

For example, if you know you are going to pursue new construction business, adwords and radio are not the best way to spend your money. However, joining the local homebuilders association and attending networking events is a great investment.

Getting to the top of Google specifically for “whole-house repipe” is easier and less expensive than trying to rank for the much broader term “plumber.” A well-placed ad that speaks directly to your customer’s problem will outperform a broad match with vague language every time.

Part of understanding your market is figuring out how specific you can get. It is possible to niche yourself out of customers. If you live in a town of 20,000 people and want to work Monday-Friday, 9-5 on water heaters exclusively, you might have trouble making a living. But what if you widened your service area to the whole state and focused on large commercial water heater installations? That might work, but you need to understand the market and how to sell to that customer.

Narrow your focus

Finally, understand your optimization opportunity. A niche focus can have a positive double-whammy effect on your accounting and your psyche. Not only can you expect increased revenue and lower expenses, but also less stress.

There are many areas where specialization can breed optimization. Scheduling gets easier, because the jobs become more predictable. As humans, we get better at things we do more often, so you can expect your crew to perform tasks more efficiently and with fewer errors.

Recruiting the best talent gets easier. Employees want to feel like they are succeeding and will be more attracted to positions that play to their strengths, a win-win for you both.

Purchasing is just a matter of economics — you get better pricing based on volume. You can purchase more of the same materials and carry a more nimble and specialized inventory, lowering your overall costs.

Being able to manage your business in a more streamlined manner means spending less time making decisions and more time taking action. It also means less time cleaning up messes from when your gut said “no” but the dollar signs said “yes.”

All of these residual effects of niching down your business require a thoughtful approach and research prior to execution. Don’t discount the amount of time and effort it takes to specialize your plumbing business. It won’t be easy and some might call you crazy, but the persistence will pay off over time.

Deciding how broad or narrow you draw your boundaries is a personal decision, and there is no right or wrong to how you define your niche. In the end, the effects can help both your sanity and the competitive landscape in your area.

Drawing the boundaries and learning how to say “no” to a customer is a liberating experience. It will feel scary at first, but as you start to refine your reputation your resolve will increase. Start drawing those lines in your mind first, and see how they feel. Ask yourself, “What if saying yes, when my gut says no, is the worst thing I could do to my business?”

About the author: Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at anja@acpupsstate.com.


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