Last time, we discussed growing a business in a tough economy by focusing on two unique assets that every small business has at its disposal – reputation and a customer list.

In this article we will look at five tools that can help better utilize these two assets to grow service companies in tough economic times. Some of the examples are specifically related to the septic pumping industry, but the concepts are valuable for any small business.

I use a paper bag containing the five tools as a lesson when I guest teach in business and economics classes at local schools. I call it my magic bag for small business success. I explain to students the financial importance of small business to our country’s economy, and I share that the vast majority of them will work for a small business at some point.

Related: Grow Your Business in a Tough Economy

I explain if they really want to succeed in working for or owning a small business, the tools in the bag will make that happen. I pull the items out one by one to discuss. Follow along to brainstorm how each item applies to your business in today’s economy.

Item #1 – Razor

Students continually come in wearing saggy pants with undergarments showing, crude sayings on their shirts, hats on sideways or unique haircuts and body art. The razor represents the need to clean up! You only get one chance to make a first impression. Freedom of expression has its place, but so does dressing for the job and presenting a professional image.

Related: Pump That Septic - Pumper Magazine Video Profile - March 2011

How does this apply to our industry?

What does your equipment look like? Is it clean and well maintained? Does it feature a clear, easy-to-read company name and phone number? Many companies try to put so much information and slogans on trucks and trailers that the important things get lost in the clutter. I challenge you to pay attention for the next week to company rigs on the road. Which ones draw your favorable attention and what grabs your eye?

For many of us the most expensive advertising is about 32 feet long, weighs over 11 tons and goes down the road in front of hundreds of customers every day. If existing and potential customers can’t read the company name or phone number, you are wasting a tremendous business opportunity!

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What comments have you heard about your equipment or someone else’s equipment? Customers tell our drivers all the time that our truck looks nice for how we use it and what we haul. I simply look at them and tell them that if they were expecting a beat-up old truck with paint peeling off, stains on the sides and used toilet paper hanging from the bumper, we are not the right company for them. But if they want a professional who will care for a customer’s property as well as they care for their own equipment, then we are happy to provide that level of professional service.

What about your staff members? Are they easily identifiable in company shirts? Is their rain gear torn or does it have glue or portable toilet deodorizer stains all over? Are the toes worn out on their work boots?

Soon after buying our business, my wife and I noticed a local septic pumper during a family trip. He was pumping a septic tank, so being new to the industry and a firm believer in seizing every learning opportunity, I wandered over and visited with the technician. I do not recall a single word he said but I can still see the dirty, dented truck with the snarling dog in the cab. I can see the guy’s unlaced work boots, holey camouflage shorts and ragged, untucked T-shirt with the cartoon on back, and hair falling down over his eyes as he tried to see to pump the tank. My wife and I decided immediately that was not how we wanted our business represented.

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To ensure all employees properly represent the company, they receive work shirts and instructions on dress requirements. When I hired a customer service representative who had previously worked in the woods driving truck and operating machinery, one of the first things we did was get him new black rain gear, black waterproof boots and several new button-down work shirts. He said his previous employer had never bought him new gear, and I told him that was because a fir tree could care less what he looked like!

We work in the public eye in customers’ yards and at businesses, and we need to care about what we look like because they are our best form of advertising. Word-of-mouth customer referrals are what we strive for.

Item #2 – Ink pen

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I encourage students to take every writing class they can as well as at least one speech class. If they can’t express themselves clearly, others will never fully grasp what they mean.

Ask these questions to ensure the crew meets your standards:

  • Do your field personnel express themselves clearly and concisely?
  • Are they comfortable presenting your education packet and talking to customers?
  • Is the paperwork your people fill out in the field legible?
  • When you receive a new employee job application do you look carefully at handwriting and spelling?

Ask these questions to keep your company professional:

  • Are trucks equipped with calculators that allow operators to quickly perform volume calculations as well as get accurate totals on work orders?
  • Have you provided adequate training in how to do these calculations or how to correctly draw a map of the tank location as it relates to the structures found on the property?
  • Do they know what notes to put on the job site paperwork so you can adequately update your records for that site?

To be seen, treated and paid as professionals, you need to constantly strive to look, act and speak like professionals.

Item #3 – Watch

It is unacceptable to be late for a job. Surprises on a job come up and put you behind schedule, but when that happens, put down the hose and call the next appointment to let them know. In almost two decades of owning a pumping company, I can count on one hand the number of times we have been late to job appointment unannounced. Some service companies regularly schedule within a two- to four-hour time slot.

Being late is expensive, and it is rude and disrespectful. Just think how aggravated you were the last time you had a doctor’s appointment, showed up on time and sat in the waiting room for an hour. That is what our customers feel like when they take time off from work to be there when we arrive and we don’t show for another hour or two. It is estimated that America loses over $40 billion a year due to lost productivity from customers waiting on service providers.

Ask yourself, how often are you or your crew late to a job? Why are you showing up late? Does your start time allow enough time to go over the day’s work orders, check and restock your trucks and still get to the first job on time?

Do your service reps know to call the customer if they are going to be late? Do they carry cellphones that let them make this call if need be?

The key to providing quality on-time service is a recordkeeping or reminder card system. Every existing customer record should include detailed notes as to directions to the site, how much hose will have to be pulled, if the truck can be backed in or if there is room to turn around at the site, how many people it takes to safely remove the lids, if the truck should be empty en route due to bridges or partially full for traction climbing a steep driveway. The notes also should include tank type, condition, depth and soil conditions if it needs to be dug, and whether it has a pump or filter that may require cleaning. Records can tighten schedule times, reduce labor costs and still improve the on-time record.

Item #4 – Candy bar

This is pretty basic but often overlooked in our need to hire a body. Be pleasant and nice to your customers. Grumpy employees or owners will kill your reputation and business quicker than an overzealous IRS auditor!

Nordstrom Department Stores are renowned for their dedication to customer service. They have been named the fourth highest rated store in customer service in America. We could all benefit from Bruce Nordstrom’s philosophy on training employees to excel at customer service: “Hire the smile, and train the skill.”

We all are basically asking for the opportunity to work for somebody on every job. There should be no place in our companies for grumpy, grouchy, dishonest employees!

Item #5 – Ball to roll across the floor

It represents initiative!

If you see something that needs to be done, do it! Bring concerns to a customer’s attention immediately. If a tank contains foreign material, educate the customer on what’s going down the drain. Always be prepared to clearly and concisely explain how the tank, septic system and its various components work. It is vital to develop an education program or packet to inform customers.

Teach customers that replacing a failing system is expensive, and it can include remedial costs of replacing landscaping, sprinklers, sidewalks, and buried power lines. Remind them when they need to service the system again to avoid costly repairs.

Providing this information and educating customers about scheduled maintenance will even out your workload, create a steady cash flow, and enhance your reputation. Go the extra mile and you will be rewarded.

When you invest in equipment, look for balls rolling on the floor that can make you money, save you money and improve the level of service you provide. In our case it meant building trucks with onboard jetters to improve our level of service. It also meant trucks with rear controls to reduce time, labor costs and trips in and out of the cab. Carry a few simple items on each truck like drive-in baffle inserts, effluent filters and baffle extensions, along with a spare pump/alarm float. It can also result in an upsell – retrofit tank risers at a reasonable price while you’re on the job.

Boil it down

It all boils down to a few simple points. Every business has two unique assets that can help it grow in a tough economy:

1. Reputation – Good or bad
2. Customer list

Every business can increase their profitability by focusing on these two assets in five areas:

  • Image and appearance
  • Concise and articulate professionalism
  • Quality on-time service
  • Pleasant attitude
  • Initiative in recognizing opportunities and pursuing them to improve service, reduce costs, increase revenue and pursuing new markets.

About the Author
Robb Barnes owns and operates King’s Pumping Service in Salem, Ore. He has been trained as a science teacher and has served as the national customer service manager for a multimillion dollar manufacturing company. Barnes is current president of the Oregon Onsite Wastewater Association. 

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