You Want Loyal Customers? Try Going Old School.

Handwritten notes, old-fashioned courtesy and a clean appearance will go a long way to the constant callbacks that will drive your revenues higher.

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In our fast-paced world, it seems like everyone checks out a service company on their smartphones, making snap judgments on which contractor to call based on a slick-looking website, a promised low price, or hollow advertising copy that boasts reliability, trustworthiness or a unique level of expertise.

Sifting through all of these sales messages, potential pumping customers eventually call you and have — understandably — high expectations. Now that they’ve chosen you as their pumper, your job — beyond emptying the tank — is to build customer loyalty for the next time they need a pumper, and the next time and so forth throughout their homeowner experience.

You may have won their business through new technology and great marketing, but engendering customer loyalty may require you to step back and do things the way your parents and grandparents did when they were just starting out in the wastewater industry. Slowing down the pace and providing the type of personal attention you don’t see much anymore could be your key to those callbacks year after year.

But, you invested all of that money in the website and Google AdWords, transitioning your marketing infrastructure from phone book advertising to online algorithms. This is what everyone is doing to build the business. Isn’t that enough? I don’t think so.
Maintaining old-fashioned tactics for customer retention is even more impactful that it was years ago when that’s all small businesses had going for them. Let me give you an example to illustrate my point.

I’ve had a postcard sitting on my desk for a while. It arrived in my mailbox a few days after I made a small purchase from a local jeweler. The front of the card showed the name of the local shop, and on the back was a handwritten note that stopped me in my tracks as I was tossing the daily load of junk mail.


“Hi James,” the note began. “Thank you for your recent watch battery purchase. Your business is greatly appreciated. Keep us in mind for any future repairs and purchases. Hope to see you soon!”

First of all, when was the last time you received a handwritten thank-you note from a retailer? Heck, the best customers at the biggest department stores get nothing more than piles of impersonal catalogs and 20 percent-off coupons these days. But this small business took the time to personally thank me for my $20 purchase and invite me back to the store. Will I go return the next time I need a battery … or a new watch? You bet I will.

There are many jewelers in the city where I live. And there may be many pumpers where you live. Just like how the handwritten note from the jeweler left a big impression, so can such thoughtful courtesies help you stand out from the crowd of local pumpers. Adopting some old-school customer service tactics is really very easy. I’ll share a few traditional ideas that can get lost in the shuffle as we spend more time Facebooking and shoehorning more stops into the daily pumping routes. Then, if you want more ideas, go and ask someone who was in the wastewater industry before Al Gore invented the internet. I’m sure they’ll have additional tips to keep up with your customers that don’t involve an electronic device.

The telephone isn’t just for texting

Just like the handwritten note captures more attention than junk mail, a friendly pumper’s voice is more impressive than a text message. At the end of the workday, call the customers on your driver’s route and ask if they were happy with the service. Keep track of the last time you heard from customers, and don’t be afraid to call them after a few years and suggest necessary maintenance. Randomly call a handful of customers six months after their last pumping and ask if they have any questions. Keep it up, setting aside a few hours every week to place calls to existing or prospective customers.

Show up on time

If you say you’ll be there at noon, get there at noon or preferably five minutes before noon. When customers make an appointment, set very narrow service windows. Think like you’re the customer. Don’t you hate it when the cable guy says he’ll be there between noon and 5 p.m. and he arrives at 4:45 p.m.? If you set a time and you’re running late, call the customer and explain the situation, giving them the opportunity to reschedule the appointment. Customer convenience is more important than squeezing in one more tank for the day.

Be the friendly neighborhood pumper

It’s probably no coincidence that the rise in technology is leading to the decline in courtesy. Do your drivers greet customers with a “good morning” and a “yes, ma’am” or “yes, sir?” Or do they roll up and say, “I’m here to pump the tank. Where is it?”

Good manners and courtesy take little time and effort, but they make a big difference in how the customer perceives your company. You and a competing pumping company handle the hose and shovel pretty much the same way. Where you can make a difference is in how you address the customer. You can choose grateful or grumpy, and I would prefer grateful every time.

Clean up after yourself

Two messages here. First, watch your appearance: wear a clean shirt and comb your hair or wear a company hat. If you got really dirty on the last job, stop at the shop and change your clothes before heading out again. Second, leave the job site the way you found it. If you dig the hole, use a clean tarp to hold the sod and soil while you’re pumping, and carefully replace it. Don’t trample surrounding landscaping. Be careful about dragging dirty hoses across the yard and leaving residue. Don’t let waste in the hose or dripping out the valve get on the customer’s lawn or driveway. Don’t let the professionalism of all other aspects of the service be erased in the minds of the customer by leaving any kind of mess behind.

Don’t hide your fees

Customers appreciate upfront pricing and just don’t see it that much anymore. Have you looked at and tried to understand a phone or medical bill lately? Hidden fees and a lack of transparency — it’s all par for the course. But it doesn’t have to be that way when you own and operate your own small business. You can show a menu of prices for each of your services to the customer and operate by them. If you have a per-mile travel charge, tell the customer in advance. The same goes for locating and excavating the tank, running extra hoses or any other charges you may include. Convey the cost to the customer ahead of the pumpout, and make sure they fully understand and accept the charges.

Share your knowledge

You are an expert in your field. As such, you should feel a responsibility to make sure customers have all the information necessary to properly care for their septic systems. When you start working for a new customer, you can usually tell if they are equipped to deal with a septic system. If they have little background, take the time to explain how their system works and how good habits can improve operation. If you “pump and run,” you’re contributing to the problems they’ll have in the future. Remember you’re a technician but you’re also a teacher.


To gain the customer’s loyalty, you must also extend loyalty to the customer. This means providing service after the sale, answering every question or concern, and working hard on the relationship. Sometimes all the newfangled tricks in the small business book can’t improve on good old-fashioned customer service techniques.


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