Are the Big Guys Coming for Your Customers?

Build a customer retention program to fight back against large would-be operators who want to set up shop in your territory and take over.

I was speaking with the owner of a sizable pumping franchise who told me how, in the early days, they would use the truck engine to pull the vacuum to empty septic tanks. He also said he blew a couple of engines by not shutting it off before it sucked sewage right into the carburetor and slammed the pistons.

We have all made costly mistakes, and before modern equipment came along, we did whatever we had to do, didn’t we? Early advice to pumpers went something like this: “Remember, always park the truck downhill from whatever you are pumping so gravity will keep a siphon going. It’s easier on the truck that way.” Well yes, it’s easier, but when the siphon overtakes a truck that should have been emptied after the last job, it’s quite a mess. 

Later on, advice to pumpers went something like this: “Remember, never park downhill from a septic tank.” 


These aren’t the only kind of mistakes that can drain profits for pumpers if you follow poor advice. I recently asked the question, “Who wants your customer, and what will they pay to get them?” I posed it to some sharp plumbers, and I was quite surprised by the answer. For example, I was told that “everyone,” including insurance companies, utility companies, home warranty companies, property management companies, big-box retail stores and large contracting companies all want your customer and are willing to pay almost anything to get them. 

It reminds me of what Lee Iacocca once said, “Americans want efficiency, and they will pay any price to get it.” I might rephrase that to read, “Big business wants your customer, and they will pay any price to get them.”

Investors are looking for places to put to work what seems like unlimited dollars. The enormous number of big money investment accounts, both private and public, need a place to call home, a place to reproduce more dollar bills — many millions of dollar bills to be exact. So, if your business looks lucrative, then it’s “Katy, bar the door,” because here come the plunderers!

Your business is profitable and, believe it or not, it looks easy to those with deep pockets. How hard can it be to drive a shiny truck up to a house, hook up a hose, fill the truck and find a place to empty the tank? Or, how hard can it be to send out a plumber when your kitchen sink leaks? Let’s face it — some of you make it look mighty easy. So why wouldn’t big money want a piece of your action? They do want it.


Of course, they could offer to buy you out and some have done that. However, it’s more likely they’ll put together a business plan, which starts with massive advertising campaigns. An aggressive ad campaign can include radio and TV, of course, but also direct mail, newspaper, Sunday paper inserts, magazines, flyers and door hangers. Then, out come the big guns like billboards and the telemarketers we all hate so much.

Those are traditional ad programs, and they seem to have enough money behind them that they work very well. The other marketing tactic I call submarine marketing. It’s the kind that has almost no cost at all because it’s done by companies who already have a relationship with your customer.

For example, I mentioned utility companies and insurance companies. What they have going for them is sending out a monthly invoice to their customer base, some of which are part of your customer base. They have very little cost when they simply print an ad or coupon and drop it in the envelope with the utility bill or take a page in the utility or insurance newsletter to offer their new services. So, will they get vacuum trucks and take my customers? Most likely they will go after the plumbing service first and/or drain cleaning, then on to septic services. Either way, we need to always be looking down the road. 

So, let’s get to work. First let’s keep what we have. Build a wall around your fort by starting a customer retention program. You must build from a position of strength. That means you don’t want customers leaving.


Do what the utility companies do and send a newsletter every month. It’s not so hard to do and doesn’t require lots of resources. Think of it like your very own magazine, and you can be on the cover. Put a recipe in it and a tip each month. Start with one page if you need to. Include a coupon for your services.

That is the start. Of course, make sure you have free billboards on your trucks with your phone number big and bold. Most need to start as simply as that.

Now here is the most valuable piece of advice I have, so I will end with this: Call your customers twice a year just to say hello. Tell them you appreciate them, and ask if they have a favorite recipe you can put in an upcoming newsletter to share with everyone.

That, my friend, is the beginning of a dynasty.


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