Use Teachable Moments to Develop Lasting Customer Relationships

With an emphasis on customer education, this third-generation plumbing and pumping company keeps making the grade.
Use Teachable Moments to Develop Lasting Customer Relationships

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Master plumber Ed Zeitler has learned an awful lot about running a plumbing and septic pumping company during his 37 years in the trade. But the owner of Zeitler Plumbing, based in northeastern Wisconsin, says he’s learned one thing in particular that has carried his company through thick and thin: An educated customer is a loyal customer.

That’s why Zeitler Plumbing technicians are required to always explain to customers the problem they encountered, what they did to fix it and, perhaps most important of all, how the customer can prevent it from happening again, says Zeitler, 57, a third-generation owner of the business, which he co-owns with his wife, Bonnie.

“I expect several things from our technicians: Do a good job, wear booties, clean up after themselves, and educate our customers,” says Zeitler, whose grandparents, Edward and Margaret Zeitler, established a hardware store in 1948 in the small town of Cecil. The Zeitlers also offered customers plumbing, heating and electrical repair service. “For example, a lot of times no one tells customers that it’s bad to put coffee grounds down a garbage disposal. The grounds are like sand and wear down the parts. If you educate customers, you might be able to save them a service trip down the road.”

But doesn’t Zeitler want more service calls in order to make money? Sure, he says, but not at the expense of developing customer relationships. In fact, there are times when Zeitler says he’ll talk to customers on the phone after normal business hours and walk them through a repair, or maybe help them figure out a temporary fix that’ll hold until a technician can get there.

“By doing that, customers gain confidence in you,” he says. “I’m not looking for one-and-done jobs. I want to build good relationships with customers. If I save them money, who are they going to call the next time they need a plumber? It’s not always about going out and making a quick buck. Too many companies these days are more concerned about chasing after the almighty dollar instead of helping the customer.”

Expanding to septic pumping

While Zeitler Plumbing eliminated electrical and heating work from its service offerings over the years, it also added others — most notably, septic tank pumping back in 2002. It occurred randomly. As the owner of a local pumping service was pumping a septic tank at a house Zeitler owns, he happened to mention he was looking to sell the company and retire.

“I got to thinking about it, and a month or two later, we owned the company,” Zeitler says. “We just sort of fell into it. I was younger back then and looking for ways to expand and grow the clientele base.”

Septic tank pumping generates a small percentage of the company’s total revenue, but the service still adds value to the business, because pumping the tanks often leads to plumbing work. “It helps increase our brand recognition and gets us in a lot of doors we otherwise wouldn’t be able to open,” he says.

To pump tanks, Zeitler Plumbing invested in a preowned 2002 International truck outfitted by Progress Tank. It features a 4,000-gallon aluminum tank and a pump built by National Vacuum Equipment.

To serve plumbing customers, the company currently runs two service trucks, a 2014 Dodge Promaster van outfitted by Monroe Truck with a storage system made by Monroe, and a 2001 Chevrolet pickup truck equipped with a utility box made by Knapheide. The company also owns a Spartan 81 drum machine for cleaning small drains, three Electric Eel drain cleaning machines, and one Milwaukee Tool hand-held drain cleaning machine. “It’s very convenient for working in tight spots,” Zeitler says.

In addition, the business owns a RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection camera; a Magikist low-pressure, hot-water jetter used to remove ice from frozen lines; and a small Honda pressure washer, used mostly for lateral-line jetting.

Deep roots in plumbing

Zeitler learned the trade, and picked up a lot of his business philosophies, from watching his grandfather and father, John Zeitler, run the family business. He also worked for his father when he was a teenager. After Edward Zeitler died in 1959, John Zeitler bought the family business.

In 1976, a fire destroyed the store and John Zeitler decided not to rebuild it because independent hardware stores were taking a beating from competitors such as chain hardware stores and big-box home centers. Instead, he built a new facility between Cecil and nearby Shawano, and eliminated the heating services.

After a stint in the military that ended in 1980, Zeitler completed his plumbing apprenticeship while working for his father. Then he worked for a large plumbing company in Green Bay before buying the family business in 1995, following his father’s death.

Top-notch customer service has been a hallmark of the Zeitler operation for decades, which explains why some families in the area have been clients for 50 years or more — second- and third-generation customers. “I probably know the mechanics of their homes better than they do,” he says with a laugh. “I think having such long-standing relationships with customers is unusual because loyalty is almost nonexistent these days. I think it reflects how we treat people well and develop good working relationships — a sense of trust.

Zeitler also points out that in a survey sponsored by a local media group, Zeitler Plumbing was voted the area’s best plumbing outfit for three straight years (2014 through 2016). “We certainly don’t ask people to vote for us,” he says. “So I think the fact that so many of them would take the initiative to fill out a form and vote for us says something about how we treat our customers.”


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