Soft Skills: Calling a Customer with a Clogged Drain

Even though it is a regular occurrence for you, it’s important to match a customer’s sense of urgency

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When calling a customer who has a main drain backup, you should avoid asking them how they are doing, even though this is a habit that we all fall into.

They will either respond with, “I’ve been better” or “How do you think I’m doing? My house is flooded with waste.” Either way, the response is never pleasant. Instead, put yourself in their shoes.

For this service call, you need to have a commanding voice presence that displays a matching sense of urgency while keeping your words short and to the point. For example, say something like, “This is Anthony with McVehil Plumbing. I have a work order that says you have a clogged drain. I am on my way and will be there in about (X amount of time) but first, I need some important information.”

This keeps the social bickering to a minimum, sets the call’s tone as highly important, and portrays a sense of urgency that the customer can feel through the phone. This is absolutely not the time to be the salesperson of the month and start upselling products and services before you even get to the call.

Is it just one fixture, or is the whole house backing up?

This question cuts down on a slew of variables and gets to the heart of the call very quickly. If the customer responds by saying something like, “It’s only the second-floor toilet,” then the follow-up question should be, “Does your bathtub and lavatory sink drain OK?” If the answer is yes, then do a second follow-up with “Is any waste backing up through any floor drain or fixture on the first floor or basement?” If the answer is no, then more than likely it is just a toilet clog since the main drain clogs always show up first at the lowest fixture in the house. Again, if the answers to any of these questions are “yes,” it is more than likely a main drain clog.

Do you have an accessible cleanout?

Making a ton of money in the main drain cleaning business starts with a great job vetting the call — not so much from your office staff but more so from you calling and talking to the customer. You have made your presence known and explained that you need some vital information before heading out on the call. You need to understand how you will gain access to the sewer, how often the drain backs up, and have they ever had the system scoped.

First, you need to make sure they have an accessible cleanout. If they say that they aren’t sure, it is a good idea to take two 3-inch and 4-inch ferncos, a small piece of pipe, a cleanout tee, and a plug. If they do not have access, you can charge extra for cutting in a proper cleanout in an exposed stack. You may also want to consider taking a variety of wax rings and closet bolts if you have to pull a toilet. Often, the rule of thumb for many companies is, “We don’t snake main drains through floor drains, we don’t snake main drains through pulling and resetting toilets, and we don’t snake the main drain from the roof.”

The proper and professional way to open a drain is through an accessible cleanout. If the customer doesn’t have one, you need to make every effort to install one for future issues. However, never mention any of this over the telephone before you get to the call since it is an unknown.

How often has this drain backed up up in the past?

This question is more for your mentality heading into the call. If a customer says, “We have lived here 30 years, and it has never happened before,” someone probably flushed a foreign object or other item (i.e. wipes) that shouldn't be flushed down the toilet. You can take your drain machine and a camera to try and upsell an inspection to make sure nothing is causing a clog that may have recently become an issue. The odds of there being something drastically wrong are much lower in this case than, say, a customer who says, “Oh yeah, my drain clogs every few years,” or, “It has clogged a few times in the last few years.” That would be an indicator that something is drastically wrong. It would be best if you took various equipment to diagnose and sell a permanent solution to the problem.

Upon arrival

The customer will want to take you directly to where the sewage is backed up most, which is good since that is either the lowest drain in the house or indicates which branch line is clogged. If the customer has a basement, the sewage will probably be around each floor drain. If the customer doesn’t have a basement, the sewage will come up whatever the lowest fixture is; this will often be a shower or toilet. Since most toilets use a wax ring to seal the bowl to the floor, the backpressure of sewage from a backup will blow the wax ring seal enough to force its way through the wax and onto the surrounding floor.

Regardless of where the sewage shows itself, it is always a good idea to walk around the property and start gathering some information. The first thing you are going to look for is an accessible cleanout. During the initial walkthrough, you should ask the customer if they have ever seen any cleanouts. Sometimes customers are unaware of what a cleanout is, so you might explain it simply: “They are pipes that stick out of the ground.” If the customer has seen anything like this, they will take you to where they remember seeing them. If you are lucky enough to find a cleanout outside, get access to the line through this point of entry. This will often involve screwing a plug out of a female adapter, taking a screw out of a fresh air vent, or pulling an unglued cap off.

Once you get access to the outside cleanout, grab a bright flashlight and look down the pipe to see if you see standing water. If you can see standing water and are sure that it isn’t a house trap, you can assume that the clog is downstream of the cleanout and should run the sewer rods down this cleanout. On the other hand, if the cleanout is dry and you can see the bottom of the pipe, then the clog is upstream of this cleanout. Therefore, you should go to the spot where sewage is showing and find a viable cleanout near that point, whether a stack cleanout nearby or a nearby toilet that you will have to remove to access the drain.


About the author: Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has over two decades of experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College.



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