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Keeping ahead of the digital curve

Feb. 15, 2018
Developing an online presence, and interacting with your customers in the digital realm is where the industry is today.

What’s 2018 looking like in your neighborhood? Industry trends are guesses based upon data that is parsed by folks whose job it is to predict what things will make an impact and what won’t. If you read trade publications like this one, you’ll see much advertising of new and better(?) products, tools, ideas, etc. You’ll also see informative articles about shops and companies who are on the cutting edge of the business today. However, in order to get a comprehensive picture of what’s hot and what’s not, and where it’s all going, you don’t have to go very far from your own home or office.

What do I mean? I mean a sea change in our society here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Marketing your company, getting and keeping business is now firmly in the domain of the World Wide Web. Trends in technology are impacting our industry in ways never thought possible even a decade ago. The ease and simplicity of researching, pricing and buying products on the Internet have made your job both easier and more difficult at the same time. A neat trick, but true.

It is no longer enough to market your company by being the lowest price. In the information age, tech-savvy customers, mostly younger generation, are looking for service people that can interact with them at the digital level. If you want to get and keep customer loyalty, you’re going to need to show those clients that you are in their corner. As tech companies like Google and Amazon move further and further into the service domain, service companies will be forced to lower prices to the breaking point to remain competitive. Think things like “Angie’s List” on steroids. It is even conceivable that somewhere down the road customers will be able to order services from plumbers, HVAC, electricians and others online, prepaid!

It isn’t science fiction. It’s here, and you’d better recognize it and adapt to it. Think about it. In your own home, especially if you live in a suburban or rural area, it’s no longer a chore to go to the “big city” to shop. You or your wife go online, research what you want, look for the lowest, price, best warranty or whatever your parameters are, plug in your credit or debit card and order it. A few days later...voila! It’s at your doorstep.

Trends in retail plumbing fixtures, materials and associated products are geared toward giving consumers reliability and ease of operation at a competitive price point. Take cars as an example. In the ‘70s, ‘80s and even the early ‘90s, cars were mechanical nightmares after about 80,000 miles or so. Things started breaking and repairs were a regular part of ownership and their pricing reflected that reality. Fast forward to 2018. Today’s cars and trucks are so well made and the solid-state circuitry involved in keeping them running is so good that 100,000 miles is barely getting them broken in, and the pricing reflects that as well. Some manufacturers offer a 10-year “bumper to bumper” warranty, which was unheard of a mere 20 years ago.

Today’s customers are better informed, and more able to rapidly identify and price the items that they desire, than ever before. They want value for their dollar. They want a product that will last and function for a long time, and they will have all the information of it at their fingertips.

To compete with the online world, your profits on selling things like faucets, fixtures, heating and water heating equipment are going to take a hit, so you will need to find other and better ways to get, and keep, that customer.  When a customer can search four, five or more sites looking for the best price on, say, a kitchen faucet, select exactly the features he wants and orders it to his front door before contacting you to install it, pricing goes out the window. The only thing left to sell is expertise.

This new paradigm will quickly differentiate between true experts and “handymen.” Being licensed, and being a professional, suddenly takes on more meaning. As these things progress, it is my opinion that making your customer your customer by providing expertise as well as good advice and superior service will be what gets you repeat business. While low price might get your foot in the door, it will be your business savvy, trade knowledge, and that of your employees, that will keep that customer satisfied and coming back for more.

Also, interacting digitally with your customer is a must. A quick email with either an estimate, invoice or just a follow-up thank-you note puts you in front of that customer easily and quickly. One company I know of puts out a monthly newsletter with new products and services (duct cleaning has become a big seller in some areas), as well as homey little touches like fast recipes, holiday and birthday greetings and the like. Where, in times past, it took time printing and posting something like that, today it simply takes a few keystrokes and some electrons to put your name in front of that customer regularly.

Being well informed on new trends in technology and new products is also key to our digital world. Knowing your customers cannot be over-emphasized. Training your field personnel to be observant when in a customer’s home pays dividends. While at the home of Mr. or Ms. Smith replacing a water heater, suggesting new water-saving faucets or water closets to help keep their costs down was one way we generated new business in the past. Today, a serviceman might come back to the office and tell you that Mr. or Ms. Smith mentioned they were thinking of remodeling their kitchen or bathroom. Sending out a well-timed email, advertising special pricing on remodels, perhaps even including a coupon, will put you right in front of that customer at just the right time.

Today’s customer is more data conscious and is likely to research online before committing to a purchase. Also, today, they are more likely to repair than replace, and that means they’ll need an

Likewise, when you are dealing with general contractors, having an online presence and digital footprint will make doing business much more efficient, and efficiency means profit. Even a small company can give the impression of being a much larger entity by how well they handle digital communications. Things like digitized draw requests, pre-lien forms, contract addenda and simple email correspondence can cut down on delays and keep a project flowing. Your general will probably have already done most of their work online with the architect and owner and, if you can seamlessly fit into that flow, it will definitely make for a fatter bottom line. 

Developing an online presence, and interacting with your customers in the digital realm is where the industry is today. Taking note of technology and driving that train, instead of being pulled by it, will keep you ahead of the curve as we move into the new year and beyond. Not everyone is tech savvy, I know, but not embracing the digital world is putting yourself in an unwinnable situation. Get on board or be left at the station.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a third-generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].