by Peter Quince on 2018-04-10 8:53am
We all know the pop culture image – when a plumber shows up on tv or in movies, it’s almost always as the butt of a joke.
You know what I mean.
Don’t get me wrong – most plumbers can take a joke, especially one that’s (mostly) no longer true. Still, the image of the profession is no laughing matter. It has real effects on earnings and on attracting younger people into the profession.
But here's the catch: Just because a plumber gets his hands dirty is no reason that think of it as a “lesser” type of profession. You’re experts in your field and WTSHTF it’s a plumber you NEED, not a lawyer. Professionals held in high esteem have a few things in common – knowledgeable men and women serving the good of others with a high level of skill and precision. As much as a plumber might fit this description, advice on professionalism in plumbing is either unavailable or downright demeaning.
It’s time to recognize that your work won’t speak for itself, no matter how good it is. It’s time to elevate what it means to be a plumber – to rebrand it.
Why It Matters
A lot of customers don’t understand why a plumber charges what he does. The education, skills, overhead, and all the rest run up against the “Joe the Plumber” public image. “It costs HOW MUCH to repair a broken pipe?” Meanwhile, young people overwhelmingly avoid trades like plumbing as a career. As I wrote in an earlier blog, the average age of plumbers is getting older such that in Texas (for example) the average age of a master plumber is 58.
The benefits of rebranding plumbers as professionals are many:
How Rebranding Works
It won’t be overnight. It takes consistency and persistence. The more plumbing professionals move in this direction, the better, but there’s a lot even a single plumber can do:
#1 Professional Appearance: As much as we hate to admit it, professionalism is judged by appearances more than anything else. Just remember this truth when weighing whether to invest in a newer or shinier tool or piece of equipment – the mark of a professional is a high level of skill and precision. And all paperwork is part of your presentation. It must be clean, clear, precise, and up-to-date in every way. If you show up on time, in a well-maintained vehicle, all tools and parts orderly, clothes clean and appropriate to the task at hand, shoulders square, with a smile that exudes confidence, you’re halfway there. If you’re there to appraise the job and prepare an estimate, dress the part -- not in coveralls but in whatever is closest to a suit and tie that feel right to you.
#2 Professional Service: Your work won’t speak for itself. You need to do the talking for it. Explain the choices you make and point out workmanship when the job is done. Also – never forget that everyone who works for you or with you, whether on the job site or back in the office, is also speaking FOR you to clients and customers. Make customer service as central to your business as the plumbing itself. That means a professional appearance and outstanding customer service by everyone who interacts with the public. Some people are naturally good at this; others can be trained. Here’s one approach to what characterizes customer services as professional [Note: most of all, how YOU behave will be the model they follow, so make that a part of the training every day that you’re at work]:
Listen: Nothing damages a customer interaction more than if the person feels you have failed to listen and understand
Be a person: Robotic, rehearsed, or pat responses will just make the customer feel (once again) that you didn’t listen or understand
Value their time: Being a person doesn’t mean being free to speak about irrelevant matters. Imagine that every second of the customer’s time is a theft of their freedom to be somewhere else, doing something else. Offer all the information required but NEVER waste a customer’s time
Be knowledgeable: Know your product, processes, people, and project
Care: Customers want to know that their concerns matter to you, that meeting or exceeding their standards is your own personal desire as well, and that you are providing customer service because their goals are your goals
Rely on your team: Customer service is a team sport. If someone else knows more about an aspect, rely on that person to serve the customer’s needs
Be honest: Bad news that they need to know is preferable in the long run to good news that is simply untrue. Similarly, be honest about what you don’t know
#3 Professional Standards: This is the most important of the three. High standards are the ultimate mark of a professional. Meeting high standards means staying up-to-date in knowledge by pursuing continuing education and by being familiar with the best and latest products and services you can offer. It means being confident when speaking with a client or customer. Body language says more than your words, but also be sure to avoid coarse or ungrammatical speech and to aim for a personable but not personal tone. Be economical and prudent with costs and fees charged, but don’t cut corners and explain why quality and workmanship might cost a little more up front but will result in savings along with better service in the long run. Always follow through on commitments and keep customers informed when the unexpected happens.
And here’s the big one: Consider restructuring how you do business. You’re probably pretty good at plumbing and get satisfaction from doing a good job, but think about following the example of the construction trades these days. All the larger firms rely heavily on “project managers” -- most often college-educated, highly professional, well-paid facilitators of a job well-done as well as an ideal go-between with customers.
Chances are your business can’t afford you the leeway to step away from all plumbing tasks, but see how many of the tasks can be done by apprentices and younger workers while you focus on providing direction, oversight, and presentation of yourself as a full-fledged professional. The more you’re able to wear the suit and tie (or your own version of it) the better. Go ahead and work on plumbing when needed, but try to make it separate from the “project management” you – different clothes, a different day (if you can), or in any other way you can.
It’s the 21st century. We no longer brand cattle, we brand ourselves. A brand encompasses all that you are and do and it ultimately results in how you’re seen more than it ever has.
Whether rebranding yourself a plumbing contractor instead of a plumber or taking whatever name works for you, it’s certain that demonstrating professionalism is the only way plumbing can earn the esteem and prestige it so richly deserves and make it a profession the next generation – males and females – strive to join. A plumber has been the butt of jokes for a long time. You owe it to yourself and to the next generation of plumbers (and the generations that follow them) to replace that image with the one that ensures the respect and compensation of the professional that characterizes the plumber today.
Peter Quince worked in construction as a young man, but has been making his living as a professional writer since 1985, most recently as a contributor with At Your Pace Online, an innovative online education company that offers CE classes for professional contractors, plumbers, electricians & HVAC techs, as well as for Water Operators, real estate and insurance agents, mortgage loan originators & tax preparers.