Have you ever thought, “That doesn’t look that hard; I bet I could do that myself?” If you have, how many times were you right? Do-it-yourself experiences are usually polarizing. In a plumbing situation, could you prevent your customers from attempting a DIY project by better communicating the value of the work you do?
I took my car in for an oil change a few years ago, and the mechanic said the cabin air filter needed to be changed. They could have done it for me for $75. I asked how long it would take, and they responded, "10 minutes." I took a risk and told them I would try to do that myself. I found a cabin filter on Amazon, which was shipped to my house in two days for under $20. I searched on YouTube and found a three-minute tutorial for how to change it for my specific car. I didn’t need any special tools and, as far as I can tell, it went well.
On a different day, I noticed that a tail light bulb was out. I picked up a new bulb for a few dollars and soon realized I was in over my head. My car didn’t have an easy access to the old bulb, and the whole housing had to come off. A few hours in, I ended up breaking a small, but important, piece of plastic on the tail light housing. Luckily, I was able to get it back together, but I was close to paying a couple hundred dollars to replace the whole assembly. That would have been a bad DIY day.
This is the allure for plumbing and heating repairs for homeowners. From the outside looking in, putting a pipe and fitting together doesn’t look like the hardest thing on earth. Generally, what is missing in the DIY blog education sphere is how high the risk is of doing it wrong.
I was at a big box hardware store a year ago, and the guy in front of me had a shopping cart full of PEX pipe and fittings. He was taking a phone call to explain that he was going to redo some plumbing. I noticed one odd thing in his cart; he had a 3-foot-long tree limb clipper and no other tools. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine this guy missed the PEX cutter in the plumbing aisle and struggled to cut the pipe with a lesser tool. There is a good chance he was going to make every cut of pipe to plumb a house with something designed for a 2-inch diameter oak tree.
Popular Mechanics has an article titled, “DIY Plumbing: What to Know to Avoid Disaster.” The first of the five steps contains the phrase “Learning to fix your leaks or replace your toilet can save you money, but DIY plumbing can turn to disaster quickly if you’re not careful.” Step 2: Know where the shutoffs are; easy enough. Steps 3-5 kick it up a notch. Paraphrasing, they are: know how plumbing systems work, know how to sweat copper and have a full toolbox for plumbing tasks. To me, those steps should be red flags for the DIY community. Especially, because a small drip in a plumbing system could be the road to a moldy disaster.
AOL Finance is one of the many other sites I found that talks DIY plumbing. If you are thinking to yourself, “What does AOL Finance know about plumbing?” you are right to question its expertise on the subject. To its credit, the video features a clip show of bad plumbing repairs in action with a few pleas to hire a professional.
However, the AOL article goes on to say, “Snaking a drain is a pretty painless task, particularly if you have the right tools on hand. DIY Network recommends getting a jetting machine, which will break through clogs in the pipe. Jetting or drain cleaning machines can be purchased online. Once you’ve removed the cover from the cleanout on the main drain, it’s just a matter of securing the hose and turning on the machine.”
I wouldn’t consider myself a drain snaking expert. I can say with some certainty that AOL completely underestimates the skill, tools and expertise to snake a drain without creating a disaster. The upside for plumbers is that a homeowner sitting next to a drain jet experiment gone wrong may be less likely to complain about hiring a professional to finish the job.
Why are homeowners trying to do projects for themselves in the first place? I think that it is part of the world we live in, because so much of our lives revolve around internet knowledge. I think an introspective answer to that question is that plumbers weren’t questioned pre-Google search. They could choose not to explain to their customers what they were doing, and, unless that customer went to trade school, they probably wouldn’t know enough to question a professional. As long as homeowners trusted the reputation of the contractor, that was it.
Our industry does not have the luxury of avoiding the customer hand-holding anymore. The modern day successful plumber will have to stress the importance of good communication skills to keep ahead of the blogosphere. The most successful plumbing and heating salespeople I know may or may not be technically savvy. They are, however, excellent at talking customers through the value of the service they provide, making them a more attractive option than a Google search.
In my experience, most customers want to pay whatever they decide a fair price is for plumbing and heating repairs. Not necessarily the absolute lowest price on earth, but a fair price. If they have no idea how hard it is to do plumbing and heating well, they may assume it is a $15/hour task. If you can politely show how good you are at difficult work, you can help talk the customers off the DIY ledge.
The average homeowner doesn’t want to spend their Saturday learning to be a plumber. They also don’t want to feel like they have wasted money paying someone for a simple task they could have done on their own.
You have two basic options: 1. Charge less than what a DIY homeowner thinks plumbing should cost (and get a second job); 2. Charge a living wage and practice explaining the value of your service so the average homeowner can understand it. You shouldn’t be condescending or overly technical. The best business people can calmly and clearly explain to anyone on earth why what they do is important. Plumbing and heating trades are no exception.