Service business success
From the country’s largest pool service franchise to local independents, successful service businesses do things differently. What sets them apart from their peers? We spoke to some top service businesses to get their tips on running a successful operation.
Pool service businesses come in all shapes and sizes, but the success stories have a few things in common. There are the obvious ones, like excellent customer service and a quality product, but others, like promoting a positive team culture and looking the part, can be the difference between a mediocre business and a thriving one.
“You’re just leaving so much money on the table in terms of the efficiency of your business if you don’t have efficient scheduling or routing of your technicians,” said Poolwerx Founder and CEO John O’Brien, who has taken the business from one man in a van to a network of 1000-plus staff and 450 service vans across Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
“We embrace technology at every opportunity so that our technicians can be more time-efficient, we can provide more accurate water testing and water quality, which ultimately ensures a healthier pool and a happier, more satisfied client.”
For Rob Guthrie, owner of Tru Pool on Sydney’s North Shore, an automatic scheduling system has paid off by improving efficiency: scheduling changes are taken care of automatically so techs aren’t distracted in the middle of a job.
“[It] lets them do what they’re meant to do. They’re there to go out and perform the service that we’ve been booked for. They’re not there to talk on the phone, to answer queries. If you can take that out of it and leave them to keep on the tools and keep on with what they’re doing, that’s a much better arrangement,” Guthrie said.
A self-confessed IT geek, Andrew Bourke of Sydney’s Best Pool Service has tracked down a scheduling program that works for his team. Interestingly, he prefers to go with smaller providers as he’s found they are more nimble at providing customisation options for the customers. This regular evolution of product offerings to his customers adds value to the company’s sales and services.
He likens large providers to the Titanic — impressive, but slow to move — but smaller companies to dinghies: they can respond quickly to changes and move in new directions easily based on customer feedback. On balance, he finds the benefits of using a smaller company outweigh the negatives. However, his IT background gives him a good understanding of how to make it work. Your results may vary!
Make it easy
Keeping your clients up to date with technology makes life easier for everyone. When O’Brien started out, the company was servicing most domestic pools on a weekly basis; now, most are serviced monthly.
“Part of being more efficient and providing an effective service solution has involved educating our clients on the benefits of upgrading their pool equipment — chlorinators, controllers, robotic cleaners. Introducing more technology as part of the maintenance schedule has saved them money through energy efficiency as well as changes to the service frequency they need,” he said.
Guthrie’s business has implemented an online portal through which clients pay their bills, book services and receive invoices.
“People don’t want pieces of paper, and neither do we. So we did away with paper invoicing and [records] a few years back,” he said.
“People don’t want to write cheques and do things like that. They’ve got to be able to pay electronically. It’s very important. I think if you’re not doing that you’re a bit of a dinosaur.”
On the job
Using tablets on the job isn’t a new idea, but it’s what you do with them that counts. If you tie them into customer communication, they’ll improve your service offering.
The Dural Poolsmart team — the 2016 SPASA NSW/ACT and SPASA Australia Service Business of the Year — use iPads to remotely access the BioGuard Water program, ensuring their water tests are always as accurate as possible. The iPads also prompt technicians to snap a photo of each step of the service, giving both managing director Michael Freame and his customers peace of mind that the job has been done thoroughly.
Freame uses a customer contract to facilitate communication from his technicians to the client, and vice versa.
“We give them the detail of what we’re going to do and what they need to do in between the services, and it gives people a better grounding in what needs to happen to the pool while we’re not there,” he said.
“It does help to make sure that the pools are in good nick when you come back to them. And it also gives you an opening for burning those who don’t look after their pools in between services!”
In addition, the BioGuard Water program emails water test results straight to Freame’s clients, helping them understand exactly what they’re paying for, and why.
Involving the pool owner in the process helps them feel that they have buy-in. It also gives them security that the service business will uphold its end of the bargain because there’s accountability on both sides of the fence.
Invest in your staff
A business is only as good as its staff. Disengaged employees who feel they’re stuck in a dead-end job are never going to give you their best. What makes for a workplace where both employer and employees are happy?
Many believe that the lack of a distinct career path in the pool industry has prevented it from attracting new talent. Successful service businesses recognise that to keep good staff, they need to demonstrate that there’s a future for them.
Poolwerx worked with SPASA to develop the Cert III and IV for pool technicians, which has significantly improved professionalism in the industry. Not content with that, the company then created a dedicated training centre housing two fully operational pools, plus a full retail shop, where staff can undertake Technical Excellence Courses developed by Poolwerx, and technical programs for those servicing commercial pools.
“There’s six different levels of certification they can achieve — two are federally government recognised; four are internal. It gives people a lot of career satisfaction that we’re investing so much in their education and training,” O’Brien said.
These qualifications are linked to position descriptions within the business, which are linked to salary bands, giving employees a clear idea of what they can achieve.
At Sydney’s Best Pool Service, Bourke starts new recruits out in the shop for a full 12 months. Once they have the retail side down pat, they go out with an experienced technician to learn the ropes before starting their own run. This means he always has a new technician in the pipeline should a staff member move on.
Team cohesiveness is key. Both Bourke and Freame said they wouldn’t hire someone who didn’t click with the team. In a small business, any disharmony will reverberate throughout the whole team — and unhappy staff are unproductive staff.
Guthrie bought Tru Pool as a struggling business and tightened things up to make it the successful operation it is today. Changing the team culture to get everyone working towards a common goal was part of that.
“You’ve got to engage them in what’s going on. It’s a communication thing: you’ve got to talk to people. You’ve got to explain what you’re doing and why,” said Guthrie.
“You’ve got to have a management structure that delivers the results to the customers and puts things in an orderly manner for the staff. You’ve got to have all the back of house in place so that they can do their job efficiently, and they feel satisfied with what they’re doing.”
Every market is different, but on average, pool owners sit within a higher socioeconomic demographic, O’Brien discovered when he started out.
“More importantly, if they have their pool serviced, it puts them in the ‘do it for me’ market. This type of customer expects a certain level of service and professionalism that starts at a basic level like how the technician presents,” he said.
O’Brien identified a number of must-haves for presenting a professional front:
- Smart, well-maintained vans.
- Good branding on vehicles and uniforms.
- Smart uniforms that identify technicians with name badges/tags.
- Technicians who turn up on time.
- Technicians who clean up after themselves.
“I know these things are self-evident, but I probably didn’t introduce those as quickly as I could have. I didn’t spend enough time in the mindset and expectations of my clients. And when I did, we changed our model,” he said.
Play the long game
Sometimes it’s the sales you don’t make, rather than the ones you do, that can benefit your business. Successful service businesses have one thing in common: they are happy to sacrifice a single sale to secure a customer longer term.
“I had a gentleman in the shop yesterday who drove past four pool shops to get to us. He came to us to get advice because he knows that we don’t bull***t people — and that’s what he was accusing every other pool shop he drove past of,” Freame said.
“I sold him a $205 tablet feeder instead of a $2000 chlorinator, because that was really what was going to work best for him. Simple things like that — looking after your customers and giving them the best advice you can — will get you a long way.”
Despite only making a sale that was a tenth of what he could have made from that customer, Freame understands that he’ll do better from one long-term client than a series of short-term clients.
“We’ve got regular service customers whose pool we’ve been servicing for 20 years. So if I go back and look at how much this one particular customer has spent with me I can see that it is something you can’t knock back,” he said.
“We try not to be salesmen. I know that sounds weird in a shop. But we concentrate on being solution providers as opposed to salesmen,” said Bourke.
“Say if someone goes into [another shop] up the road because their stabiliser levels are low, [the shop] will tell them, ‘You need some stabiliser’. They take advantage of as many sales as they can get.
“As soon as we get to April, we won’t sell any stabiliser. We’ll say, ‘Don’t put any stabiliser in. It’s a waste of time, because you don’t have the ultraviolet light belting down on the pool any more, so you don’t go through it.’
“So we try to talk to people in a way of being helpful, as opposed to trying to get the sale. We try to add value. And sometimes that value is by not adding the sale.”
It might seem counterintuitive, but not selling product to a customer will likely secure their business in the future — they’ll feel you’ve been honest with them, rather than trying to fleece them. This shores up your position as an expert, making them feel confident in their future dealings with you. If they have any problems, they’ll come straight to you, rather than going to someone who has them putting their hand in their pocket every time they seek advice.
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