What brought Eric Falconer, operations manager at Dutton Plumbing in Simi Valley, Calif., to the plumbing industry was, in part, junk food.
His adventure with Dutton Plumbing started when he was 19, attracted by working with computers, an $8-per-hour pay rate and chili cheese fries, on the boss, every Saturday. At the time, he was in college.
“I think I went to college because that's what I was supposed to do,” he says. “That comes with our parents setting the expectation that you have to go to college. That's what I was going there for, and went to it for a long time with no real purpose.
“I wasted a lot of time and money doing that.”
But college, and chasing that geography degree, did teach him two important things—how to use Microsoft Excel, and how to use data from Dutton Plumbing to improve the business.
“I would always try and do my projects with data from work,” Falconer says. “It was all about spatial analysis. I would take our customer database and try and figure out what type of person likes to buy our services. Then, (I’d try to) find marketing databases where you can market to those people.
“It was this really cool business analytical type of thing that I could get into."
He also got into long conversations with Eric Dutton, the owner of Dutton Plumbing. They’d talk about things like plumbing and motorcycles—and about building a business. Dutton became a mentor, and at one point Falconer shared with Dutton that he didn’t think college was for him.
Dutton told him he should become a tradesman, get a job that would allow him to support his family and make good money. At Dutton’s then-small shop, that was the path.
“He's like, ‘You’ve got to be a plumber,’” Falconer says. “I went home and I told my mom, ‘Mom, I'm going to drop out of college and I'm going to become a plumber.’
“I have never ever disappointed my mother more than in that moment. She cried. She literally cried. To this day she'll occasionally bring it up and remind me of how disappointing it was.”
Key to any plumbing business: Don’t let anyone’s perception be your reality
Dutton saw plumbing as a solid, stable career. Falconer’s mother, at the time, saw it as a disappointment.
“She saw the trade a certain way, Eric Dutton saw the trade a certain way,” Falconer says. “We've all come to learn that there's so much more to this industry than most people realize.”
Falconer saw that potential, even if he didn’t yet fully understand it.
And a trip to a local trade show taught Falconer something about his mother’s perception of plumbers. He saw the event as a chance to network and meet others locally who were in the trades.
What he saw wasn’t what he expected.
“I brought my fanciest Dutton shirt and had it all pressed and ironed and polished my shoes. I was so excited,” he says. “I go to this event and I'm walking around. I'm like, man, there are some sketchy looking people here. What is going on with this?”
Dutton’s plumbers had been required to wear uniforms and look nice, so the trade show altered Falconer’s view.
“It was crazy,” he says. “I come to find out the plumbing industry doesn't have the best reputation. It's an earned reputation.”
Falconer, though, wasn’t about to let that perception become Dutton’s reality. And a slogan was born: ‘The plumber you’d send to your Mom’s house.”
“Imagine if you needed to refer someone, if you needed (a plumber) to send to your mom's house,” Falconer says. “You would send us because it's going to give her a good experience. The job's going to get done right. They're just nice guys.”
The slogan was born there, but it’s more than a motto, Falconer says. It’s the company’s guiding principle.
“If a technician or one of the service managers comes to me and says we've got this (angry) customer, what should I do, I just go back to, if it was my mom's house, what would you do?
“They're like, ‘OK, got it. I know what to do.’ It sets the bar really high. It forces us to keep working hard, keep pushing at it, not to settle.”
Plumbing industry, and the trades, offer big opportunities
Falconer doesn’t settle. He did eventually get his plumbing licence from the California Contractors Board. He has helped build Dutton Plumbing from a small shop into a huge business with 80 employees.
And he has a message for recent high school graduates who don’t know if college is for them, or those thinking about a career change: Give the trades a chance.
“It boggles my mind what this industry is capable of providing and the opportunity that's within it,” he says. “When I was just answering the phones or dispatching, I thought, ‘I'm going to be an office manager someday.’ I reached that and I thought I was at the pinnacle, come to realize there's a whole other scale of the business that's possible.”
At that point, he thought running a large shop was the pinnacle. Nope.
“As soon as I got there, I was like, Oh my gosh, I haven't even scratched the surface. Multiple units, multiple trades, multiple locations. Even beyond that, there's so much opportunity within this. That's the biggest thing.”
But that geography degree? He’s one class short.
“My mom is very disappointed about all of that,” he says.
But there are things that surely can’t disappoint her now. Her son runs the company with the plumbers he wouldn’t mind sending to her house. He turned $8 an hour into managing a $12.5 million business with 75 employees.
And chili cheese fries.
His mom can’t be too disappointed about that.
Eric Falconer’s guiding principles for success in the trades
1. Hit the field to get an understanding beyond data.
No matter what point you reach in your career, Falconer says, don’t forget to be present in the field.
“I make it a point to go out into the field every week, spend a couple of hours out there, mostly just visiting job sites and touching base with the guys,” he says. “Having started from the office, I have a tendency to try and run the business from a spreadsheet, or ServiceTitan, as it were.”
That can give you a false sense of where the business is heading, he says.
“You get this impression because you have more data and more analytics that you understand what's going on, and that couldn't be further from the truth,” Falconer says.
Talking to the technicians in the field usually yielded a better explanation of struggles, and better understanding.
“I always bring it back to this idea: The place where the value is created and the work is done is out in the field for our business. Just staying present to that I think is really important.”
2. Don’t think you’re the secret sauce.
Animosity between those in the field and those in the office? “A lot of it,” Falconer says, “goes back to, who is creating the value in the business?”
If you’re the boss, you have to recognize it’s not always you. That undervalues the technicians in the field and the CSRs who answer the phones. That’s where the primary customer interaction occurs.
“The most time spent with the customer is going to be the biggest transfer of value,” Falconer says. “It's really easy, I think, especially sitting behind my computer, I'm creating the value in this business and not all of these technicians who are doing equally mentally challenging job and definitely physically more challenging job.
“People think they're the secret sauce in the business and they start looking at other people like, ‘I'm better than you,’ or ‘I'm creating more than you.’
“Remember that the technicians are the backbone of our industry and our company.”
3. Make sure empathy and reassurance are a big part of your gameplan
Delivering empathy goes a long way toward creating an amazing customer experience. But it’s something Falconer says he knows was a weakness for him, and that there are others like him.
That’s why he has developed a script for CSRs in the trades that builds in empathy, though, and says he’s practiced enough to be good at it now.
“I think it all starts with really being intentional with understanding the person that's calling in to you, they're having a bad day,” Falconer says. “A lot of times, the first thing that we do is we start trying to collect information.”
That, he says, is a problem. To express more empathy, he goes back to the things he learned by taking incoming calls himself. Some techniques he uses:
Saying, “I'm sorry you're having to deal with that. It's got to be really frustrating.’”
Using simple phrases such as “Oh my gosh,” or “ah,” or repeating the problem back to the customer, to show you’re listening.
If empathy doesn’t come naturally, the script helps. “I think it starts by faking it,” Falconer says. “Fake it until you become it. It will start to be real the more you do it.”
But empathy, he says, is not enough.
“Make sure they know that they've called somebody that can fix the problem,” he says. “People all the time get this experience of having somebody out to their house who can't actually fix the problem.”
Customers need to know they have called the right place.
“We're here to exceed all of our customers’ expectations and blow them away,” Falconer says. “Empathy is one of the tools for that. We're just tying it all together.”
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