Susan Frew knows a thing or two about maintaining top-notch customer service.
Frew, co-owner and president of Sunshine Plumbing, Heating & Air in Denver, Colo., has built the company’s reputation on delivering white-glove service to customers.Frew owns the company with her husband, William, a master plumber and a NATE-certified HVAC technician.
The company started with one truck in 2012 and grew by 535 percent within its first year. Now, Sunshine is exactly the size Frew wants it to be.
“We have 10 trucks,” Frew says. “And we like it that way. We have no desire to be one of the 30-, 40-, 50-truck operations. We like where we are. And we have a great team, a great reputation.”
Frew refers to Sunshine as a boutique company—small, classy, and offering great service.
Frew and her husband make no secret about their intention to retire in the next four to five years, and they’re employing strategies to make their business as sellable and as profitable as possible while keeping customers highly satisfied.
“If we were to get bigger now, we would need to bring in some additional overhead—some different layers of management, which we don’t have now,” Frew says. “We want to be as profitable as we possibly can and have a team that’s happy and ready to move along to another owner or become employee-owned.”
Setting high standards through stellar customer service
Frew uses her expertise to set Sunshine apart with high-end customer service.
Before owning Sunshine Plumbing, Heating & Air, she worked as a certified and licensed business coach for 10 years, an international general manager with AT&T Wireless, an ESPN radio host, and a trainer for the Small Business Administration.
As a business coach, she advised about 150 companies in 17 different trades.
“I've always pushed my clients when I was coaching—make yourself known for your customer service, whatever you can do that's unique and different to set yourself apart,” Frew says.
Frew calls that the “pufferfish effect.”
“To make yourself look bigger than you really are, you need to create a great reputation for yourself,” she says. “Nothing is better than creating a reputation based on outstanding customer service.”
An award-winning, woman-owned company
After Frew met her husband, who worked as a one-man plumbing-heating and solar thermal expert, Sunshine Plumbing, Heating & Air was born. Because Frew owns 51 percent, the business is recognized as a woman-owned company.
Sunshine Plumbing, Heating & Air has won many awards and in 2019 was named to the Inc Magazine 5000 list and best workplaces.
Frew still serves as a professional speaker and business growth expert, speaking on a range of subjects including customer service, millennial workers, reviews and female customers. She’s appeared on the TEDx stage to discuss the workforce shortage in skilled trades, and she’s scheduled to speak this fall at the ServiceTitan Pantheon conference.
Susan Frew’s rules for success in the trades
1. Follow your company’s core values.Follow your company’s core values.
One of Sunshine’s core values is to give 100 percent every time, every day.
“We do our total best every single day,” Frew says. “And I think that's all you can do, is to bring your ‘A’ game every single day.”
Another value—which technicians remember most—is the customer is not always right.
“Although we are great customer service advocates here, we also believe in defending our technicians, and we think it's really important to hear their side of the story,” she says.
The Sunshine staff also believes in growth and expansion, always looking for new technology and other ways to move the needle, Frew says.
It’s key for companies to stick to their core principles.
When Sunshine moved its shop last year in what turned out to be a lengthy process, the company took its eye off the ball with customer service, Frew admits.
“We were like, ‘OK, guys, today we're starting new again,’” Frew says. “We need to get back to what made us awesome in the first place. These are our things. We have our core values listed in our shop—they're not just for wall decoration. They are real.”
2. Use your strengths and hire a quality workforce
Frew and her husband stay in their lanes—he shines in the field, she in the office.
“That is really key, playing to your strengths and doing things that you enjoy,” Frew says. “I love what I do and he loves what he does.”
Frew’s husband, who has been published 11 times for his boiler work, is happiest working in the field, managing technicians and relating to customers.
Frew naturally gravitates toward sales, marketing and customer service. She focuses on strategy, marketing initiatives and growth of the company, performs final interviews and creates annual and quarterly plans.
It’s important to create job descriptions when working with family members, and to hire trusted employees.
“It’s hard to do the other things if you are in the field, so as your company grows, you need to find where that break-even point is, where you can start hiring people to help you with the things that aren't your strengths,” Frew advises.
3. Find out what customers want.
Frew interviewed women to find out what they want in a contractor, and she openly shares the feedback:
Be on time, or let the customer know about any delays.
Do a background check on your technicians and communicate with the customer. Sunshine’s customers appreciate receiving a photo, bio and background of the technician through ServiceTitan, so they know who’s coming to their house and when they’re expected to arrive.
Prioritize repairs for the customer. If a technician finds 10 things wrong during a plumbing inspection, customers want to know what needs to be fixed right away, what can wait, and what is optional.
Don’t talk down to customers and get to the point without long technical speak.
Don’t ever ask, "Do you need to discuss this with your husband?” Frew says.
Be kind and respectful. Don’t park the truck in the driveway because it could leak. Put on shoe covers. Make sure your tech brings a vacuum and cleans up after the job.
4. Improve your business through customer service.
Sunshine Plumbing, Heating & Air follows up every job with a personal phone call, as well as a survey through ServiceTitan.
“Deliver really awesome customer service and make sure your reviews are solid,” Frew advises. “That's how we grew our business. We started getting Angie's List reviews, and then we would send a thank you card and brownies to almost every single customer.
“We made no money the first year, but we were able to really garner that database of customers.”
Businesses who receive bad reviews need to fix them.
“First of all, respond to them and don’t do it again,” Frew says.
Thank the customer for pointing out the error, apologize for the mistake, and use it as a good training opportunity, Frew says.
“Just be honest and say, ‘You know what? We screwed up, I own it. I'm sorry, let's move forward,’" she says.
It’s also important to not let details slide, such as wearing shoe covers.
“It's just a matter of refreshing everyone all the time and keeping it relevant,” she says.
Other tips, tricks and bits of wisdom
On making your HVAC business sellable …
Get your business evaluated so you can be ready to sell it when the opportunity arises. Some CPAs and business brokerage firms do evaluations, but every two years Frew uses the national company RainCatcher to evaluate Sunshine’s status and what needs to happen to get to where they want it to be. “You need to know what your company is worth,” Frew says.
Compile a solid customer database. Frew’s company started using ServiceTitan in 2014 and has captured every customer’s email address since then.“That makes us incredibly powerful,” Frew says. “Now we don't have to spend as much money on marketing because we have that giant customer database.” Sunshine Plumbing, Heating & Air has looked at buying other businesses over the years, but Frew says home service companies with no customer database are not worth buying.
Build a company reputation so your company earns respect for its actions, not just its name. “When you try to sell, then people are like, ‘Oh, well, John Smith isn't there anymore, I'm going to find someone else.’ The new owners aren't going to have as much stickiness if you don't set yourself up properly,” Frew says.
On diversifying for steady business …
Certain businesses, such as HVAC, often experience seasonal dips. “We don't want to be 100 percent commercial, but we want to have enough commercial accounts that will keep us busy throughout the year,” Frew says. The company also offers air quality products and humidifiers.
On being out of the office …
Since Frew does frequent speaking engagements that keep her out of the office, she knows the importance of checks and balances.
“If you're going to have an inside bookkeeper, you also need an outside accountant to look in on the inside bookkeeper,” Frew says. “You need to have ability to delegate effectively. So that means really good job descriptions, holding people accountable.”
Frew can log on to ServiceTitan and other programs to see what is going on when she’s not there, and the company’s department heads turn in daily status reports of key performance indicators. She also stresses the importance of collecting your own mail, even if it means having it sent to your house.
On creating a reputation in the industry …
Frew is past president and current legislative chair of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors of Colorado and is on the board of directors of the North Metro Chamber of Commerce.
“I just get involved so I can learn, and then you’re able to create a reputation that you know what you're talking about,” Frew says. “I can't install plumbing but I can speak to you about it. And I can let you know in theory exactly how it works. I know what parts are higher-end, what are lower-end. Same thing with HVAC.
“Why should you use this brand over that brand, how do you use this product over that product? I've just made myself really knowledgeable and I've also gotten really involved in the industry.”
On women considering a career in the trades …
A massive worker shortage, as well as the advent of technology and smart homes, creates new opportunities for women in the trades, Frew says. A skilled tradesperson can find wealth and job security in HVAC, plumbing, electrical and more.
“There are so many different things,” Frew says. “I just encourage people to really take a look at what opportunities there are in our industries now.”
On giving back to the community …
Frew’s company routinely gives back to the community. One month, the company sponsored a sock drive for the homeless and customers who gave a new pair of socks received a $50 discount on their bill. Company employees also serve at the local food bank each quarter.
“That’s something our community loves,” Frew says. “We always try to do things like that.”
The trade industry plays a big part in serving the needs of the community.
“I really believe that we help people,” Frew says. “In the trades, what would you do without it? … We are the foundation of our country. Everything we see, think and do every day is built by the trades.”
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