Learn how can-do small-business owners turn happy customers into their biggest cheerleaders.


Everyone has car problems from time to time. And I’ve had a variety of nagging issues recently, probably related to my pattern of trying to keep vehicles on the road as long as possible. I forget how much time has passed and here I sit with cars reaching their teen years and nearing 200,000 miles on the odometer.

A byproduct of driving older cars is becoming real familiar with my mechanic. Unfortunately, it seems like lately I’ve visited Craig and his wife, Diane, who works the counter at their shop, more often than the monthly visits to my friendly barber (or should I say hair stylist?), Lisa.

Don’t get me wrong; Craig and Diane are pleasant enough folks. But like I hope it goes with the doctor and dentist, I’d rather keep in touch with them about once a year to maintain my fiscal well-being.

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Loving Local Businesses

I know you don’t care about the failing starter on my SUV, but I wanted to write about Craig and Diane because their actions tell us something about small businesses developing lifelong customer relationships — maybe even multigenerational customer relationships, something especially helpful for onsite installers who don’t necessarily get a lot of repeat business.

In my many trips to the garage, Craig and Diane routinely show why people love to deal with a local family-run business. They are small enough to know and care about their customers. They are quick to react to emergencies by juggling the day-to-day workload. They want the satisfaction of their customers as much, if not more, than their money.

One recent example of their great service jumps out at me. A few weeks ago I called to set an appointment to fix a nagging ignition problem. Craig assessed the situation and called me back.
“You could bring it in tomorrow and we could fix the problem for $200 to $300,” he said. “But I have a better idea. I’ll give you the name of a locksmith and he could probably rebuild the ignition for $75. And he’ll come right to your house.”

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Sure enough, Brian the locksmith came out and fixed my problem, but for only $50. He was another honest small-business owner and a Desert Storm veteran to boot, who stood behind his work, assuring me that if I had more problems, he would come back and credit me the $50 toward any repairs.

Like the garage owners, Brian was challenged and enthusiastic about finding the best and least-expensive solution to my problem. His demeanor and his clean van with all the tools and technology necessary to handle complex problems showed me that Brian is turning the locksmithing trade into a bona fide profession.

Set the Example

In the afterglow of these great customer service experiences, I’d like to reflect on a few ways installers can show their priority is helping homeowners and promoting a clean environment. If you are already doing these things, good for you. You’re helping build the image of the onsite wastewater industry.

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Answer questions — for as long as it takes.

Education is a huge part of quality customer service. The options for handling onsite wastewater are more complicated than ever. So sitting down with customers, discussing their needs and the solutions you can provide, is critically important. Don’t assume someone shopping for a new or replacement system is going to understand industry terminology or the depth and breadth of local regulations you must follow. Give them enough information to make sure they are comfortable with a major home improvement decision. When you think they understand your proposal, ask them to make sure.

Remember they’re people, not open wallets.

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To some of your customers, money is no object. No matter how high the cost of the system you’re proposing, some customers are spending more on the bathroom fixtures for their new house. But most homeowners are budget-conscious and looking to save money whenever they can. Heck, I’m sure you’re the same way when it comes to buying an excavator or tools for your crews. Ask customers about their expectations and do whatever you can to come up with the most effective solution for the money. Running a small business is all about making money to support your family and your workers’ families. But you need to strike a balance between profits and the needs of your customers.

Provide service after the sale.

With the complexity of new onsite technologies, we’re quickly moving away from the “set it and forget it” mentality of the gravity systems of yesterday. Through operations and maintenance, you will build more long-term and regular customer interactions. Homeowners will become accustomed to paying for the added convenience of routine system care and we all need to embrace that new service norm. Don’t wait for them to ask you to clean filters or check the control panel. Offer those services up front, before they sign the contract to install the system. Your reputation as a contractor depends on new advanced systems and components working properly for the long term. When a customer calls with a problem, fix it now and talk about their maintenance needs later.

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Consider every customer a referral generator.

Remember the problem customer who you couldn’t satisfy no matter how hard you tried? Your relationship reached a tipping point where you wish they never contacted you in the first place. As bad as things got on that job, you had to resist the urge to come down hard on them. A customer who’s had a negative experience can take future work away from you by complaining to friends, relatives and neighbors. The same is certainly true of a customer who’s had a good experience with you. A customer who considers you a friend and advocate for their onsite system will spread a positive message that will land you more customers in the future.

Show compassion in an emergency.

When a panicked customer calls, put yourself in their situation and think about how you’d like to be treated. Like my mechanic Craig drops everything and responds when someone’s car won’t start on a cold winter morning, you must act quickly to a call about a failing septic system. A great sense of helplessness and vulnerability accompanies an onsite crisis, and the way you react may build amazing loyalty or great resentment from the customer. They are relying on you as an industry expert. Save the day and they’ll be singing your praises to friends and neighbors, who will then call you when they have a problem.

Forward Thinking

While he was working hard to diagnose my ignition problem, something Brian said really stuck with me. His goal was to solve my problem as efficiently as possible without charging me for parts and labor that were unnecessary. My budget was more important than his bottom line. But he knows that doing his best for me will ultimately help his business. His attitude will cultivate more customers in the long run.

Do you have lessons to share about making customers for life? Send them to me at editor@onsiteinstaller.com and I’ll share them right here.


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