Plumber Richard Costello of Kent-based MultiPlumb explains why he believes the internet is helping to fight back against cowboy plumbers.
The Internet has revolutionised every industry in the world, including the plumbing trade. Everyone has their own opinion but I believe that the benefits it has bought far outweigh the negatives. I like to think that it has weeded out the industry of cowboy builders and dodgy plumbers.
Benefits for customers
Before the Internet, if one was in need of a plumber there weren't many search options available except for directory books like The Yellow Pages and Thomson Local, or asking friends or family for recommendations.
Nowadays, people don't talk to each other, they just jump on Google and search for a plumber in their local town.
The Internet has made it so much easier to find a reputable plumber local to them thanks to reviews and sites like TrustATrader where real customers can leave real unbiased reviews which people can trust.
Access to the Internet also means that customers have, at least in theory, the ability to do their own research into plumbing problems, or to find out the costs of parts and the cost of labour. Thanks to YouTube, they even have resources to find out exactly how to repair some of the issues that they're having.
The reality, though, is that most people are too busy and, with respect, not competent enough to fix most plumbing issues so they're probably going to call in a professional plumber. The advantage the customer has here is that, provided they have done their research, they can better speak the plumber's language and understand what needs to be done to fix their leaking tap or hot water problem.
This means rogue tradespeople can't 'pull the wool over the customer's eyes' so to speak and 'make up' an issue or overcharge them. The customer is less likely to get ripped off by the plumber for fear of ruining their reputation, as plumbers want to avoid bad reviews at all costs.
Changes for plumbers
In the days before the internet, it was quite common for plumbers to make really good money on plumbing materials, adding big margins onto them because the customer didn't really have the ability to get prices on their own. The plumbing merchants were in on the act too so it was a very big part of a plumber's business plan. The Internet has destroyed this model and it's no longer feasible - plumbers would be foolish to attempt to overcharge a customer for parts.
The Internet means that customers can not only find you, but they can also find your competition. It is very common for a customer to get more than one quote for a job, meaning that plumbers have to be careful not to price themselves out of a job. As a result profit margins have been squeezed but I like to think of this as the free market working itself out.
This means that your pricing structure needs to be more organized because you need to be competitive, though that doesn't mean going in at the cheapest rate and selling yourself short. A plumber can make a really good living out of this trade so always charge what you feel that you're worth. If a customer isn't willing to pay your rates then they're not the customer for you, just make sure that you win more then you lose!
Google Maps has helped me massively in terms of organizing my diary and appointments. When a customer calls and asks me to come round to give them a quote I can run a quick search on my phone and find out exactly where they live and how long it will take for me to get there. Google takes live traffic conditions into consideration, which is amazing. Gone are the days when customers are getting annoyed waiting for me while I was stuck in traffic.
Google organic search, Google Maps search, Google AdWords, Facebook pages, Facebook Ads are just some of the ways to get found on the Internet. If you take the time and market yourself properly, your phone will not stop ringing and you can laser target customers who are specifically looking for your services. 'Bathroom Installation Bexley', for example, is a common search term so if you tailor your content around that the right way then you'll rank high in Google and people will call you.
If you do your job well, you might get the odd mention here or there or even a testimonial but the percentages are quite low. However, if you do a bad job then people will scream and shout about it. With the Internet and social media you simply can't run and hide anymore.
Every plumber out there needs to have an Internet presence of some sort. I find that the ideal mix is a website, Facebook page and a YouTube channel. You can always push things further by having Instagram and Twitter accounts.
The problem then is how do you manage everything? The reality is that you can't so you do need to get outside help. Think of it like your accounts - yes, you can do your own accounts but the time and money spent doing them yourself doesn't make sense so it's better to pay a professional accountant. My advice is to stick to what you're an expert at, plumbing, and let an expert at digital marketing take care of your digital profile.
I do believe that the Internet has helped to somewhat smooth over the general relationships between plumbers and homeowners. The customer is now in an extremely favourable position in that they can pretty much get instant access to material costs and the current market rate of plumbing labour. It's helping to weed out bad installers and bad customers, so it's a level playing field. The plumber can't rip people off anymore, but they have unprecedented marketing access to customers in need of plumbing help.
So, there you have my view on how the Internet has changed the plumbing industry. As a qualified plumber with over 20 years of experience I can only talk about the plumbing industry, but I believe that all of the above points relate to all building trades including electricians, builders and plasterers, for example. If you're in a different trade to me I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on the topic and see if my experiences relate.
Richard Costello, from Dartford in Kent, is the owner of MultiPlumb and has been involved in the plumbing industry installing bathrooms and boiler systems for over 15 years.