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Can Consultants be Smarter than a Plumber?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011   (1 Comments)
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Can Consultants be Smarter than a Plumber?

By Christopher Hitch, Ph.D., CMC

Recently, I had to have a new toilet installed. When I called our plumber’s office, his office assistant asked me some diagnostic questions, and then asked me to snap a picture of the toilet and email it to her.

That evening, I started thinking through the steps I went through to hire our plumber. There are many plumbers from which to choose. What made me choose this plumber?

Plumbers solve the same type of problem-leaky pipes, water heaters, or toilets. So, what makes one plumber different? While he was installing my new toilet, Paul (my plumber) talked excitedly about differences in good and marginal toilets. He waxed eloquent on different seals and why copper and plastic pipes are used in different parts of the house. He lets me know things I should start being aware of with my "house of a certain age."

After he installed the new toilet, I asked Paul why his plumbing company was so successful. He noted that standardization and differentiation were key parts of his growth strategy. He set up some systems that standardized some elements of his business:

  • how his receptionist greets people on the phone,
  • how she asks the diagnostic questions, including asking the client to take a picture with their phone and emailing it to them,
  • giving the customer a specific time that the plumber comes out,
  • and calling the plumbers hourly so she can call the next client and give them an update on any time changes.

He then differentiates on five or six specific elements his team does well, customers value, and he can teach his associates.Paul suggests that these differences are "not additive, but multiplicative". He knows that he has to find ways to make potential customers choose him over other chain and franchise plumbers. He suggests that if he can be different (and, in the eyes of his clients, better), in at least five ways then any potential competitor, he will likely be the plumber of choice. He says he teaches these skills to his 5 associates. He also ensures that each plumber carries a can of expensive air freshener with them every day. At the end of the plumbing job, the plumber sprays a bit of air freshener, puts the can on the table while he is tallying up the bill and gives the invoice to the customer.

Additionally, every quarter, he calls up 25% of his clients from that quarter and asks them one thing his team could have done better to make it better for them. He says, "No plumber I know of calls customers two weeks after the job". When he calls them, they seem astounded that he actually CARES.

If I think through my issues in calling a plumber and instead, think as a client who might use a management consultant, the challenges and issues are similar. We, as management consultants, have a number of parallels between us and plumbers. I learned some lessons from Paul. Yeah, I want to be smarter than a plumber. Do you?

Chris Hitch serves as Program Director at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, focusing on leadership development, transitions, and accelerating the success of newly promoted senior leaders. At Kenan-Flagler, Chris has worked with over 700 flag officers, SES, and other senior leaders in the federal government. He has been a frequent speaker at state and national conferences on leadership and management topics, focusing on how to translate research into practical tools for executives, and is the author of two books: Conversations with NC Principals, where all proceeds go to a North Carolina orphanage, and Executive Skills for Busy School Leaders.

Comments...

Stephen D. Kirkland CMC says...
Posted Monday, October 03, 2011
Excellent! Thanks!

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