Thursday, January 27, 2011

Branding your Plumber

I am for the little guy. I really am. It's the reason I love the "buy local" movement, independent publishers, artisan brewers. It's the reason I use MTN. Okay, they're not so little, but they are the younger brother; the upstart, the second-to-market. So while I spend my days thinking about how to craft powerful brands for clients, part of me always loves when people choose not to buy brands. When they hand-make something. Or buy from a friend.

But I challenge anyone out there to be for the little guy when it comes to plumbing. Over the past few days I have had experiences that would have me all over Hello Peter if there were organisations behind them to bitch about. First off, my geyser went cold. Annoying, but these things happen. I called a plumber - who my flatmate randomly found in the Yellow Pages. He arrived, was very sweet, spent the afternoon up in my roof and left. He billed me nearly a grand, but I appreciate that there were parts he needed to buy. But how, exactly, did he get to that figure? He seemed to make it up on the spot when I asked what I owed him.

Skip to 30 hours later. I'm in bed, reading. My neighbour phones me to tell me my geyser has burst. I run through to my bathroom and see boiling hot water pouring through the ceiling. I run around like a headless chicken for a bit, decide the wisest thing to do is to phone my mother, 980kms away, and fight with her about where the water main is. It turns out, it's in my downstairs neighbour's garden UNDER A DECK. We had to unscrew all the decking and remove the planks to be able to turn off the water.

So by this point I have realised two things:
1) the previous owner was a stupid tit (but good with his hands)
2) Plumber A had no idea what he was doing.

Because of point 2 above, I called Plumber B (yes, sourced from the Yellow Pages). Plumber B tells me that the thermostat was broken (the one that Plumber A had installed the day before) and replaces the valve that blew. When I asked what I owe he replied, off the top of his head, "seven-hundred." Then he thought about that for a bit and said "that sounds a bit cheap. It was R1000." Clearly by then I looked more baffled by the process than horrified by the price yet (which I was, but my facial expressions can only do one thing at a time) so he added, for good measure "minus VAT."

And that's not it. He then proceeded to give me a speech about how my geyser is old and is going to blow again soon. Why doesn't he replace it now? I ask. He doesn't recommend it. And that judgement was given with the sage finality that I should just say thank you and move on with my life. He looked Anna Wintour-esque when I insisted, "but why don't you recommend it?" "The insurance won't pay" He told me. "Come to think of it, it was all very badly installed in the beginning. I doubt that it's SABS approved. The insurance probably won't pay even when it does blow."

It was then that I decided I hate plumbers. Each and every one (and I've spent my whole life arguing against generalisations). And in plumbing, I hate the little guy. Because if there were a big branded company, you would know who you are going to get. You would have a sense of who to trust and who is no good. Or at least where to look. There would be professionalism, and some transparency about billing. There would be a process to deal with my dissatisfaction. And, most importantly, I would be able to smear their name if they disappointed me so wildly. But there is no mass revolt I can launch against these plumbers, because no one knows who they are anyway, and no one thinks to asks their friends for advice when they need a plumber. So their reputation is protected by their insignificance and I am left writing an angry diatribe, with a geyser that's probably going to burst again, while they drink Mojitos on my money.