In the first of our series of guest blogs from business experts, we speak to Charlie Mullins OBE and founder of Pimlico Plumbers as he shares his thoughts on how striving for exemplary customer service can set you apart from the herd.
Pimlico is London’s largest independent plumbing and service company, with a workforce of over 200,160 vehicles and a £20 million turnover. Charlie regularly appears on national TV, radio and press and his company boasts a star-studded clientèle that includes Simon Cowell, Dame Helen Mirren, Joanna Lumley, Joan Collins, Keira Knightly, Daniel Craig, Richard Branson and various others.
Guest post by Charlie Mullins OBE and founder of Pimlico Plumbers
So often companies put a huge amount of time and money into winning new customers, but just as often what comes next lets them down, and that’s just bonkers! Regardless of whether you have just won a large contract, or convinced a new customer to try out a small sample of what you have to offer, be under no illusion, this is not the end of the sales process! You are now on a job interview; you have got through the initial screening process and it’s now up to you to convince your customer to keep you on, by coming back again and again, and becoming your loyal customer. And in my more than 35 years in business I have discovered only one way of converting that opportunity, and that’s by winning over your new customers’ hearts and minds with exemplary customer service.
It’s easy to see how this situation can develop. People generally go into business to offer customers something for which there is a demand, and that they can provide on a commercial basis. I served my time as an apprentice plumber and heating engineer, and when I came out of my apprenticeship I dived straight in to set up my own business. During my time as an apprentice I’d like to think I picked up some pretty useful skills that meant, as I tell all my young apprentices, that I would never be out of work while I could still lift a spanner. But it turns out that the most important thing I picked up during my apprenticeship was the understanding that people didn’t just want their toilet unblocked, what they really wanted was a great service that fitted in with their lives.
So, what I did, that many of my contemporaries didn’t, was I listened to all the things customers said was wrong with the service they were currently receiving, and set out to give them what they were asking for. To me that seemed like just common sense, but it turned out that not only is common sense not that common, but what I was doing without recognising it, was offering better ‘customer service’ than the other plumbers. Unsurprisingly, my business grew and grew, and most of those other blokes stayed as one man bands. Many of them were every bit as good at plumbing as me, but the customer service let them down and their businesses didn’t grow.
What was it that I did? Mostly the same as we do these days at Pimlico Plumbers. I wanted to work for good clients and one way to do that was to not look like a dirty tramp, so having me working in their nice houses wasn’t seen as an unpleasant necessity. Back then I had a second hand van, but I made sure it was always in good condition and clean, and the other thing that helped me stand out was I turned up on time, when I said I would, and I was completely transparent about how much I was charging from the beginning of a job. I also told my customers that if they had an emergency to call me up and I’d come and help them out. In the early 1970s this kind of customer service was unheard of in the plumbing industry, and the work kept on coming.
Today I’m managing director of Pimlico Plumbers; we turn over more than £30 million a year, and the customer service ethos is just the same, the only difference is that to keep all of our thousands of customers satisfied throughout the year – and that’s more than 150,000 jobs – I need to make sure everyone at Pimlico is drinking from the same teapot. These days the approach is a lot more strategic; I know for instance how much it costs me on average to win a new customer, and how much potential business can be lost if we ever perform below our customers’ expectations. Back in the day there was only me, and I was my own harshest critic, but with 300 engineers on the road 24/7 I have a professional customer services department whose role it is to train staff and monitor standards. Of course as a reasonably sized SME we need more than just front line customer service too, and so another challenge is imprinting the same ethos into the DNA of all of our departments, from HR to PR and accounts to the frontline staff in the Pimlico call centre.
For me I think winning over the hearts and minds of customers is the hardest part of running a business, and yet it’s the most important. Sure your product or service has to be good, and you need to bring in new business to grow your operation, but if you can’t hang on to it you are wasting your time, and like I said that’s just bonkers!
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