You’ve probably seen them: six-wheel box vans with billboard-size ads on the sides, sometimes displaying a blown up picture of a white-toothed smiley-faced middle class woman on the phone, suggesting everything in life is better for her, now that she’s found a disposable-booties-wearing plumbing & HVAC company. Or perhaps you’ve called one of those colorful full-page ads in the Yellow Pages. You know the kind, they make you feel warm and fuzzy, and define everything you thought you wanted to hear. And what about their application of every credit card logo under the sun? Did that reassure you that if your unplanned plumbing emergency caught you short on cash, then you should, without further thought, simply use your plastic? Did the 800-number, blazing red as fire, subliminally suggest: “hotline straight though to the Maytag Man, who sits patiently awaiting to soothe your flustered mind”? Welcome to the world of Flat Rate plumbing and HVAC advertising!
I bet there’s something you don’t know, unless, of course, you did hire one of these companies – they charge between $125 and $400 an hour. If you didn’t know they charged that rate, you are not to be ridiculed for your ignorance, as that rate is disguised in the sell price of every part that they say (wink) you need.
Well, I am going to shed some light on the dark magic behind the M.O. of the Flat Rate model, then maybe you won’t go into cardiac arrest from sticker shock should you find yourself paying one of these companies after your next plumbing or HVAC emergency.
Among the self-employed in the HVAC and plumbing trades are those who have long struggled to eek out a decent living, myself among them. Traditionally, we’ve charged an hourly rate, plus a modest mark-up on materials. As a service technician for two 2nd generation fuel companies – Tenney Fuels, and Ferns Energy Centers – in the early ’80s, I was paid $3.75 per hour to start, ten cents above minimum wage. Those companies charged $25 per hour and made a profit on parts, furnaces, burners and boilers, and the sale of fuel oil, the latter bringing in the lion’s share. Then, in 1983, Tenney sold out to a hot shot “petroleum marketer” and my pay was raised to $6.90 an hour. In parallel, the new fuel oil conglomerate raised Tenney’s rates, and started charging the customer for everything from pipe thread compound, and a few sprays of parts cleaner in a can, to speedy dry (kitty litter) to absorb oil we spilled on the floor. It didn’t matter that I spit-cleaned the burner electrode porcelains, the customer still was charged for noxious spray cleaner. The name of the game changed from, service and installation work of the utmost quality (at a fair price), to slap-it-in-as-fast-as-you-can, and maximize profit in every conceivable way, irrespective of quality. The new company even brought in technicians already trained on their new method at other branches, to show our service department how it would now be done. It was a shock to me, a green horn, as every traditional practice bestowed upon me over the previous 2 years was clearly and painfully on its way out. The shock on the faces of the customers, some who had been with the company since its inception, was a poignant experience for them and me. Steadily through the 1980s and ’90s, the endangered Old School slid closer to ultimate extinction, along with the family-run feel that we were all used to. The Big Boys made their entrance with slick, grand, unimaginative signage, sporting corporate logos that left us – the employees and the customers – feeling like an invasion was underway.
In 1988, I’d nearly had it with the new model that I felt imprisoned by, and resorted to recanting positive affirmations I placed on my service van console – anything to affect peace of mind so I could make it through another soul-wrenching day working for The Man. By this time I was employed by a plumbing contractor who seemed to embody the New School philosophy of taking the customer for all they were worth. Though I had been in the trade for 8 years, a co-worker and junior technician – experience-wise – set out to “show me the ropes” my first day on the job. By noon he’d managed to bill for 8 hours, per man, charging each customer for the time it would hypothetically take to travel to their home and back to the shop. It didn’t matter if 3 of the customers lived on the same street, they still got charged the full hour round trip, as if they were the only service call out their way that day. During the course of our rounds, the profit-motivated technician charged one customer – my dentist – for a light bulb in the furnace room that he bumped his head on and broke. While there, he only wiped the dust from the furnace. The bill came to over $300. Next, he charged a customer for an ignition transformer that was not defective. Then, he charged a 93 year-old woman in a mobile home $285 dollars for wiping the dust from her furnace, and a new oil burner nozzle, despite the woman’s plea that she could barely manage on her deceased husband’s Social Security check. (A month later, when the woman called with a no-heat emergency, she got me, the on-call technician. I went to her house, after normal business hours, and found that the burner master control had failed, so I replaced it…free of charge, as recompense for the bath the technician gave her months earlier. I’d lied on my report, stating that call was a non-chargeable callback due to improperly adjusted electrodes.)
I was paid piecework for the exact time I billed a customer. Otherwise, if I didn’t charge them for, say, a trip to the supply house for parts, or travel to their home and back, or for completing the day’s paperwork, I didn’t get paid for that time. I thought the company owner was a criminal for making his living the way he did, and nostalgically pined for the early days at Tenney and Ferns – honest and ethical companies. I felt the present company not only ripped off (in many ways, not fully explainable in the context of this writing) the customer, but also ripped off me, the employee, by illegally docking my pay for not filling out the daily paperwork correctly.
The last straw for me was when the company charged Kay O’Brien, an elderly woman of 84, for several service calls by a plumber-employee who had no knowledge of oil burners. When I was finally sent to straighten out the original problem, and the additional ones he managed to create with a bountiful helping of sheer ignorance, I suggested that she call the main office and explain (complain). The owner’s daughter (the company bookkeeper) told her to “pay the f-ing bill, or we will take you to court!” This unbelievably disturbing and aggressive lack of gratitude upset me as much as it did Kay, and profoundly affected my attitude, unlike anything I’d felt working for any prior company. I withdrew from participation in company meetings and events and, ultimately, I was fired. The boss man said I “wasn’t a team player”, and I agreed, at least not on his team, which lead me down the solitary road of self-employment…and hard knocks. Best refrigeration vacuum pumps