Howard remembers well the moment he realised he could create something of substance in the pluming trade.
When his family ordered a new cooker, there was an option to have it installed on delivery. A little bit of sleuth work revealed that the retailer had a subcontractor doing the installations – a way in, Howard thought.
From his school toilet he called up the subcontractor on a contraband mobile phone and pitched a fictional team of fitters who would be able to do the job for them instead. Still a 15 year-old child, his father then had to back up the claim in a meeting – after a quick briefing from his son of course.
Winning all of the local installations for their area, the father and son team had an in and pretty soon Howard Jr. was on the phone cold calling to get additional contracts.
Coming back to how little the space has changed since, Howard does not believe this fits in with how society has adapted as a whole. “Customers expectations have changed. When I was 16 and someone called up on a Thursday with a boiler breakdown and we said we can get out on Tuesday, they were alright with that,” he remembered.
“That’s not acceptable any more though. But as there is a skills shortage in the plumbing space, it is still populated by the older types. With the likes of Tesco and Asda open 24 hours, customers want to know why merchants are not. It is stuck in the 1980s or 1990s, and that is where we fit in – trying to push the heating and building history into the modern era.”
There are currently 30,000 plumbing businesses in the UK, with the combined plumbing, heating and air conditioning sector now worth £13bn a year. With the industry employing in excess of 120,000 people in the UK, there is a large skills shortage despite those at the top of the trade able to earn £100,000 a year.
Howard’s business, C&J Heating & Plumbing, began life in 2004 and now has a team of 50 with contracts ranging from The AA to The Caravan and Camping Club. With turnover expected to be £3m a year, he has plans for that to be £4m by 2016.
His passion for the industry, he said, stems from the desire to work for himself, not being involved in a 9-5 profession and the job satisfaction that comes from helping out customers.
Howard still feels that people buy from people, which has led how he’s gone about securing new contracts for his business. “Given the opportunity to meet someone face-to-face, they see my passion and ambition and I can convince them to buy from us,” he added.
Even if a lead could only give Howard one or two jobs, he saw it more about where that could end up in the future. Making sure they were always made to feel important, his reputation grew and growth became easier.
The cold calling that dominated the company’s early years of operation “scared the life” out of him. He began by targeting housing associations and has some simple advice for anyone considering the customer acquisition technique. “After you’ve done the first one and you’ve been hung up on, you just have to know that someone is going to say yes,” he explained.
“But I genuinely believe you can’t steal work off someone else as if they’re happy they won’t be interested.”
He is firm in his declaration that you should never call anyone not knowing what they do. For housing associations, he found out what kind of tenants it had, and the number of properties held. If it had 10,000 units, he knew that wasn’t for him as the target was more like 1,000.
Unsurprisingly, and in line with his quest to “disrupt” the plumbing trade, Howard sees technology as being a big enabler. Currently in development, and in association with Homeserve Alliance, is a video call service which, in real time, allows customers to engage with an engineer to find a quick and real “soft fix” to a problem. Believing others in the sector are slow to adapt and fill a gap in the market for these kind of services, C&J Heating & Plumbing is hoping to do just that.
Modernisations such as this should do away with classic lines such as “I don’t have that part with me today”, as an initial diagnostic will have been done over the video call.
“The next challenge is suppliers,” he stated. “I want to be able to order something when I get home after work and it be there when I get in in the morning. In this industry you have one-man bands who do a fantastic job, but they can’t offer that 24 hour, 365 day service as they are just on their own.
“With nationals, you are just a number. British Gas has good service, but as a customer you are just a number. SMEs like ourselves can deliver that good customer service but compete with nationals as we offer that year-round service.”
Howard is witnessing what he describes as a “slow swing back to SME-type businesses”, where there is a focus on customer service as well as cost.
The skills gap that is currently in existence is being challenged by modernising practices such as apprenticeships. Howard has got five right now, three engineers and two office-based individuals. Believing that lots of things done at college aren’t practical when people enter the real world, his business is going beyond what can be done in the classroom.
While the government is firmly committed to upping the number, and value, of apprenticeships in the UK, Howard has identified a problem which holds businesses like his back from embracing the training mechanism.
“The government claim to help out with funding, and they do to a degree, but you are supposed to get £1500 for anyone under 19. Over the last seven years we’ve had seven apprentices, but we can’t get any more funding as it is capped at five,” he said.
“We will continue to take them on, but if you were a one-man band or smaller SME and you relied on that funding, as they do cost you money early on, it’s not good.”
Read more on apprenticeships:
- David Cameron to use Deutsche Bank’s record-breaking fine to fund apprenticeships
- Costa and Premier Inn owner Whitbread commits £5.7m to create 6,000 apprenticeships
- 23,000 new UK apprenticeships from Microsoft, Halfords, RAF, British Airways and more
Howard also believes apprenticeship courses should be less rigid and more adaptable to a firm’s needs. This, he added, would assist the learners, get apprenticeships up and reduce youth unemployment.
Moving forward, and taking his business to the next level, Howard believes two things are pivotal. Technology, and working with suppliers, will help to improve customer service and transform C&J Heating & Plumbing into a national business with an SME approach.
However, none of this will be possible without a culture shift. “If we can get the average age of the industry down they don’t accept old norms – they’ll embrace tech as they’ve grown up around it.
“There is a skills shortage but with better media attention this will change. When I started out you went into the plumbing trade because you were thick, but that’s not the case any more.”
His approach to staying true to customer service, embracing technology, partnering with larger institutions and leading a wholesale culture change is nothing new, but it appears to be in the plumbing and heating trade.
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