ICS Magazine

Thinking About “Diving In” to Water Damage? Here’s What You Should Know

December 3, 2012
restoration man vacuum hose

The Challenges (and Solutions) of "Diving In" to Water Damage:

  1. "Messed Up" Customers
  2. Restoration Clients Feel Very Much Out of Control
  3. Your Clients May Be Very Suspicious
  4. Your Client Wants to Help
  5. Your Client May Be Adversarial With You
  6. 24/7 Work!
“Seek first to understand.” — Stephen R. Covey
I loved being diversified in my cleaning and restoration business. Combining residential carpet and upholstery cleaning, contract commercial cleaning and restoration gave me a three-legged stool with each “leg” supporting the others. And without a doubt my most profitable “leg” was restoration.
Of course, restoration runs a wide gamut. We found by far the most profitable sector for us were medium-sized ($3,000 to $5,000) residential water losses. After all, what’s not to like? Three to four days start to finish and a 70% or more gross profit margin!
Yes, 70%! Maybe that is why more carpet cleaners are hungrily eyeing the potential profits of water losses! One leg of your stool can synergistically support the other. Even better, water losses can be the cherry on the top of your business sundae! After all, you have (hopefully!) paid your overhead with your base services. So almost all the money from a water loss can go straight into your pocket!
But it isn’t all peaches and cream out there! Screw up a restoration loss and it can also cripple, or even destroy, your company! (I tell every SFS class that the only thing restoration has in common with carpet cleaning is that they both use a cleaning wand!) So let’s examine the unique challenges (and solutions) of a water loss versus a standard residential carpet cleaning job… 

Challenge No. 1: “Messed Up” Customers  

Few homeowners look forward to having their carpets cleaned. In fact, at best you as a carpet cleaner are often viewed as a “tolerated irritation.” But at least you are a planned for and anticipated irritation! On the other hand, a restoration customer feels as if their home (and life!) has been destroyed! I first recognized this huge problem as a young carpet cleaner dipping my toe into water losses. Let me tell you what happened:

My State Farm adjuster called and I immediately recognized the flooded homeowner’s name. (I’ll call her Claire Jones.) As Claire’s long-time carpet cleaner, I was practically part of her family so I rushed out to her home.

Claire’s driveway was choked with cars when I pulled up and the front door was flapping open. So I called out, went in and wow - what a zoo! There were agents and adjusters and building inspectors and plumbers and contractors, along with curious neighbors, all wandering around in the “inner sanctum” of an intensely private woman. What had happened?

Mr. and Mrs. Jones had just arrived home from a dream vacation to Hawaii only to discover their front door swollen shut in its frame. Why? Because the entire ceiling had collapsed into 3 inches of freezing water on top of buckled hardwood floors in what had before been an immaculate home! (The home’s heating system had failed during a brutally cold winter.)

I found Claire all alone, huddled and shivering on the side of her bed. I covered her with a blanket and then asked a fateful question, “Claire, how are you?” Claire’s answer transformed my view of restoration clients and, in the process, made me millions of dollars over the years!

Claire didn’t reply for a long time so I turned to leave the room. I then heard her whisper, “Steve, I feel like I’ve been raped!” And that was my answer! I suddenly saw that I had always treated my restoration clients like normal residential customers. But now, looking through Claire’s eyes, I understood just being nice wasn’t good enough.

I now realized that a client with a water or fire damaged home needs to be cared for as a victim - because that is exactly what they are! The trauma of their sudden loss for a home owner is difficult to overstate. It isn’t just these victims’ sentimental possessions that may be gone forever. Their treasured way of life has been destroyed and they may never feel secure again!
Solution: Seek first to understand your restoration customer’s emotional plight. Develop empathy for their situation. These “restoration victims” are often disoriented and highly emotional. So talk slower and frequently ask if they have any questions.  
If your client needs to vent, shut up and listen while responding sympathetically. Always give your employees a clipboard and a written outline to structure the initial water loss interview. (For a free copy of the initial water loss interview form I used, go to http://tiny.cc/SFSw.) Respect the customer’s personal space (If you are close enough to touch them, back off!) and focus on…

Challenge No. 2: Restoration Clients Feel Very Much Out of Control   

Water losses happen suddenly and invariably at “the very worst moment” of a customer’s life! The situation and your remediation techniques are totally outside of their experience and frame of reference. So restoration clients are confused/ intimidated/ vulnerable/scared and often angry. And sadly, sometimes you and your workers get caught in this “emotional shrapnel.”  
Solution: Give your restoration clients the “illusion of control.” For example, explain that you need to test for water penetration in the dwelling, show the home owner your probes and thermal imaging equipment and explain how they work. Ask permission to get started and before you open cabinets and closets, move furniture or go into a new part of the house. When you offer control by asking permission and your client returns control by approving your request, it creates a wonderful subliminal “moment of truth.” However, all these negative emotions mean…

Challenge No. 3: Your Clients May Be Very Suspicious  

This suspicion may be especially pronounced if the home owner and the adjuster have gotten off to a rocky start and then you show up referred by this same adjuster! (It happens!) Now you will be viewed as a tool of the insurance company. Or your client may have heard horror stories (some true, most not!) from their “instant expert consulting group” (i.e., well-meaning friends and family).
Solution: Build credibility with a competent attitude of “we’ve done this before.” Tactfully and gently take control during your interview/testing sequence. Share with your customer a photo album (the iPad is great for this purpose) of other losses along with letters from delighted clients, industry certifications, employee profiles, etc. (NOTE: Even better, develop a landing page on your website focused specifically on the Frequently Asked Questions of a client along with all the photos, etc. mentioned above. Then during the initial phone conversation, immediately e-mail them the link to these FAQ’s before your crew arrives on the loss.)

Challenge No. 4: Your Client Wants to Help  

This is often motivated by the customer wanting a return to normalcy as soon as possible. Or they may just be a Type-A personality!
Solution: Train your employees to display a sense of urgency. No chit-chatting or coffee breaks on premises, training your workers to walk and work carefully, but rapidly, along with quick and precise data entry all will calm your water loss client.  
Or “detour” this helpful homeowner by giving them a list of useful tasks: “Could you secure any valuable and ‘portable’ possessions? (i.e., cash, stamp, coin or art collections, fine jewelry, guns, etc.) Would you mind collecting any damaged items of great sentimental value? If any clothing has been damaged could you bag the items in these clear bags?”
(NOTE: One of the best ways to entrance and focus a home owner’s attention is to ask them to monitor a clear inline vacuum filter you place just inside their front door. Actually seeing the water rushing out of their home is a very positive moment of truth!)

Challenge No. 5: Your Client May Be Adversarial With You

Using our “seek first to understand” philosophy can you blame them for being adversarial? This is scary and uncharted territory and insurance adjusters don’t have the best reputation! Plus there is the perennial restore versus replace the carpet struggle to contend with!  
Solution: Pick your battles. Postpone the potentially adversarial part of the process by shifting questions to the adjuster as in: “We won’t know what to recommend until the home is dried out and stabilized. Then you, the adjuster and if you wish a representative from our company, can meet and work on which option is best. But right now we need to get Lake Erie out of your living room!” (NOTE: Restoring water losses calls for impeccable documentation that you precisely followed industry standards. Remember, this country has way too many hungry lawyers!)

Challenge No. 6: 24/7 Work!  

That’s right - water losses invariably come in at horrible hours. Yet you must respond immediately. We had a guaranteed one-hour (or less) response time 24 hours a day, 365 days a year!  
Solution: Develop an on-call schedule. Our technicians volunteered for this rotating weekly on-call assignment. We paid them a generous bonus for being available during their on-call week whether any calls came in or not. Then we paid the tech double-time with a three-hour minimum if they did respond to an after-hours loss. And maybe most importantly, we trained all of our employees on the emotional dynamics of dealing with a traumatized restoration client!