Independent pool service is a solitary task – an often-lonely profession built on sweat equity and skill. Veteran technician, Robert H. Foutz Jr., has made it his business to educate his fellow technicians, in classrooms, print and in conversation. Here he shares nuggets of wisdom for young technicians entering field.
By Robert Foutz, Jr.
For the past 38 years, I’ve operated an independent service company, working countless pools, both residential and commercial in and around my home in Huntington Beach, CA. It’s been a great career that has provided a comfortable living for my family and me, but it does come with challenges.
I started the company, Purity Pool Service, with my father, Robert Foutz, Sr. We learned the business together and there was always so much to discover. He passed away several years ago and I’ve been running the company ever since. I miss him terribly, of course, but his partnership and friendship have never left me.
Purity is a true family business. Besides my father and me, my mother, wife and all three of my daughters have worked with me. When I was in the hospital with COVID my daughters told their bosses they needed an extra day off to run the family business. They got it, and were able to run our commercial pools until I returned to work!
I see many young men and women entering who don’t have the benefit of sharing the experience — and the perspective that comes from it — with someone else. I am old enough to be the father of some of these young people and I’ve learned that here is more to running a pool service business than a net, brush and chlorine.
Pool service is a challenging way to make a living, to say the least; one that requires both physical and mental endurance. And, there’s always lots to learn about the various aspects of taking care of pools and spas, and keeping your clients happy. I see a lot of magazine articles about “30 under 30” young people who will change their industry, and the world. I wondered if anybody wants to hear from “one under 61.”
While I realize that nothing can replace hands-on training and learning from your mistakes, I thought I’d share some of the wisdom I gained with my dad, and on my own through many years of hard-fought experience. So, for what it’s worth, here’s some advice I’d like to share with today’s new generation of service professionals.
My number-one piece of advice is to join a service association, and specifically one that provides sick-route coverage. As an independent operator, there are going to be times you’ll need help. I’m a long-time member of the Independent Pool & Spa Service Association (IPSSA). It’s the largest organization of its kind with chapters in a majority of the biggest pool and spa markets, especially here in the west where independent service companies are the most common.
Over the years, IPSSA’s sick route coverage policy has saved my business on more than one occasion. Like most people at my advancing age, I’ve used the sick coverage six times in my career through various health problems, including knee surgery and most recently a nasty bout with COVID.
In those situations that have kept me sidelined for extended periods of time, I’ve had to rely on my fellow IPSSA chapter members to cover my routes. It’s something we all do for each other when needed, I have gladly repaid them many times. Yes, these technicians are competitors, but we all know that there will come a day when we all need an assist; and, therefore, we step up to make sure we all stay in business by continuing to service our accounts.
I don’t know of another industry where that’s the case. The trust, comradery and, indeed, gratitude that grows from having a colleague step into the breach on your behalf is profound.
Also, because service is such a lonely business, it’s helpful to affiliate with other professionals who share in the daily challenges. We learn from each other, develop friendships, and work together to collectively elevate our businesses, and the trade at large.
I like IPSSA guys and other pool people because they understand what I go through. It’s fun to have a cold beverage and shoot the breeze about crazy customers and the challenges we face on a daily basis.
And, IPSSA provides business liability insurance tailored to the needs of service companies, another major benefit. Add it all up, you cannot place a dollar value on belonging to an organization like IPSSA. If you take only one piece of advice from this discussion, this would be it.
POWER IN AN APOLOGY
In this line of work, mistakes are inevitable; everyone makes them, particularly when you’re just starting out. There are times when a customer calls with a problem, and sometimes they will be extremely upset or even worse, looking for a fight. Don’t give it back to them and argue; instead, listen and accept responsibility.
If there’s a problem, especially if it’s your fault, say you’re sorry and try to get to the property at your earliest convenience to set things right. I know it doesn’t always make sense but there truly is power in an apology. It’s amazing how quickly you can defuse a negative situation by simply taking responsibility. The vast majority of people can understand making a mistake; but, most of us will push back against someone who is non-responsive or makes excuses.
It may sound simplistic, but by accepting responsibility, you develop trust with the client and ultimately, you will enhance your reputation. And, don’t forget that we all learn by making mistakes. If you screw it up, own up to it, correct the situation in good humor, and do whatever you can to make sure that you come away wiser for it.
THE RIGHT WAY
There’s an old saying that there are three ways to do any one job: the right way, the easy way, and the cheap way. Usually the cheap and easy ways are not the right way. Because we’re always busy, there’s a natural tendency to do things as simply as we can. There’s a natural desire to control costs, too; so, doing things as inexpensively as possible becomes an MO for some technicians.
The problem is that when you do things easy and/or on the cheap, it rarely results in doing it the right way. There are infinite examples: Many years ago, I found a company that reconditioned pumps and motors, which sold them for much less than brand-new ones. The first time I tried one, the thing heated up and threw the bearings. It was a complete waste, and I realized I would have been much better off simply using a new pump.
Even it takes more time and more money initially, doing things the right way and not cutting corners saves you both effort and coin in the long run, and you don’t have to deal with frustrated customers nearly as often.
TOSS THE BAD APPLES
This is about both self-respect and practicality. The unfortunate fact is everyone in this business runs into problem customers. For whatever reason, there are always going to be those people who are a constant pain in the backside, and no matter what you do to make them happy, they will always find something complain about.
These are often the same customers who will try to nickel and dime you about pricing. I’ve had clients that go years without any kind of complaint, and others that seem to have some kind of problem on an almost constant basis. Those problematic clients will cost you time, money and frustration.
I’ve also experienced problems where the customers may be reasonably nice people, but there are other issues such as vicious dogs, which as we all know, can be a significant safety hazard, just ask any mail carrier. And, there have been unruly customers that do stupid things like tossing patio furniture into the pool or generally trashing their own backyards. I’ll usually put up with those kinds of problems only once. Many times the customers will apologize to me and it never happens again; but, if it continues, I’ll make the decision to step away.
In those situations, there is nothing wrong with “firing” a customer. I always do so in a polite way and don’t necessarily offer an explanation because there’s really no point in discussing it. It doesn’t happen very often, but I can’t recall ever regretting letting go of a bad account.
NO MONEY IN THE TRUCK
This is a practical issue that can make a huge impact on the bottom line. Always remember that when you’re driving between accounts, you’re not making money. In fact, with fuel expenses and automotive wear and tear, time spent driving only increases your cost of doing business. And, it extends the time it takes to get through your day.
This is why when you’re building a service route, either by acquiring new individual customers or purchasing an existing route, you always want your accounts to be as close together as possible. When you’re just starting out there might be a tendency to take on every account you can get. I’ve certainly done my share of traveling between stops that are far apart, and have learned in many situations, it’s just not worth it.
You might be able to offset the costs by raising prices for distant accounts, but that can only go so far because you quickly become uncompetitive with service companies that are more proximate. I do sometimes shave a few dollars off my price to land accounts that are close to others. It’s great when you can find multiple clients on the same street or in the same neighborhood.
The bottom line is there is no money in the truck. You always want to spend the lion’s share of your time doing the actual work rather than driving.
TAKE CARE OF YOU
Pool service can be a grueling way to earn a living. You spend long days in the sun doing physical labor, handling chemicals, moving your equipment in and out of backyards and sometimes fighting the elements. I know that young people can feel indestructible, but the wear and tear will inevitably add up, especially if you don’t take care of yourself on the route.
That means staying hydrated. Most people don’t realize when they’re dehydrated and it can be easy to forget to drink enough water, but it makes a huge difference in your endurance, energy level, mental acuity and overall health.
It’s equally important to protect yourself from the effects of the sun. Skin cancer is an occupational hazard for anyone who works outdoors all the time. And in the case of pool service, you’re exposed to the sun reflecting off the water. That’s why wearing sunscreen and wide brim hats is so important.
And, finally, listen to your body. There is no shame in wearing a back brace when you do heavy lifting, and when I have repair work that requires spending time on my knees, I wear kneepads.
I now hire young people to remove old heaters and lift new ones into place. I am willing to pay good money not to spend the weekend with a sore back. When you simply decide to fight through nagging aches and pains and not do anything about it, you’ll eventually pay the price with downtime and doctor visits.
There’s more to say here, such as the importance of educating yourself, establishing good vendor relations and how to promote your business, all of which could be long discussions unto themselves. But for those getting into the business, if you follow these aged words of wisdom, you’ll be off to good start.
Robert Foutz, Jr. is co-founder of Purity Pool Service in Huntington Beach, CA, and a widely admired poolside raconteur, writer and instructor.
Opening photo by Buddit Nidsorkul | Shutterstock