By Vincent M. Kent

Why are some businesses more successful than others? There are many things that dealerships of all sizes can do to open new doors. There are a wealth of potential customers out there and a host of new opportunities for those dealers who know where to look.

One pathway to success that many independent dealers routinely overlook is the value of strong partnerships. Partnering, whether with other businesses in the industry, with businesses in peripheral industries or even with competitors can appear risky, but when done correctly can be the key to new successes.

Simple plumbing
How many times have we all been in a house doing an estimate, installation or repair when we notice a leaky faucet or a toilet that’s not flushing correctly and the customer states they can’t get a plumber out fast enough to do that job and in many cases, that job is simply too small for a plumber to handle?

In many states, a plumbing license is required to install and service restricted appliances, such as a water softener or other water treatment devices. If your service staff has the credentials to do it, you should be encouraging them to look at that faucet or toilet. In most cases, it’s a very simple repair, one that you can complete with the tools already in your truck and an extra 10 minutes of your time. But it means a lot to the customer, who sees that you have the knowledge to effectively help them with their water problems, and that you are willing to go out of your way in their time of need. It’s a very small action, but actions speak louder than words. And many times that leak can be a solution, or a correction, to a water treatment device’s problem.

For those dealerships in places where a plumbing license is not required, consider some additional training and certification for your staff anyway. In addition to having licensed repairmen, it’s a good idea to have salespeople who are knowledgeable enough to diagnose minor plumbing problems. When a salesperson is doing an in-home demonstration and notices a leaky faucet, they should see it as an opportunity to solidify a relationship with that customer. It could be as simple as suggesting they run to Ace Hardware and fix it themselves or, “We’d be happy to take care of that right now while giving you a quote.”

Partnering with a plumber
While it’s important to have service people who understand plumbing basics, expanding into a full-fledged plumbing business is not the only way to reap these benefits. Partnering with a plumber can be done in a number of effective ways that create a wealth of new sales leads.

Contact a local plumber in your area and offer to carry some of their business cards when you’re out on your service or delivery routes. Recommend them to your customers with significant plumbing needs. The plumber can even offer a discounted rate for your referrals. In return, that plumber is showcasing your softener in his showroom, suggesting your dealership to his customers with hard water and so on. If both businesses are providing a quality service and enticing their respective customers with a good referral deal, both will benefit by leaps and bounds.

Getting in at the ground level
As a water dealer, I’d never considered buying or starting up a well drilling company, but one of the smartest moves I’ve ever made was partnering with one. Well drillers and septic companies are the first to find out when a building permit is pulled, because they are key elements a builder needs to put together a quote. With a pump installer on board, you can become part of a one-stop shop. We will write that customer a bid to bring in the well drilling company, and we’ll book the well drilling company. Most well drilling companies will also provide the customer a discounted rate if it’s done though a pump installer or a plumber. They want you out there referring the business. It also gives you the opportunity to sell the well pump, the pressure tank and the water softener, iron filter and RO system along with it. As dealers, we all know the importance of having the proper flow rate and pressure for the backwashing of equipment and having your foot in the door with well driller is the easiest way to guarantee that accuracy.

This setup also makes it a lot easier for water dealers and septic companies to address the issue of water softener discharge in a way that saves everyone headaches. Rather than fight over whose equipment is doing the failing, whether it’s the water softener or the septic system, partner with the septic companies in your area. Work jobs with them, go out and educate the customer. Show them there is really no solid data that proves right or wrong for either one, but there are a number of things they can do to prevent septic system damage.

When the septic company and the water dealer work together, you both come out looking like heroes and the customer reaps the benefits. Rather than blaming one another, the septic company can offer to trench a line in that discharges the softener to a culvert, goes to a ditch or to some drywells. The water dealer can set up the system to discharge via a sump pump or to a remote drain.

This also guarantees that when a septic company is out on a job and you’re not around, they are telling their customers “You know what you need to do, you need to replace that time clock softener with a meter and might want to consider trenching it out to the ditch, here let me give you the name of a water guy that can help you with all that.” Instead of, “Hey, I see you have an old water softener, throw it out, it’s destroying your septic system.” Carry their cards on every one of your trucks and you will get that referred replacement call every time.

Partnering with the competition
What? Did you read that right? Why would I suggest that you to partner with your competition? It’s pretty simple, really. How many of you are tired of not getting paid by deadbeat customers? Those customers are going to go on to not pay your competitor across town, and his delinquents are soon going to be stiffing you.

Every time you pull equipment from a delinquent customer’s house, consider a gentlemen’s agreement with your nearest competitors to trade that information. You don’t have to share how much money you’re owed, or how long this person was a customer. But by knowing and sharing those names, you’re going to be able to save the time and money of having to deal with one more delinquent customer that could have been avoided.

Embracing the big box
Like partnering with your competition, the thought of working closer with your local big box store can seem crazy. The water softeners from the Home Depots and the Lowes cannot compare with what is sold at a quality water dealer, but ignoring the opportunities they present is just bad business.

Whether you choose to be on their list of preferred installers or not is up to you, but all of you get the phone call from a potential customer who says “Boy, you’re $100 higher than the Home Depot.” Don’t ignore that call or brush off that customer. You have the perfect opportunity to say, “Yes we are. Here’s the reasons why…And, if you need any help down the road, please give us a call.”

Let the customer go out and buy the system from Home Depot and offer to install it. My rate for people who buy from me is $45/hour, but for that customer it’s $75/hour. It’s OK to charge the higher rate because that’s what any licensed plumber is going to do. I encourage you to tell the customer you are charging the higher rate. Don’t let them find out through the grape vine because then they will have a bad taste.

Most customers will ask why you’re charging a higher rate. Take the time, every time, to educate the customer, because the more they know about the trade, the more they are going to come to trust your word and, ultimately, be willing to pay more for it. Explain that you have licensed people, insurance, the technology and the experience to do it right.

Warranty your work on the installation and be sure to remind them that if the system itself is faulty, uninstalling and returning it Home Depot is their job. “If you buy it from the store and it leaks, you need to disconnect it, take it back, pick up the replacement and put it back in. If you buy it from me and that happens, I’ll come back and do it all at no additional cost.” Nine times out of 10 they will change their mind right there because you were honest and upfront.

Installation, while it’s never going to be as profitable as getting the original sale, does get you in the door. Put your sticker on the system. You will get the salt business and service calls because those big box stores don’t service. And more importantly, you will get the replacement business when the unit doesn’t meet to the customer’s expectations. Also, you’re going to get the drinking water business because you have taken the time to earn that customer’s trust.

Partnerships are smart decisions and while it may seem risky or unnecessary at times to reach out to your competition or to plumbers or to big box stores, the rewards for a dealership that is willing to take the time to explore new avenues for leads can be very profitable.

Some of these partnerships can work for you; some may be biting off more than you care to chew. The point is, there are places you can find new business that you probably haven’t considered yet, those that were discussed above and ones that are totally unique to your dealership.

Isn’t it about time to take a look around?

About the author
Vincent M. Kent is the President of Abendroth Water Conditioning, a family-owned and operated independent water dealership in Fort Atkinson, Wisc. He is also an active Water Quality Association member and serves on the association’s Convention Task Force and serves on the Board of Directors. He is a WQA Certified Water Specialist, WQA Certified Installer and holds a state of Wisconsin Master Plumber license. For more information, contact Kent at Abendroth Water Conditioning, 327 Janesville Ave., PO Box 106, Fort Atkinson, WI. 52528, or visit


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