By Denise M. Roberts
In Germany, Falk Herd’s uncle owned a small well drilling company. He did some (very limited) filtration applications and took the young boy with him to worksites, starting when Herd was seven-years old. Years later, he studied insurance economics, earning a Master’s Degree, but he wanted to focus on supply technology. After moving to Canada, Herd returned to the roots of his early training in the water treatment industry. “As one of my professors once said to me, ‘You suck in sales, so don’t go down this route!” Herd said. “Hands down, I believe he was right. Yet, I believe I have the capability to break down complex topics into small, understandable and easily digestible pieces. This is of paramount importance in this industry. I simply love technology and the potential for combining brainwork and hands-on aspects, which has always been appealing for me. Primarily, this is simply a fantastic, intriguing and constantly developing industry. I see a huge need for generating more customer awareness and making people familiar (and comfortable) with the wide spectrum of water treatment, while at the same time taking away their fear of Pandora’s Box or the ‘Big Unknown’ in our case. In addition, the growing need for good water is becoming a more pressing consideration globally. People in most parts of the world, however, seem not to have a clue about this neglected resource (yet they should)!
“I believe in staying young by engaging in something I believe in, working towards perfecting matters, while at the same time staying true to our philosophies and belief systems. I would consider my approach to work and customer service picky; many people call me anal, but it’s more a case of being thorough. I personally find proof in the comparison of customer engagement prior to an initial consultation and after a full walk-through when the installation is completed. The change of interest, once time has been devoted to explaining an otherwise non-accessible topic, is phenomenal. What we found in the water treatment sector (particularly in Nova Scotia) was not promising. We saw a lack of knowledge in an unregulated industry where customers were longing for solid input and good customer service. I felt we had a chance to establish such a platform, by focusing on education, so we started out with the premise that we wanted to do it better in terms of overall approach with a clear focus on customer service. The future will show whether this will bring the fruits we are hoping for, despite the obviously larger number of obstacles we have to face, of finding customers and facing down our competitors.”
A well-rounded team
Herd is supported in his efforts by his wife Nicole (Office Manager); their son Gabriel (a water treatment technician in training at age nine); Administrative Assistant Susan Smith and Marketing and Service Consultant Devin Bird. Perfect Water serves mostly residential and some smaller commercial clients in the Halifax Regional Municipality, a region with multiple water treatment issues, including pH, iron, manganese, color, turbidity, arsenic, hardness, barium, strontium, boron, uranium, alkalinity, numerous types of chlorides, bacteria, etc. In addition, the company frequently encounters situations where existing installations are compromised and/or rendered ineffective. “Consequently, we see many misapplications of the technology that are not performed to code or are unsuitable for the circumstances,” Herd said. “In most cases, the relevant data upon which a system design has been based are insufficient. In today’s world, it is simply no longer possible to visit a customer, run five mini-on-site tests and come up with adequate solutions or alternatives. Consumers, however, still believe it is possible because they are used to this approach. Overcoming that attitude is difficult in a province where band-aid solutions have been considered the norm (and maybe even acceptable) for decades. It starts with finding people who want to know more and are willing to listen.
“At our size and being one of the smallest dealers out there, we do the training in-house. Would I like to see more certified people (besides myself) work with us down the road? No doubt and of course yes! One crucial factor is the support system, which is in place through the CWQA! But the challenge of finding the right people is huge. I also see a lot of ignorance that results in bad outcomes. In our industry it is all too often assumed ‘a softener is a softener’ or ‘an iron filter is an iron filter.’ I dare to raise the question if any consumer would ever go to a car dealership and simply ask for ‘a car’ or a furniture store and buy ‘a chair.’ Of course they would not! So why does this happen all the time in our industry then? Why does this generic approach, solely based on assumptions happen within a world that is crucial for every human being? I think it happens because people are kept in the dark and/or the people in the field do not have enough knowledge themselves about the topic (or as Einstein once worded it so nicely: ‘If a professional is not able to explain in an understandable manner, what he/she does, he/she simply does not know enough about it him/herself.’ That also seems to be a problem in our industry. The other major obstacle we face, is unsubstantiated price comparisons. A customer of ours has worded it quite nicely by saying: ‘Before we met, I heard you were more expensive. But actually it is not true. You just collect way more data and as a result you uncover more issues, potentially leading to a more comprehensive treatment sequence.’ This element paired with the local mentality can make it very difficult.”
Most people focus on product lines, but not Herd. “We don’t sell product; I do not even like the word sales. Product is something everyone can get anywhere and if someone is interested in product only, they are usually looking at price, quite often without being able to properly compare those products. This is not our philosophy. We are too small to compete with the big-box stores and honestly, I do not even want to. Another professor told me 25 years ago that if I ever opened a business and wanted to deliver best price, best product and best service in one spot, I was doomed to fail. ‘You are bankrupt before you even know it,’ he said, ‘but if you focus on two out of the three and have your philosophies in place, you will succeed.’ And that is what we do: focus on service and product quality. We offer and ‘sell’ our philosophies, their value and the benefits resulting from them.
“We love providing treatment options. Yet they are all customized and we assemble the systems with their different layers and ingredients in-house, based on a sufficient amount of data. Consequently, it is easy to imagine there are no best-selling products because everything has to correlate with each individual circumstance. And as a result of that, I may say that I like every application that works properly and provides the results that were supposed to be achieved.
“At the same time, I believe that this approach brings out our strength: explaining correlations, interferences, technical details, etc.—all leading to relevant options for the customer. There are quite often numerous approaches to certain water conditions possible. Yet every single scenario has its strengths and weaknesses. Key to all of those options is to explain to a customer beforehand what the weaknesses are, so that he/she can decide— which results, which service and maintenance consideration, which replacement schedules etc. meet their needs best. As such, we do not sell product—customers buy from us, because by the end of our consultation process, they are in a position where they know what they want and why they want it. I much prefer this way over sales and I trust the clients do, too.”
Herd sees the industry as a changing kaleidoscope of issues that must be met and dealt with effectively. “The continued consolidation is of course a concern—not just for small dealers like us but I think for the consumer as well. Overall of course, every company will grow or might even have the need to grow in order to survive. As for the changes within the industry, I look forward to those and predict there will be lots. Not only do we need to raise awareness but we have fantastic brains in our industry, constantly researching for improved, more environmentally friendly and more effective applications. I love that! But what it means as well is that the water treatment professionals need to do their homework, too. We need to stay on top of things, be open to change and contribute to the industry’s evolution. The industry needs to become a regulated one! The consumers need to (re-)gain trust in our occupation. And the people in our industry need to take the topic more seriously, with a stronger focus on customers’ needs, best practices and diligent approach, rather than product sales. Better communication between and amongst different associations needs to be nurtured. As long as there is no harmonization established, the consumer will always be the one who is confused, and being confused makes people doubt their own decisions.”
On the horizon
Herd would like to expand more into two areas of commercial applications and residential, municipal water supplies. “I chose the name Perfect Water Nova Scotia for numerous reasons—and even the logo has some deeper meaning behind it—so that future expansions and/or subdivisions are possible. Right now, simply based on manpower considerations, we focus on the HRM area; I would like to branch out, but finding the right people is a huge challenge. I hope my wife and I will still be physically and mentally able to work in the industry over the next decade or more. We would love to grow the business and work it together and hopefully reap the benefits as well. But I have always looked at monetary benefits as a result of a good job, not the primary focus to engage into a business venture. I have to point out that we would not have had a chance to be where we are right now without the help of the Canadian Water Quality Association. The support we received from the start, the accessibility of great knowledge and the patience to deal with all my nagging questions were (and still are) beyond all expectations we had along those lines. Yes, of course I am hoping that such positive reflection is a result of our approach, meaning to openly discuss particular situations, while at the same time getting the message across that we aim to find the right solutions for the customers. In particular (besides others) I would like to mention Kevin Wong and Peter Cartwright. They both have been supporting us in a manner every small business can only dream of, lived with us through all the ups and downs and have always been willing to lend us their ears and provide guidance. As we all know, every company, association or entity stands and falls with the people representing them and I know that Kevin and Peter are the best representation I personally can imagine for the Canadian Water Quality Association and its respective goals. I would like give a big thank you to both.”