Broken boilers, busted pipes, and faulty fire alarms don't happen only during the 9-to-5. So if you're looking for an additional service to offer your customers, 24/7 emergency service may be the answer.
'The benefit of offering emergency service is our ability to offer peace of mind to those who need it,' says Thomas Hartel, president of Valley Fire Protection & Plumbing. And of course it benefits your business as well, since it makes current customers happy—and helps attract new ones, when they need help in the middle of the night and their usual service isn't picking up the phone.
Offering emergency service in your plumbing, HVAC, or fire and security business isn't easy, and it's not for everyone. We spoke with two fire and security businesses about the pros, cons, and how they make it work; their insights are transferable to plumbing and heating businesses, and other types of field service business as well.
(By the way, offering 24/7 services requires a good scheduling system. If you're not quite ready to jump into digital scheduling, we have something for you: A free job status spreadsheet that can help you organise and track your jobs. Download it here.)
Should I offer emergency services?
Here's how to know if your business should offer emergency services—and how to make it happen.
- Send your customers a survey asking if they're interested in 24/7 services.
- Use business data to know when the most emergencies occur.
- Decide how much you'll charge for emergency services.
- Decide who will answer emergency calls and who will be the backup.
- Get used to reacting fast...there's no way to predict when a customer will call!
- Use a digital scheduling system to make scheduling engineers easier.
- Market your emergency services via email, social media and your vehicle signage.
Now, let's go into the details on each step.
Ask your customers.
If you're ever wondering whether your current customers would be interested in a new service, the easiest way to find out is...to ask them.
There are a couple of ways to do this: Call or email individual customers you think would be the most responsive, or conduct a customer survey.
Here's a quick overview of how to create and use a customer survey that will help you decide if emergency services are right for you.
- Pick your platform. (We like SurveyAnyplace, which is easy to use and has a fun interface.)
- Write your survey questions. Mix up question types (yes/no, multiple choice, etc.) and also offer text boxes where customers can write out their own responses.
- Get the word out about your survey via your email newsletter, blog, and social media. You can even offer an incentive to people who fill out the survey.
- Interpret the results. Look for trends, but don't ignore the outliers!
- Take action on the feedback. Thank the customers who took the survey, and create a plan of action based on the results.
Those are the basics steps to creating a survey; we have much, much more detail in our article on how to create customer satisfaction surveys that work. (We know, this isn't a customer satisfaction survey you'll be sending, but the steps are the same.)
Know your busy season.
If you're planning on offering 24/7 emergency services, knowing when your busy periods will be can help you staff up properly.
While emergencies can happen at any time—pretty much the definition of an emergency is that you don't expect it—you probably do have an idea of what times of the year have more of them. 'Most fire sprinkler and plumbing piping is obviously filled with water, so it stands to reason that in the winter months we would receive hundreds of emergency calls to repair frozen and burst pipes,' says Hartel.
Our article on how to staff up for the busy season shares expert advice on mining your business's sales and marketing data to figure out when you'll be busiest.
Pick your prices.
You're certainly entitled to charge more for doing work after hours, on weekends, and on holidays—which means offering emergency services can help your business earn more. (Not all field service businesses charge extra, though! The "no extra fee 24/7 service" can be a company's Unique Selling Point.)
Whether you do charge more—and if so, how much—depends on a number of factors.
- How much are your customers willing to pay for an after-hours service call? (The survey we talked about above can help you find that out.)
- What's the going rate for emergency services in your area? Try posting on an industry forum to find out; for example, in this thread on the MyWorkman site, 27 plumbers responded to a question about how much to expect to pay for a weekend, nighttime service in Barnet.
- How much extra will you be paying your engineers to be on call and to respond to after-hours calls? 'We have separate pay scales for our technicians who are handling on-call, and separate pay stipends for them as well,' says Jason Martin, General Manager of Castle Sprinkler & Alarm, Inc.
If you could use more information on the factors that go into setting your prices, see How Much Money Should I Be Charging My Customers Per Job?
Create a plan—and a backup plan.
When you offer 24/7 emergency services, you need to have someone on call plus a backup engineer in case the first engineer doesn't respond. 'Our designated on-call technician is the one who receives emergency calls,' says Martin. 'If that technician does not pick up, then the very next person who gets called is the service manager. If the service manager doesn't pick up his phone, then I'm the one who gets called."
Martin has 50 engineers who are on call on a rotating basis, and he posts the schedule six months in advance so they can plan vacations, family time, and so on around it.
Get used to reacting fast (and hire engineers who can react fast).
We'd love to be able to tell you how to make handling emergency calls smooth and painless, but by nature those calls are unpredictable and difficult. A customer who lives an hour away could call at 3am and your on-call engineer doesn't respond, so you're the one leaping out of bed and going to the rescue.
There's no way around it. 'Companies prefer to be proactive rather than reactive, but if you’re offering emergency service 24/7/365 you must adapt,' says Hartel.
Thankfully, sometimes an engineer can help the customer resolve the immediate issue over the phone. 'If we can talk them over the phone and get that resolved quicker, it's going to be faster than if our technician gets in his truck and travels to the site, which could be an hour or two hours away,' says Martin. 'You don't want that customer's bells going off or water still flowing until our technician gets there….it could be a long time.'
Hiring the right engineers helps smooth out the craziness; after all, a reliable engineer is more likely to respond to an emergency call, and a skilled engineer is better able to talk the customer through a stopgap fix until they can get there. Skilled, reliable engineers for hire are in short supply, but our article on four creative ways to hire engineers is full of advice that can help you attract the right hires—even if you can't pay as much as the competition.
(Retaining those great hires once you have them is also key for smoother emergency services; check out our advice on how to keep your employees from quitting.)
Use a digital scheduling system.
When an emergency call comes in, you may need to reschedule or reroute your engineers to get someone to the emergency ASAP—and an intelligent scheduling solution can help keep everything on track. 'A lot can go into scheduling based on where that call is, and where the technician is who has the right skill to handle that call,' says Martin. 'Plus, if the technician's out that night handling service calls and then he's scheduled for, say, a 6am service, it's a challenge.'
Both Martin and Hartel use service scheduling software to help keep all their jobs organised, and to make rescheduling and rerouting jobs easier and more efficient. 'We have a sophisticated, web-based scheduling system that allows us to coordinate between multiple divisions in our company,' says Hartel. Martin also uses an Excel spreadsheet for the rotational on-call schedule for his engineers.
Market your new services.
Once you have your emergency offerings ready for the public, it's time to let your customers and prospects know about it.
Be sure to spread the word about your 24/7 services:
- In your email newsletter.
- On social media.
- By offering your current customers an incentive to share the information with their friends.
- On your website.
- In a press release to the local media.
- On your vehicle signage.
- In your outgoing voicemail message.
Need more help? We've created 17 posts about different types of marketing for field service businesses, from social media to relationship marketing. You can see them all here.
Move beyond paper scheduling.
Not ready to invest in a field service management system with an intelligent scheduling feature? We created a free Excel job status sheet just for small to medium-sized field service businesses. Click the banner below and you'll be just a few seconds away from a free, simple tool that works way better than a paper-based system.