Customer Service Key to Success for Dundon Plumbing and Heating

The keys to small-business longevity are good customer service, happy employees and use of quality products, according to the leader of one venerable Vermont restroom provider.
Customer Service Key to Success for Dundon Plumbing and Heating
Chris Dundon, owner of Dundon Plumbing and Heating in Orwell, Vertmont, stands with his fleet of portable restrooms from Satellite Industries and PolyPortables. The company has over 500 portable restrooms and several trailers as well. (Photos by Oliver Parini)

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As Dundon Plumbing and Heating celebrates 95 years in business, owner Chris Dundon reflects on a few issues the company deals with and philosophies they operate under. It was started in 1921 by his grandfather, Joe Dundon, as a plumbing business, but to make a real go of it in the small farming community of Orwell, Vermont, other services were added along the way — septic work, storage container rentals, air duct cleaning, recycling and trash drop-off service, water treatment installs. The most recent addition was portable restrooms in 1999.

“One day I’m reading my plumbing magazine and I see there’s the Pumper (WWETT) show in three days,” Dundon says. “And I just thought, why couldn’t I get into that business? I’ve got an old truck. We can put a hose on it.” He went to the show, bought 10 units and started learning about the industry. Today he’s got over 500 Satellite Industries and PolyPortables units and eight trailered VIP and Prestige NuConcepts restroom units. Septic service and portable sanitation now account for 60 percent of his work.

The team of 12 (14 in the summer) works within a one-and-a-half hour radius or up to four hours for restroom trailers. Dundon says it’s a small business but he tries to run it with the same professionalism found in a large operation. “It’s not a business for everybody,” he says, “but it’s been enjoyable.”

1. Working the weddings

Dundon’s first units were offered to his construction accounts, which are still 70 percent of his business, but barn weddings popular to his region soon became a focus.

“Construction units were never good at weddings,” he says. “People were looking for something better.” He provided new, clean and attractive units (using Walex Products deodorizers).

And when he saw that wasn’t enough, either, he started buying the VIP trailered units. But Dundon says the real key to success is not the product he offers but the service he provides, and weddings are a special animal.

“It’s a whole different marketplace,” he says. “You have to have somebody who really takes the time with the bride and goes over everything. You have to have a good website, good literature.” He also cautions you’re likely to get mixed messages from the different people involved — dad might want a standard unit but the bride wants a trailer, the mother-in-law thinks it should go here, the groom somewhere else. “It takes a special employee to do it,” he says. “And a lot of coordination and patience.”

2. Weathering the cold

In the winter, Dundon’s 9,000-square-foot facility, which houses a six-bay garage, a paint shop, and welding and fabrication facilities, is where the staff spends a lot of their time. He always buys used vehicles, then sets the team to work, whether a truck needs a new paint job, body work, hose replacements, engine maintenance, pump repair. Or they might just want to paint a truck red, white and blue and add a few flags.

Their portable sanitation fleet includes a 2001 International 4400 with a 600-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater tank, a 2009 International 4400 with a 1,200-gallon waste/400-gallon tank, and a 2013 GMC rack truck with a 300-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater tank, all with Masport pumps. Tanks are steel. A dedicated portion of their shop is used to mix the salt.

Unless they know for certain they’re in a warm spell, they also add methanol, especially since they have a number of ski area accounts. “We learned the lesson the hard way one year,” Dundon says, “They all froze up on us and we had to go around and chunk them all out.”

It’s not just trucks the company works on. They built a couple of their transport trailers, and they also recondition portable restrooms. “Some are 30 years old,” Dundon says, “but when we get done with them they look brand new.”

3. Valuing the team

The other side of the success story is your employees, Dundon says. “I can have all the signs I want on my equipment but if you don’t have the people, forget the sign because you’re not going to have a business.” In an area lacking an abundant supply of labor, he tries hard to make his company a place people want to work.

Employees receive a good salary, vacation and sick leave, health insurance and a retirement plan. Beyond that, Dundon says he wouldn’t ask anyone to do something he wouldn’t do, he works hard to keep the lines of communication open and treats the staff as professionals. In fact, he treats them like family — “Because that is my family, and that’s how I’d want to be treated. I have a great team of people who appreciate what I do for them and I appreciate what they do for me.”

4. Answering the phone

Customer service is critical, Dundon says. “Customers are the ones who buy your car, your house, your food.” That means treat them with respect, don’t take them for granted, follow through on everything. It also means investing in things like fleet tracking software (FleetLocate from Spireon) for more efficient routing and emergency response.

But for Dundon, good service starts with that first customer contact — the phone call. When you call Dundon’s you will always get a live person, 24 hours a day. “I do not believe in answering machines,” he says. An after-hours answering service takes information or dispatches someone on calls. Everyone is instructed to put the customer at ease and ask how they can help. “I tell them to take their time and listen to the customer.”

Dundon says small-business owners don’t realize how much business they lose because they either don’t answer the phone or it’s not answered professionally. “People are throwing business away just by the way they’re talking,” he says. Customers want to know they have your attention. “People don’t care if you’ve got a big beautiful building or you work out of your two-car garage, but if you answer the phone that’s the whole key.”

5. Knowing your numbers

Dundon is a big believer in trade associations. “You can learn so much from those people,” he says. “If you attach yourself to successful people you’ll be successful.” He’s a member of the National Association of Wastewater Technicians, Plumbers Success International and Portable Association Sanitation International (PSAI), an organization he thinks any PRO would be foolish not to join. “You can learn as much in a year as would take you 10 years to figure out on your own,” he says.

One valuable lesson he learned is the importance of knowing your profit margin and the true cost of running your business. “You’re not just selling a plastic box,” he says. “You’re selling your services. People forget that. My theory is, don’t worry about what other people charge. You’ve got to charge what you’ve got to charge and the only way you can figure that out is to see what your expenses are.”

Dundon really values the education he gets from trade groups. “They’re expensive to join,” he says, “but if you want to better yourself, it’s like going to college, you’ve got to pay to do it.”


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