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/Go Rin No Sho of Business

Selling Service Accounts


by Bob Fenner


            Of the five critical elements of business: Location, Set Up, Stock, Personnel and Finance, the last is often THE key win/lose issue in whether a business continues or not. After all; if one has “sufficient” money, they can afford to change location, add to or modify the set up and stock, and hire new and better folks to work with.

            This “funds rule” applies to doing aquarium installs and maintenance work for sure. Hence, a central focus of your efforts should revolve around garnering new accounts AND doing your best to retain the present ones.

Many good shops, friends who own and work them in the trade, rely on the service side of their business to keep their stores going. Without service work some would not survive financially. Here are Rob Bray (House of Fins, CT), Chris Turk (H2O Tropical Foods), BobF and Morgan Lidster of Inland Aquatics, Terre Haute, IN, out at Jim Walter’s “Old Town Aquarium” in Chicago for an after Aquatic Experience party in 2014. Rob, Morgan and Jim have very serious service businesses along with their retail.



Where to Find New Accounts; Leads:

            The best, bar-none source of new work is referral from your existing customers. They and your work are living proof of your competence and expertise. DO accumulate good image work of your installs, including mechanicals and controllers… and affidavits from your customers, subcontractors, designer’s et al. for your portfolio, work to show to prospects and your website. ASK if it would be okay to attach a professional sticker to the stand, inside the canopy, on the sumps… for ready referral, others to see and gain your contact information.

            Other referrals, especially when starting out with few accounts can prove invaluable. Do check with the best local fish stores to see if they do their own installs, ongoing maintenance; or if not they will refer you in exchange for your purchasing supplies, livestock from their shop. Often times LFSs don’t have the time, staff or just inclination to do even initial set ups, or just deliveries. Here you can score a win for all by offering to act as a liaison, though separate business; providing all “post-system-sale” services. In the happiest, most cooperative of relationships, the LFS/s will allow you to post your descriptive business cards and flyers at the store.

            On the same wavelength is signage. By all means you, your staff should be wearing company shirts; with the co. name and logo proudly displayed; ditto for well-made business location and vehicle signs; adding your subcontractor or contracting license number of legal size to the latter as well as your business cards and stationary.

            Buying existing accounts from stores and competitors is another worthwhile possibility. We used to offer three times the monthly income for purchased contracts; though I have heard of even more generous terms by others.

            Another productive means of promoting your aquatic services is through marketing events, displays set up at shopping centers, trade shows and consumer get-togethers. This proves especially fruitful during seasonal events like national holidays.

            How useful is a good Web Page? IF it’s done well; is regional “enough”, having your own URL can serve to notify potential customers of your existence, extent of your work; to some degrees and ways legitimize your operation. I do not give much credence to a site’s value in actually selling new work, informing current customers; or wowing and zowing the public. Better to spend your time, money, efforts on much more direct, one on one avenue.

            About “Yellow Page”, BBB, other paid for “pro” media: Most all are a waste of resources. Do you really want people contacting you out of the blue; to answer their questions, give qualified bids, consulting for free? Me neither. These resources just don’t pay in terms of return on investment. They may be “ego boosters”, but anyone who has been around a while knows that they are unsupportable pay-for relation gimmicks.


How Much to Charge:

            It’s always a good idea to check to see what the apparent competition are charging for similar work, but depending on the market segment clientele you’re aiming to serve, price alone may not be very important. Our service division (Aquatic Life Services) used to bill regular service work at $35/hour, including time for transit to/from the site, getting organized, loading and some time for paperwork at the end of the day. Supervisory work (with more than one technician on site) was billed at $50/hour, and consulting at $100/h, with a minimum two hour charge. MANY friends in the trade currently charge much more; and of a necessity. We paid our service tech.s a percentage of the labor we charged in turn to the customers; usually thirty some percent to start. What does the remaining part of the cost cover? The use of a company vehicle (VERY important to have insurance, the registration in the company’s name) inclusive of gas, maintenance… Also included are all the “indirect labor burden”… the other half of Social Security, labor taxes at the State, Federal and often local levels; the overall administration expense (rent, utilities and much more) and hopefully a reasonable profit.

            Our accounts were of two types: All inclusive and not. The first included everything provided at a monthly or stated flat rate… Livestock, food, materials of all kinds, as well as labor, for one fee. The non-inclusive accounts were charged separately for everything that went into their systems along with a labor charge that included cleaning supplies.


Closing the Deals:

            All bids and contracts are ONLY real as in print. Never get out of the practice of putting everything down in writing. Be professional and employ your own company stationary with pertinent information like your licensing, contact information and logo on it. Even when you’re a much larger company with several employees, I strongly encourage you to make sales presentations yourself, and in person. Everyone needs to feel important, and there is no one who represents the company more so than the owner.


Regular Billing:

            Learn to and use a rigorous billing software and accounting program; they’re not difficult to master, and remember: “It’s not what you make, but what you get to keep” that is important. Ultimately it is up to YOU to assure that your company is being operated properly; including profitability.

            I like to use a standard form for all work; ours were 8.5 by 11 landscape printed sheets with the date, who did the work, what was done, the amount of time expended, and the last box/section set aside for “To be done” notes. Our financial division used each accounts folder and these sheets to tally up our accounts monthly billings. We used the records here as well to keep track of all purchased materials and supplies; yes; inventory control. We will have more to say about this in the next installment in this series (Setting up your service business).

            We charged full retail equivalent for all livestock and drygoods, but didn’t bill for the time to pick up or prepare (e.g. quarantine) biota, foods et al.; absorbing these costs as part of the mark up in goods sold.

How often is sufficient to service an aquarium, pond, lake or fountain? Most freshwater systems do fine visited once a week; some outdoor ones even less frequently during cooler water months. Marine systems require at least once weekly professional checking and care; testing water, topping off with freshwater, making sure there are no issues with the livestock or appearance.


            I prefer to mail billings out to customers, but know of other service companies that hand deliver theirs, even accepting credit cards then and there if this is how the account wants to pay.



            Being an “aquaria adept” is not enough to be successful in our trade; knowing what to do and having the tools, materials and knowledge to “do it” won’t avail you anything unless you can and do sell yourself and your efforts to prospective customers. The means to go about this activity are many and related; but some avenues are far more worthy, generate R.O.E. (return on effort) far better than others. Think long and hard about who you are, want to be; and DO develop a working Marketing Plan/Strategy along with your general Business Plan and proposed Income/Expense spread sheet to keep you on tract and review.

            Most of all, as the saying goes, “nothing succeeds like success”; get on out and don’t be shy about promoting yourself and your services. For many folks who are “too shy”, this is a real stumbling block to personal success; but don’t despair. Getting out making sales calls gets easier and easier; even fun as a game with practice.


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