Not drinking at the drinking fountain

photo (4)A few months ago, I attended a week-long class on innovation. The class was built on the premise that successful innovations come from identifying unmet needs and meeting those needs. And, how do you find unmet needs? In many cases, simply by observing how people are currently doing a job. How are they trying to get something done, and what are the obstacles to getting it done?

Here’s a great example – the recent advancement of the humble drinking fountain which had until recently, remained virtually unchanged since the first one was installed in 1912.

Someone started looking at, or perhaps just noticed how people were actually using drinking fountains today. They observed that in many cases, people weren’t drinking directly from the fountain as it was designed, but using it to fill their water bottle. And if you’ve ever done that, you know that it’s an awkward thing to do. You have to tilt the bottle just right, it’s hard to get the bottle full, and you always splash some. There was an unmet need and an obstacle to getting a simple job done.

The innovation is a water fountain that is actually designed to make filling your water bottle as easy as possible. Set your bottle under the nozzle and a sensor turns on a stream of chilled, filtered water automatically. Pull the bottle away and the water stops (or in 20 seconds, whichever comes first).

What I find especially interesting about this innovation is that it not only fills an unmet need by making a job easier, but it also hits some marketing “megatrends” such as consumers’ desire to consume more water but reduce the number of bottles they use. Add to that how much more hygienic this system is, since it minimizes the transfer of viruses due to physical contact.

The conventional drinking fountain isn’t going to disappear and where I’m seeing these, there’s a traditional water fountain next to it. But my guess is that you’re going to start seeing more of these water stations. All because someone saw how a job (filling a water bottle) was getting done and innovated to make it easier.

Like the baseball player Yogi Berra once quipped, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

Ten things I wish the public knew: #2

Drilling day2Last week, I started my short series on the ten things I wish the public knew about our industry (Ten things #1) and covered the first three. Here’s this week’s list:

4. Groundwater expertise is different than plumbing expertise.

Not all groundwater contractors are plumbers, and not all plumbers are groundwater contractors. In fact, although some water well contractors and drillers provide plumbing services as part of their business, most of the time they don’t overlap. The groundwater industry requires a distinct knowledge base and skill set–and even different equipment. Think of it this way: someone who works on melting furnaces in foundries is not the same person who would on the furnace in your home, and vice versa. Some of the underlying science and mechanics might be similar, but these are really two different jobs requiring distinct expertise.

5. We work under tight regulatory constraints.

Groundwater is a precious resource and, appropriately, obtaining a license to access and drill into it is a formidable task. In addition, nearly all states require water well contractors to receive a certain number of hours of continuing education each year in order to maintain that license. Of course, given the size and complexity of a drilling rig, there’s a significant safety and driver training component as well. We don’t just punch holes in the ground; we have to be well-trained and ensure regulatory compliance.

6. The lowest priced water system may not be the best quality water system.

I’m a firm believer that you generally get what you pay for. Go to the internet or the Yellow Pages and you’ll probably find several options for water well contractors in any given area. Whether you’re installing a new system or simply need to get back in water, the lowest price isn’t always the best option. For example, one contractor may be offering an upgraded system that includes constant pressure, whereas another may be offering a conventional system. One may offer a tank sized to meet your needs today, but another may offer a tank sized to accommodate potential demand increases. Different prices may also be reflective of different warranty options or service agreements. In the long run, it pays to understand the difference.

Next week I’ll wrap up the series with 4 more Things I wish the public knew about our business. Stay tuned.

When things go wrong

Presentation1This week I attended the Pumper Cleaner Environmental Expo in Indianapolis. By all appearances, this is a very well-managed convention and here’s a concrete reason why I can say that.

I was especially looking forward to one of the seminars on Tuesday. The timing was somewhat inconvenient, but I adjusted my schedule to make sure I could attend. However, when I arrived at the designated room at the appointed hour, a “SEMINAR CANCELLED” sign had been placed outside the door.

The first reaction of course was irritation and several of us gathered inside the meeting room expressing our mutual annoyance. Then however, someone from the show’s management appeared. To begin with, he apologized and then went on to explain that the speaker had gotten caught up in the blizzard back home in the country’s midsection. The speaker wasn’t going anywhere for at least a couple of days. Then, he projected on the screen several on-line resources that the speaker had recommended in lieu of his presence. He also recommended a couple of other seminars down the hall that were happening at the same time.

Once again, it showed that when things go wrong, there’s a good way and a bad way to handle them. The easy thing for this individual to have done was to just leave the sign there and not deal with it. However, by showing up personally and explaining what had happened and offering alternatives, no one left the room grumbling. A job professionally done.

Read all about it!

800px-Sedona_Red_Rock_News

I’ve talked in past posts about the importance of being involved in your community as part of building good relationships with your customer base. Here’s a tip related to this that I heard years ago but was recently reminded of again.

A friend of mine sells manufacturing equipment over a large, multi-state area. Given the size of his territory, he can only see most of his customers once a month.

Many of his customer visits are in smaller, out-of-the-way towns. He normally arrives the night before the customer meeting, but before going to the hotel, he makes it a point to pick up a copy of the local newspaper to read. As a result, he’s more engaged and informed the next day about what’s going on in the community than he would be otherwise. He says it just makes conversations go better, especially those in informal meetings over breakfast and lunch. As an alternative, he sometimes catches the local TV news, but he maintains there’s nothing better than the local newspaper to get him up-to-date. And besides, he says those papers are often more interesting than the ubiquitous USA Today.

It’s a small thing and the trade area of your water systems business probably doesn’t cover multiple states. But the point remains – most of us like to do business with people that are part of our community. For you, that may mean coaching Little League or serving in a volunteer organization or even being involved local politics. Whatever the venue, being engaged with your customers also means being involved with what’s going on in your community.

Sit down and discuss

In a previous career, a management tool that was required in the organization I was a part of was the “brief” and “debrief”. That is, before an event, a briefing was held with the participants in front of a whiteboard. The brief could take 10 minutes to an hour, but by the time you walked out of that room, you understood the plan and your role in it.

photo (3)Just as important was the debrief. It took place immediately after the event and had  four parts:

1. A quick review of what we set out to do.

2. An assessment of what actually happened.

3. A dialogue of why there was a difference between what we planned and what actually happened (this was usually the most interesting segment).

4. A discussion of the lessons learned both good and bad. What actions should we keep for next time and what do we NOT want to do next time?

Of course, sports teams do this type of thing as a matter of course. But these are generally one-sided affairs from the coach to the team. Properly done, both the brief and debrief should involve all of the participants. And while I hesitate to advocate more meetings, I think as businesses, we should spend more time briefing and debriefing events.

Here’s an example… If I’m involved in one of our Field Service seminars, I’ll make sure the team gets together the night before to discuss. Not only will we discuss details such as who’s presenting what material when, but we’ll also cover the big issues, like what we want the attendees to learn. .

As soon as possible after the seminar, we’ll sit down and debrief the day’s events. We’ll follow the pattern above and have a good discussion of what went right and where can we improve. It’s almost always a very worthwhile discussion.

As a water systems contractor, when does sitting down and holding a briefing make sense? How about before that sales pitch to a major customer such as a municipality? Then afterwards, sit down and debrief how it went. Or, how about before that major installation that involves lots of players? At the end of the day, what were the lessons learned?

Holding a briefing and debriefing doesn’t make sense much of the time. But, making a conscious effort to sit down before and after major events allows you to constantly improve your team’s performance and will generally be a lot more productive than just walking into an event and “winging it”.

Hibernate or cultivate?

winterBaby, it’s cold outside.

In the winter months, the ground in much of the country is frozen. Construction gears down and moves to indoor projects, fields lie dormant with no need for irrigation, and no one fills swimming pools or plays in garden hoses. The reality of our world is that we gear up for “the season” and then hunker down to weather the off-months until the next one comes around. There just isn’t much new installation work in those months, so we sit around waiting for something to break. That’s just how it is.

Or is it?

I would argue that the off-season presents a tremendous opportunity to cultivate rather than hibernate. When the business slows down, we have a chance to reach out to people, build relationships, and add value in ways that can help balance out the cyclical nature of the water systems business. Consider the following:

  • Offer a total system check, following an example often seen in the HVAC business. $99 (pick your price) for a comprehensive evaluation of water system health, including tank charge, pressure switch review, and motor resistance. Is your home ready for summer? Don’t run out of water when you need it most.
  • When people have had a full house for the holidays, they often expose the limitations of their water systems. Not enough water pressure or fluctuating water pressure may have surfaced as an issue during heavy use. While the memory is fresh, this is a great time to suggest an upgrade to a SubDrive controller or an Inline 1100 whole-house pressure booster. Did you have to schedule your shower time when Aunt Mary and her family came to visit? Make sure your system is ready for guests with SubDrive/Inline 1100! (On the flip side, you can gear up for the holidays in the same way.)

With a little creative thinking and proactive bustle, you can turn even the winter months into a profitable period for your business. Who cares if it’s cold outside?

Water Well Wednesday

Last week at the Kansas Groundwater Show in Hutchinson, Kansas, I met Bruce Reichmuth of Hydro Resources (formerly Henkle Drilling) out of Garden City, Kansas. Bruce is in a small and unique club in our industry: once a week, he goes on the air at KIUL Radio 1240 AM and talks about water wells, drilling, pumps, and just about anything else having to do with groundwater.

1240It all started a few years ago when Henkle Drilling changed their name to Hydro Resources. To make sure that their customers knew about the name change, Hydro bought a few spots on KIUL. That relationship lead to the host of Mid America in the Morning to ask Bruce to be a one-time guest on the show to talk “a little bit about water wells.”

Pretty soon it was once a week, and two years later, Bruce is still at it. Every Thursday morning around 9:40, Bruce is on the air at KIUL to talk about a groundwater topic. Topics range from seasonal considerations, drought conditions, how pumps work, simple trivia, drilling methods, and even constant pressure systems – anything that educates the audience about groundwater. Sometimes Bruce will bring a guest with him such as a fellow employee or even an unsuspecting pump salesman. On yesterday’s show, Bruce discussed the Kansas Groundwater Convention and shared some of the McEllhiney Lecture (underwritten by Franklin Electric).

Bruce says he keeps asking the station, “Are you sure you want to keep doing this? This is all very interesting to me, but are you sure it’s that interesting to your listeners?” The reply is always the same, “YES! What you’re talking about is critical to this area and our listeners want to hear and know more about it.”

It’s actually been interesting enough that Bruce’s expertise has generated another show on KBUF 1030 AM. That show is called “Water Well Wednesday” and airs live during the “Today in Agi Business” program by John Jenkinsen. This is the live broadcast from Hydro Resources’ offices once every other month.

Granted, Garden City, Kansas is a unique market area and Bruce’s radio segments wouldn’t garner the same amount of interest in Chicago or Atlanta. But it does show how important it is to provide the general public with expertise and knowledge on groundwater. Just a few minutes a week is going a long way in western Kansas.