By Sam Prickett
On a recent, cold January night, Joseph Braswell woke up to a ringing phone. Even though it was the middle of the night, he answered it.
The person on the other end — a customer of Guin Service, Braswell’s family business — was having a particularly bad night. The freezing weather had caused their pipes to rupture.
“So I woke up and found somebody to go out there and fix the problem in the middle of the night,” Braswell said.
It wasn’t long before the phone rang again — another customer, another burst pipe.
“From time to time, that gets frustrating for employees, as I’m sure you can imagine,” Braswell said. “But in a company meeting not that long ago, I pulled everybody together and said, ‘I know it’s not fun, but if you can sleep tonight knowing that one of our customers is sleeping without heat or has water pouring down their ceiling, and you don’t feel any emotion over that, then you’re working at the wrong company.’”
That approach has paid off for Guin Service, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.
The Birmingham-based company, which specializes in plumbing, heating, and air conditioning, was founded by Braswell’s grandfather, W.C. “Bill” Guin, in 1958. Guin was in his mid-20s then. By the time he retired, handing the business off to Braswell just a few years ago, he was in his early 80s.
“I think it was a big deal to him to not necessarily keep it in the family, but keep it with somebody that he knew would carry on the legacy and would do it honestly,” Braswell said. “That always meant more to him than making the money. … If all he cared about was the money, he would have sold it years ago, you know?”
The Guin legacy, he said, is to value customer service over profits, “no matter what.”
Sometimes that means answering service calls in the middle of the night; sometimes it simply means agreeing with a customer, even when they’re wrong.
“It’s not that rare for me to give someone their money back when we did absolutely nothing wrong,” Braswell said. “To be able to call one of your employees and say, ‘I know you did a good job today with Mrs. So-and-so, but I’m going to give her her money back for the sake of customer service,’ … I learned early on that’s just the better approach than calling the customer, arguing and telling them why you did something. It makes the employees’ lives easier, it makes the customers’ lives easier, it makes my life easier.”
Customers As Family
It comes down to treating customers like family, he said, and taking extra effort to fight against the stigma of the plumbing and air conditioning businesses “trying to take advantage of you.”
“That stigma’s there, so we work twice as hard to eliminate it,” Braswell said. “I’ve been in other meetings at other (similar) businesses, and they sit there and say, ‘Alright, how can we make money today? Which ones of these customers that we’re going to today can we convert into a big job?’ And that’s just the exact opposite of what we say in our meetings. In our meetings, we talk about the week before and the mistakes we made and how we cannot repeat them. I can’t remember the last time we talked about money in one of our meetings. It’s just not what motivates us.”
That commitment has remained steadfast even amid a changing industry, which has evolved as technology has grown more and more complex.
“When they started doing air conditioning and heating back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they would essentially build the equipment,” Braswell said. “They would go buy the components, go to the (work site) and put it together to make the system work. Now, you can go to a supply house and buy an air conditioner and (install it) in a day. Those air conditioners are so advanced, there are so many computer systems and everything like that. Since I’ve worked (at Guin), the technology has changed (to) Wi-Fi thermostats and air conditioners that can tell you whether they’re broken or not. …. It’s just happened really quickly.”
Guin’s business model has changed over the years as well. Under W.C. Guin, the company focused mostly on construction work, with the service side of the business a much smaller, complementary part of the company. But when Guin “semi-retired” in 1990, the construction side was drastically scaled back, Braswell said.
“So now what we’re running is just the service part. We’ll do little construction jobs here or there, but it’s mainly just service. If something breaks in your home or business, we come out and fix it or replace it.”
That side of the business has doubled in size over the past decade.
But at the end of the day, Braswell said, “not a lot has changed for the way people want to be treated … . Show up on time, quote a price, honor the price, if something messes up, go back and make it right. I’m not sure that much has changed in 60 years. Maybe we send text message reminders and automatic email thank-yous instead of handwritten notes. We collect upon completion with a credit-card swiper instead of writing up an invoice and putting it in the mail, but it’s just the same kind of principles.” ❖