Central to 1st Action's business is a sophisticated call centre serving customers in London and the Home Counties. On a visit to the centre in Northolt, Middlesex, Paul Braithwaite learns how the company has developed to meet customer requirements.
After 15 years in the business, 1st Action has recognised the need for changes in its business model to provide the right service for customers in 2010.
1st Action offers residents of London and the Home Counties plumbing, electrical, heating and drainage installation, maintenance and emergency breakdown service. It also has a number of managing agents as its clients too.
It has some 68 plumbers and 40 gas engineers ready, willing and able to fix any problem.
Central to the service is a sophisticated call centre which operates from the office in Northolt, Middlesex. Here, operators man telephones from 7.30am to 10.30pm, taking calls, selecting the nearest relevant engineer and sending them off to the job.
Well, it is not quite as simple as that!
Richard Clarke, chairman of the company, explains 'The call centre operators take the call and discuss with the client when the engineer can attend. If, for instance, a client has woken up and the gas central heating is not working, then it may be a case of having the engineer attend as soon as possible or perhaps when the client is home from work, at lunchtime or anytime when someone is there to let the engineer in.
'And, when the job is finished, the call centre will telephone most of the clients and check whether they are satisfied.'
Another side of the business is installation work with the call centre being able to plan in the work with the customer.
There is also the general building maintenance side of the work.
'We have grown into this as customers have asked for this service and it brings us a variety of income streams.'
Peter Molloy, the financial director, says, ' All of the engineers are sub-contractors.
'Our business operates more like a franchise except that there are no charges for the franchisee.'
About the sub-contractors who work for 1st Action, John Scott, managing director says, 'They are probably a cut above the rest,' he adds 'We do not take anyone. A number of operatives have failed our vigorous tests. We want good, competent engineers with all the right qualifications. They need to attend a job, work out what is wrong, price the job, obtain the part if it's not in the van, and they need to be able to talk to the clients, tell them how much a job will cost and do the work.'
The householder pays the invoice by credit card to 1st Action.
Any parts bought are invoiced to the company. 'All the engineer has to do is send in his call sheets and he is paid for his labour within about two weeks,' says Molloy. And training is paramount.
The engineers are sent on courses when new products are introduced and kept abreast of any relevant legislation. There are bi-annual staff meetings where all engineers are brought together.
The company was started in 1995 by John Scott and Mick Joyce (who has since left).
Three years ago when Clarke and Molloy joined, it was losing money. It was offering a national service but was unable fully to control the work of the engineers.
The three directors set about turning the company around. The business model worked but was spread over too large an area.
The move to consolidate into a smaller area obviously works.
'Offering a national service was just not practical. You never get paid for the time spent in the van. It was taking too long for the engineers to get to jobs. On paper, for instance, an engineer might be able to do six jobs a day. In practice, he might only do two. That's four clients we have let down.'
Operation is restricted to London and the Home Counties which means higher value residential properties with householders who want a professional job. More time on the job and less time in the van! And the wholesaler is nearer so obtaining parts is quicker. It's a simple equation.
Three years ago, turnover of 1st Action was £3.5 million and it was losing money. This year although the turnover is still only £3.5 million it is making a good profit.
Clarke says the number of jobs is running at about 25,000 to 30,000 a year. 'We could do about half again without having to increase call centre and administrative staff.
'But we will need more engineers, he adds.
Incidentally, that was about the same number of jobs the company was doing three years ago but, once again, the difference is that the smaller area means the company makes a profit.
And 1st Action is ready for expansion.
As well as growing organically, Scott reckons it is time for an acquisition. He says the company is willing to look at any firm, whether it is profitable or failing. More to the point, he would expect to buy a company where the boss wants to sell to retire (probably) or a thrusting, active firm where the directors would join 1st Action so that together they could make a bigger impact.
'Nothing is ruled out but I expect to look at firms with a minimum turnover of around £2 million,' says Scott.
In the next five years Scott and Clarke expect the company to grow its turnover to between £10 million and £15 million.
Interestingly, in the past the company relied on advertising in Yellow Pages and Thomson Local directories.
Today, the company is advertising less in the directories and concentrating on its state-of-the-art website which it keeps up to date and very active.
'The website is receiving 15,000 clicks a month,' says Clarke. But 1st Action has decidenot to have clients click though for an appointment.
'It is easier for them and us if they phone us and then we can find out what the problem is and when they need or would like us to send an engineer to fix it,' says Molloy. He adds that every call out is different, every client needs to feel that 1st Action is serving them as best it can but the company can do this only if there is a dialogue between the operator and the client. This way the call can be agreed at the earliest possible opportunity - and, most importantly, to the customer's complete satisfaction.
Clarke is honest. He says that everything the company does is driven by customer service. Poor customer service is rife in this sector, he believes, which is why the directors are determined 1st Action will be different.
Good customer service is about a phone number which is answered, says Clarke, and, while a mobile number is OK, it doesn't guarantee the engineer will remember to attend the appointment.
And when things go wrong, then it is all too easy to for a company to appear on programmes like Watchdog or in newspapers under headlines like 'Granny left without heat for five weeks', he warns.
'Not for us,' he insists.
Clarke believes the larger unit has to be the way forward.
The call centre seemed particularly busy when I was at the Northolt offices. I asked if the call centre needed more operators.
Clarke and Molloy laughed as they explained that two of the operators were cleaning premises for a managing agent today.
'One of our managing agents phoned in a panic to see if we had anyone on our books who could clean a house for the next tenant. Two of the women operators agreed to help us and the others were happy to cover their telephone work,' explains Clarke. 'The client needed help and staff at 1st Action rallied to the call. It's about being part of the team. It's our ethos. When a client is in trouble, we want to help.'