Although most handyman businesses are one-pickup operations
with low overhead and no employees, that's not the only
possible business model. I own a full-service kitchen-and-bath
remodeling business in eastern Massachusetts that specializes
in high-end custom work. For several years now, I've run a
handyman service as a sideline, and it's proven to be a
worthwhile addition to my main business.
One key benefit is that it lets us turn potential down time
into revenue. Although plenty of work is still available, the
pace has slowed from what it was a year or two ago when jobs
were going begging. In a slower market, the handyman service
provides a way to keep my staff busy and paying for themselves
while I'm selling that next big job.
But even more important, our handyman operation is a valuable
marketing tool. It's a way to show new customers that we do
prompt, reliable work. Planing doors and patching holes in
drywall isn't very profitable, but that's not really the point.
Our willingness to do such small jobs and do them well makes us
stand out from the competition. When a former handyman customer
decides to launch a major remodeling project, we're usually the
top choice for that job.
Levels of Service
The idea for a handyman service came out of a request from a
remodeling customer we'd done quite a bit of expensive work for
over the years. He called in a panic to ask us if we'd come
over and put up some Christmas lights before his kids arrived
for the holidays.
Naturally, we tried to tell him there was no way we could do
something like that. We explained that it would involve pulling
carpenters off another job at our usual labor rate of $65 an
hour. He said that was fine with him. So, because he was a good
customer, I sent a couple of guys to his house. They bought
lights at the local hardware store -- charging our regular
hourly rate for the necessary time -- then got out a couple of
ladders, drove some hooks, and strung up the lights.
It seemed silly at the time, but once we collected the money
and stopped laughing, I realized that it might not be such a
joke, after all. That simple job had made an existing customer
so happy that I began wondering whether thisapproach could also
be a self-supporting way to create new customers. I decided to
give it a try, and, after a couple of false starts, we
developed a three-level approach that seems to work for the
types of homeowners we look to for new business.
Annual maintenance. We began
by offering an annual home maintenance contract for a flat fee
of $695 per year. This includes an initial survey of the house
and two scheduled four-hour visits per year by one of our
tradespeople. During the first three hours of each visit, we
take care of a laundry list of routine jobs that, as builders,
we know most customers simply never do, including caulking
baths and showers, changing hvac filters, sealing grout, and
even testing fire extinguishers and replacing smoke-alarm
batteries. The final hour of each visit is reserved for any odd
jobs that the customer might want to have done, from replacing
faucet washers to installing towel bars.
We advertised this service on our website and with a trifold
brochure that we handed out to prospects and mailed to past
remodeling customers (see Figure 1).
Figure 1.The brochure for the author's home
maintenance program details the handyman services the company
can provide and contains a postage-paid mail-in card. The
company's full-service remodeling business is mentioned only in
passing, but more complete information is later provided to all
contacts and new customers.
One Call projects. In the
beginning, we thought the yearly maintenance program would be
our biggest seller. But after some discussions with customers,
we realized that it wasn't what most of them really wanted.
They weren't balking at the $65 hourly rate, but instead of
having us replace filters and batteries, they wanted us to take
care of a wide variety of odd jobs around the house. In effect,
it was the last hour of the maintenance plan that interested
them, not the first three.
We spun off a second program we named One Call: Customers tell
us what kinds of small jobs they need done, and one of our
workers takes care of them at the usual hourly rate. This is
our most popular service.
Service sales projects are
jobs that are too large to estimate over the phone. In those
cases, we schedule an initial visit to look over the job and
prepare an estimate. Instead of charging an hourly rate for
these sales service jobs, we quote a price as we would for a
To prevent unnecessary paperwork, though, we don't use our
standard remodeling contract, which assumes that there will be
pages of drawings and specifications -- things that have little
bearing on most $2,000 repair jobs. Instead, we have customers
sign a simple one-page proposal on our letterhead, which has
space for the scope of work, price, and terms of payment; it
also contains a basic disclaimer (Figure 2). For most small
jobs, the terms are payment upon completion, although we
sometimes get a deposit for larger small jobs.
Figure 2.For basic repair or service projects that
exceed the scope of the company's by-the-hour handyman service,
the author uses a simple one-page contract printed on company
Tracking and Assigning Jobs
For this system to work, the person who takes the initial
calls has to have enough experience to identify the level of
service required. At some point we may try to develop a
detailed lead sheet that allows a support person to do this,
but so far I've been handling the initial calls myself.
Registration. Since one of
the main reasons for having a handyman service is to develop a
file of customers who might someday be interested in having
major work done, we complete a simple registration form for all
new customers during the initial phone call. Customers can also
fill out the form themselves at our website and send it in by
e-mail (Figure 3). There's also a space on the form for
prospects to describe the types of maintenance and repair jobs
they'd like us to do.
Figure 3.Potential customers who contact the
company by e-mail are asked to fill out a simple registration
form. In addition to proving useful for planning site visits,
that information can be used to identify future remodeling
This makes it clear at the outset that we're interested in
establishing a long-term relationship, not just rustling up a
few hours' worth of odd jobs. Once we have the pertinent
information, like age of home, type of heat, number of baths,
and so forth, we call and set up an appointment for the first
One Call or service sales?
Yearly maintenance work is straightforward and easily defined,
so the real challenge is differentiating the relatively simple
One Call projects from service sales work. In general, we try
to keep One Call jobs under $1,000; if it's going to be more
than that, we prefer to bump it into the sales service category
and do an estimate.
Say a customer calls and asks us to replace some wallplates.
It's easy to come up with a time estimate for that, but relying
on the customer for information is not always so simple. A call
about a sticking door could mean the customer needs a few
minutes' work with a power plane, or it could mean a failed
So even though we do our best to get it right at the outset,
sometimes what we find at the house isn't what we expected. If
the worker I've sent to handle the job finds that it's a bigger
project than we thought, he calls me on his cell phone right
away. Then I get on the line with the customer and tell them
I'm sorry, but it looks like the job is more complicated than
we thought. If the customer wants to go ahead, we bump it up
into the service sales category and treat the initial call as
an estimating visit.
This sometimes leads to some pretty large jobs. In a recent
case, a couple told us they were having problems keeping paint
on their fascia trim. This turned out to be a whole complex of
problems: Gutters weren't working, #3 pine trim wasn't
backprimed and had started to rot, and an absence of drip-edge
at the eaves was allowing roof runoff to get between siding and
wall. It turned out to be a $50,000 job.
Those customers weren't happy about spending that much money,
but they were happy to find someone who could actually fix the
problem. By the time people get around to calling us, they've
often tried unsuccessfully to fix a given problem several
times, either by working on it themselves, getting a family
member to work on it, or having the small local handyman give
it a try. When we get there, they're ready to pay what it costs
to have the job done right. The fact that we're a bigger
company with an established reputation for doing quality work
gives us the credibility that customers are looking for.
To the rescue. This is also
true of "rescue jobs," when we're called in to finish or repair
projects started by someone else. A year and a half ago, I
turned in a $200,000 bid for an addition, which ended up going
to a contractor who turned in a much lower bid. After $40,000
in change orders, the customers were within a few thousand of
what they would have spent to have us do it, and they were
stuck with a five-page punch list of items they'd given up
trying to get the original contractor to come back and do. We
finished everything off in a couple of days. There's no way the
first guy is going to get any more work from those people, but
I'm sure we will.
As remodelers who do a lot of work in occupied houses, we've
had a lot of practice keeping customers happy. Everyone who
works for us is well trained in being timely, polite, and
presentable and doing neat, high-quality work. Although a lot
of the small jobs require little in the way of carpentry
skills, we send our own carpenters out on about 60% of our
In other cases, we'll send an electrician or a painter or some
other sub. We can do this with confidence because we've trained
our subs to work to the same standards as our employees.
Handyman work is no different than large-scale remodeling work
in this respect: The customers don't necessarily know or care
who's directly employed by the contractor and who's a sub; they
just want the job to be done well by a neat and courteous
Contract labor. All
remodelers struggle with allocating employees, but small
handyman jobs make this even trickier. The maintenance part of
our business is easy to schedule because it's steady and
predictable. That's not true of the One Call and service
projects. They make unpredictable labor demands that require us
to juggle employees between jobs to get everything done.
One thing that has really helped us is our relationship with
two local labor services that provide us with both long-term
and short-term tradespeople. We pay the labor service an hourly
rate for the workers we need, and the service takes care of
worker's comp, payroll taxes, and associated paperwork. I
estimate that these contract employees cost about a dollar an
hour more than my own employees, but relying on them when we
need to lets us increase or decrease the size of our work force
without making new hires or laying off any permanent employees.
During busy times, we've had as many as 15 labor-service people
working for us at once.
Although it might sound risky to allow temporary employees to
represent your company, that hasn't been a problem for us. Most
of our "temps" are actually indistinguishable from our regular
employees. They wear the same uniforms as our regular
employees, get the same training and the same year-end bonus,
and they do the same high-quality work. One of our best lead
carpenters is a contract worker who has been with us for about
We continue to look for new ways to expand our handyman
division. We recently began partnering with a local retailer to
install ranges, cooktops, refrigerators, and other appliances.
Finding this work doesn't require any effort on our part -- the
appliance store just gives customers our card and tells them to
contact us about installation.
This can work one of two ways. If the customer calls us after
they've made the purchase, we get the necessary information
over the phone, provide a labor estimate, and schedule the job
as we would a standard One Call project.
In other cases, homeowners will call us before committing
themselves to a particular appliance because they want to be
sure they buy something that fits the available space. For a
flat $50 fee, we'll send someone out to take measurements and
let them know what their rough opening requirements are. Once
the customer makes a choice based on the information we've
provided, they often have us come back to do the actual
installation at our normal hourly rate. In that case, we'll
give them a credit for the initial $50 fee.
Low profile, high returns.
When doing appliance work, we don't say much about our
kitchen-and-bath business unless the customer specifically
asks. We don't want to leave the impression that we're using
our relationship with the appliance store to pressure them into
buying something from us. But after the job is done, we make a
point of sending the customers a follow-up letter thanking them
for their business, along with a copy of the newsletter that
describes our additional services (Figure 4).
Figure 4.All handyman customers receive a
thank-you letter and a copy of the company newsletter, which
contains information on products, design trends, and details on
the company's design-build services.
That approach has been very successful. A few months ago, we
sent a mailing to a customer after we'd installed an oven for
her. She was already happy with the quality of our work, so she
had no hesitation about hiring us to build her an elaborate new
mahogany deck.Certified kitchen designer Peter
Lawtonis owner and president of
designPLUS, a design-build remodeling company in Worcester,