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Franchising Trends

Franchises Are Teaching "Handyman Etiquette"

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Franchises are setting guidelines for handling sticky situations, from scantily clad customers to kids who play with tools.

As owner of a Mr. Handyman franchise in Los Angeles, T.L. Tenenbaum has rigid guidelines for the best approach to difficult drywall and plumbing problems. He also has ground rules for other home hazards his workers might encounter--say a misplaced pair of racy underwear or, as once happened, a butcher knife found under a bed.

"Avert your eyes and pretend it doesn't exist," Mr. Tenenbaum instructs his techs on day one. "Pretend everything you see is perfectly normal."

Another common land mine: feuding spouses who involve technicians in personal matters--such as asking whether a married man should be friends with his ex-girlfriend.

Mr. Tenenbaum's orders: Agree with everyone, and don't take sides. "We are doctors for their homes and--people feel--for their relationships and their personal problems as well," he notes.

Trade professionals have long faced unique challenges when conducting business in the privacy of their customers' homes, but how they handled them was generally up to the individual. Now, a fast-growing industry of branded, home-maintenance franchises with such names as House Doctors and Mr. Handyman are trying to hone protocols for prickly on-the-job scenarios from scantily clad customers to overeager kids who want to play with tools.

Summer is key home-improvement time, and helping fuel these franchises' growth is an aging U.S. housing stock; the average abode is 33, older than at any previous time in U.S. history and often in need of a little nip and tuck that major contractors are too busy to take on. Meantime, overall home-improvement spending by homeowners continues to tick upward, rising 5.2% from the end of the first quarter of last year through the first quarter of 2005 and totaling $126.1 billion for 2004, up 15% from 2001, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing studies.

As with any franchise outfit, standardization is vital to developing a unique brand and streamlined systems. In the case of franchised home helpers, protocols help distinguish workers from the rather laissez-faire world of local "Chuck in a Truck" servicemen who often get tapped for small jobs. Trying to toss out bad apples at the front lines, many handyman franchises run criminal background and motor-vehicle department checks on the techs they hire. About 70% of applicants fail right off the bat, says Andy Bell, founder of Handyman Matters Franchising Corp. of Denver, which manages 100 franchises in 37 states.

"We took a random sample of 100 applicants, and only 30 of them were qualified to work in someone's home," he says. The remainder had offenses on their records, Mr. Bell says, including aggravated assault, weapons possession, rape and child molestation.

For the techs his franchisees do hire, Mr. Bell is strict about how initial contact is made with a homeowner. Techs must take two steps back after ringing a doorbell and wear a uniform with an identifying logo. (That includes belts to prevent the "plumber problem," Mr. Bell notes.)

Among other specifics in the corporate operations manual for Handyman Matters: "No music in the house without headphones" and "Don't use foul language, even if we hit our finger."

Rival Mr. Handyman International LLC, Ann Arbor, Mich., requires its workers to remove sunglasses and carry clipboards when approaching a house. They also must immediately present a business card. "Otherwise, customers feel suspicious," says Mr. Handyman's vice president of operations, John Eggenberger, who sets corporate policies for the company's 98 franchises.

At Mr. Handyman, uniforms are a collared shirt and slacks--no jeans--and techs are told to don booties or spread a tarp before stepping on carpet. That is all to put the customer at ease. Most times, there is a woman at home, Mr. Eggenberger says, noting that 95% of his service techs are men and that "people are skeptical of tradesmen to begin with."

Indeed, the home fix-it industry's reputation is ripe for a little polishing of its own: For the past five years, home-improvement contracting has been listed among the top three areas of consumer complaints reported, according to the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators.

Most home-improvement franchise technicians are bonded and have workers' compensation. Handyman Matters has a liability policy that covers each customer as much as $2 million an incident.

During their orientation at the franchise level, Handyman Matters technicians must sit through a two-hour video about in-home conduct. The company also operates "secret shopper calls" where it gives customers scripts and asks them to monitor techs on certain protocols.

Another franchise operation, H.D. Franchising Systems LLC (aka "House Doctors Handyman Service"), Milford, Ohio, runs mock in-home scenarios in classrooms during its weeklong training program for new business owners. For instance, customers' homes often are such a mess that technicians can't access the work area, says company President Steve Cohen, who oversees H.D.'s 200 franchises.

"You have to be polite but firm," is Mr. Cohen's guidance. "You don't say, 'You are a messy housekeeper,' but you do say, 'I can't work here until this is cleaned out,' " he notes.

There are plenty of other uncomfortable situations. Brendan Julian, a Mr. Handyman technician in Richmond, Va., has arrived at homes with a teenage girl at the door and no adult present. In those instances, he follows company protocol and returns to the car until a grown-up returns. "We live in a litigious society," says operations chief Mr. Eggenberger.

Likewise, his handymen are instructed to never be alone in any room with a child. "Say little Suzy stubs her toe and starts crying and the tech goes to comfort her and suddenly mom walks in and there's her crying baby with my tech's arm around her?" Mr. Eggenberger says.

Individual franchise owners often develop their own measures to judge tech people's skills. Mr. Julian's boss, Gina Chapman, says she always puts job candidates on the spot during interviews by abruptly handing them a pen and asking them to sell it to her. The point: to see how they will react on their feet. "We had a customer answer the door naked," she says. Fortunately, her tech met the challenge gracefully, she says, and quipped: "Now, I don't know what kind of service you think you called..."

Lawn-maintenance franchises such as Lawn Doctor Inc., based in Holmdel, N.J., which operates 475 U.S. franchises, have their own at-home obstacles: among them, locked gates (rule: never hop over one) and toy-strewn front lawns (remove them or reschedule). Then there is the homeowner in a bikini by the pool. That one isn't in the handbook, but workers are advised to call the night before showing up as fair warning if customers request it.

Pets seem to be a constant conundrum for workers trying to do business on customers' property. Jeff Angus, who owns seven Lawn Doctor franchises in New York and Connecticut, keeps notes on who has dogs and typically phones the night before to ask clients to keep the dogs inside while they spread lawn applications.

For his part, Handyman Matters' Mr. Bell coaches techs to carry dog biscuits and to learn the animal's name (which is put into the company's computer database). That guidance doesn't suffice at all times, though: "Golden retrievers are nice, but they will carry off our tools or wag their tails in wet drywall," Mr. Bell says.


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