I was a newspaper reporter for many years, so it comes naturally to me to ask a bunch of questions and to have some healthy skepticism. I found my blind spot this week, though, and it almost cost me $4,700.
Five years ago I bought a house in South Philadelphia, and for the past two years I’ve been renting to some awesome tenants. When you own a house as old as mine — it was built about 100 years ago — there’s always a nagging fear of some huge, expensive repair coming your way. I’d been extremely lucky over those years.
So when a Roto Rooter plumber named John told me my sewer line was cracked and needed to be replaced — after all, there was raw sewage in the basement — I wasn’t that surprised. It seemed about time for shit to start hitting the fan. Or, more accurately, for shit to start leaking…
We scheduled the repair for Tuesday morning and I paid a 30% deposit. John The Plumber said it would be an eight or nine-hour job involving the sidewalk being jackhammered because the pipe is 15 feet and runs from the sidewalk grate into the basement.
Things got weird, though, and I wish I’d had some way of recording this guy without him knowing.
Basically, John told me he had been sizing me up and I seemed “cool.” So, he went on a little rant about how Roto Rooter “screws with him sometimes” and in return he “likes to screw with them sometimes, too.” He said he has three kids — a three-year-old and two older kids in boarding school — and he has to put food on the table and fill his gas tank. So he makes money on the side by doing off-the-record and under-the-table plumbing jobs for people, and he only approaches people who seem “cool.”
Then he gave me his personal cell number and told me to call him there if I had any plumbing problems in the future.
I did play it “cool,” and thanked him and whatnot. I don’t want to come across as sanctimonious, but I can’t stomach unethical behavior like this, plus it makes it clear that this guy, who I’m trusting to assess and repair my sewer line, is dishonest and shifty. I made a mental note to call the company and report him after the job was finished Tuesday.
When I told Mike all of this, he didn’t want to wait until the work was done — he called and reported the guy to Roto Rooter immediately. If he’s being dishonest when it comes to his employer, then what’s stopping him from being dishonest to customers?
Mike spoke to a manager who said the company fires people who try to hustle side plumbing jobs and they were going to talk to him about it. Then, and this is the pivotal thing that happened, he said he’d send another plumber out on Monday to check John’s work and make sure his diagnosis of a cracked pipe was accurate.
The second Roto Rooter plumber named Abdul came out Monday morning. He said he didn’t want to know what John had found — he wanted to start with a clean slate and look at the pipe for himself. He put a camera down the pipe and so we could see what it looked like on a portable monitor he set on the sidewalk. And guess what? He couldn’t find any cracks or any problems with the pipe at all. Nothing was wrong with the pipe!
The reason why raw sewage was leaking into the basement was because there was a clog in the pipe, which the first guy, John, apparently did remove. As to why he said it was cracked, well, I did some digging and one site, Glassdoor, had some answers. It’s a site where current and past employees can give anonymous reviews on employers. While I know these things should be taken with a grain of salt, I did learn that Roto Rooter changed its business model a few years back so that plumbers mainly live off commission.
So selling is a big part of the job, or as some Glassdoor reviews said, upselling. Management puts pressure on plumbers to get as much money out of customers as possible, which makes John’s $4,700 assessment easy to understand. Plumbers also must buy, insure and equip their own Roto Rooter vans, and there are also fees upon fees for other stuff, so even if you bring in $40k, a huge chunk, as much as nearly half, is taken out.
So, I get it. The business model is profitable for the company, I’m sure, since it’s the largest plumbing chain in the U.S. But that profitability comes at the expense of employee and customer satisfaction. And it leads plumbers like John down a path of corruption.
Anyway, Roto Rooter cancelled the $4,700 job and said returned my deposit. (I wasn’t charged for the second guy’s service.) The only thing left was for the raw sewage to be removed, and that part is covered by my homeowner’s insurance. Two cleanup guys came out yesterday and left a bunch of fans and dehumidifiers down there. They’ll pick up their equipment Thursday, the basement will be back to normal. I’m sure all the spiders and waterbugs will be happy to finally get some peace and quiet.
Yesterday I received a survey email asking about my Roto Rooter experience. I said this has already been reported but I wanted this to go as far up the chain of command as possible and gave a quick recap. Within a few minutes, a customer service satisfaction manager replied and thanked me for reporting this. It also said a formal complaint has been filed on my behalf, and that the general manager in Philadelphia, Dean Younkin, or a member of his staff would be contacting me within the next 30 minutes. The email came in at 10:45 a.m. Nobody contacted me.
You could say the bad guy, John, was cancelled out by the good guy who came on Monday. But as Mike said, when someone pushes you in front of a car and then saves you, it doesn’t make that person any less awful.
I’m still so rattled by this! I think what it comes down to is sexism — he thought he could pull one over on me. I just feel intimidated when it comes to service professionals sometimes, car mechanics included. You just never really know, right? You just have to go with your gut feeling.
My gut feeling said the plumber was shady as hell but I’m glad Mike pursued it as quickly as he did. Reason #4,792,832 why I’m grateful to have him in my corner.
Now that this has happened to me once (that I know of), I’m going to be much more alert, less trusting, and much more inclined to ask a million ane one questions, not just a million. So, tell me, have you ever been scammed by a service professional? (Women especially.) What was the outcome, and how did that experience make you approach subsequent situations differently?
Not only am I not recommending Roto Rooter, I also encourage everyone to avoid Ben Franklin Plumbing, another national chain. After some thinking last weekend, I decided to call them to get a second opinion before Roto Rooter started the job Tuesday. Two plumbers showed up Monday morning and I explained that Roto Rooter found a crack in my sewer line pipe and that it would be $4,700 to repair. They pretty much said yeah, Roto Rooter sucks, you can’t trust them. But, rather than checking out the problem themselves with their equipment, they simply put a measuring tape down the pipe then called a supervisor to get an estimate. What a joke! They said they couldn’t give an estimate for a few days, I said that won’t work and thanked them, then they asked me for $99. I refused, since they didn’t do anything. Here’s my Yelp review.