Q&A with pool service technician Kirt Kleiner

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Kirt Kleiner05101. Last year was a good year?

Yes, 2009 was a good year for us. We increased our business a small amount. Being cautious, we were expecting a bit of a pullback, and instead we grew by about 5 percent.

2. A common concern in the AQUA survey was unlicensed competition. Is that a problem in the Pittsburgh area?

We don't really have a big problem with that up north. I think it's more of a southern problem. Certainly we do get some people getting into the business without much experience, but what happens is that customers find out quickly enough whether the guy working on their pool can do it or not. If a customer wants to go with a cheaper option, that's fine, but it really comes down to whether that guy can do a good job.

I don't really experience that myself. It could be because I'm a little selective of who I choose as a client. If I get a bad impression of the client, and it seems like they don't like anyone that works on pools, I won't work with them. I just took that "million dollar pool man" class, and I agree with what the instructor said - you don't need bad customers.

3. One thing apparent from our survey was that the service sector has held up very well in a down economy, which has drawn new people into service. Is there more competition in your area?

The increase in people in the service sector has been brought on by the industry. It's in everything you read. And the sales reps from the distributors are telling retailers and everyone else that service is where you need to be - that's where the money is. If everybody's being told that, they're going to react to it.

What I see here in the Northeast is retailers getting into service; I don't see a lot of guys going into it on their own because they heard they can make money in pools. But it's seasonal for service here; it's only seven months out of the year. And most people can't handle that part of it financially; they can't live 12 months on a seven-month business.

4. How have salt chlorine generators and variable-speed pumps impacted your business?

From a retail sense, it's a well-merchandised item. And I'm sure 99 percent of the people in the industry love them because, hey, that's a $1,500 sale. You can't beat that.

Last year we sold more ozonators than salt chlorine generators. I like ozonators better because you're actually cutting down on the chlorine in the pool, and I think that's what people really want.

But as for salt chlorine generators, I think they work about as well as a regular chlorinator - the pools we have on chlorine generation are about as easy to take care of as the ones we have on chlorinators - but of course they're not sold as chlorinators. People are told they're getting a "salt-water pool," - that they're getting away from chlorine. I see people all the time who tell me, "I have a 'salt-water pool.' I don't have chlorine in my pool."

So the way they're being merchandised is misleading. And people that have them think this machine is taking care of their water for them. You still have to check the water; you still have to check the system. And then it corrodes (those fins that the water runs through, you still have to clean them out every once in a while.)

I don't think it's any more economical, because you have to replace the cell every few years. So maybe I'm a dinosaur, but I haven't embraced it.

As for variable-speed pumps, so far, we haven't seen that much of them. Our electric rates aren't too bad out here, so it would take a long time for someone to recover the cost of a variable-speed pump. They're very expensive, and I can't really justify them to my customers at this point.

5. Any changes for 2010?

I'm cautiously optimistic about this year. I think it'll be better than last. Every year I pick a new item to come to the customer with, something exciting to talk to them about that can make their pool better and help my bottom line. It has to really help them - I mean I don't want to sell them a palm tree just to make their pool look better.

Actually, that's not such a bad idea (laughs). Maybe it will be the palm tree - the one with the misters and the umbrella on it. We don't have many palm trees in Pittsburgh, so I think my customers might like that. I definitely know of a couple that would.

I send everyone a letter at the start of the year saying it's time to start opening pools - it's surprising but most of them really do read that letter - and that's when I introduce a new product. This year it will probably be UV systems.

And then when I actually call them on the phone, it's amazing how many will inquire and say, "I read about that product in your letter, Kirt. Tell me a little bit more about it."

And I refer to it on their invoice and every chance I get. You just have to keep repeating it to get a good response.

I don't really push it on them, but I keep it in front of them.

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