Some believe free estimates come with the territory of being a service technician, while others can’t imagine providing hard-earned knowledge without a charge.

“You would never go to a job, or get hired, without knowing how much you’re getting paid,” says Bryan Chrissan, owner of Clear Valley Pool & Spa in Temecula, Calif. “The guys who do free estimates are doing just that. Because when you find out what the problem is — let’s say it’s pushing a GFCI button or turning a valve — how do you make your money when you’re doing something that simple?”

There may be no clear-cut answer as to whether it’s good practice to offer free estimates on pool and spa maintenance or repair work. No job is identical, and factors such as geography, time of year, status of the customer and the nature of the project will influence a professional’s decision.

Recently, Pool & Spa News asked several industry veterans how they approach free estimates. Following are excerpts from their responses.

Kurt Schuster
Owner, Badger Pool Service
Policy for Estimates: Trip charge for service calls

There’s a certain segment of society, and I’ve run into a rash of them, where I ended up just pulling something out of the impeller, or I let them know what the cost is, and they say, “Oh, well, thank you very much. I’m going to get another quote.”

So now I tell them upfront: “I’ll give you a quote on it, but I’m still hitting you with a trip charge because it’s my time.” And it’s nominal (around $35), but I’m going to get it regardless. I’m not getting my full rate, but I’m getting the wear and tear on my vehicle, and everyone’s paying $4 a gallon for gas now anyway — it’s insane. So I’m going to get something just for my time.

[The number of people doing] free estimates has gone up, but mainly because you’ve got a lot of new guys in the business. I see it at my supply houses. I understand it, but one of the biggest complaints I have about this business is that it’s too easy — you can wake up tomorrow and be a pool guy.

Debi Garner
Treasurer, Pools by John Garner
Jacksonville, Fla.
Policy for Estimates: Free for remodels, charge for service calls

Northeast Florida was probably one of last areas [in the state] to be hit by the economic downturn, so a lot of people from South Florida moved to Northeast Florida when the market went to hell in a handbasket. They came up here and just started low-balling on everything — new pools, remodels, everything.

Most of those companies have left, but it’s still extremely competitive. So if you’re not giving a free estimate on a remodel, you’re not even going to get in the door. Why is somebody going to pay me for an estimate when they can get five others for free?

I have a service manager and if he’s got to go on a service call to do a pump repair, then it’s $75. I can’t send someone out to do a service call for free. If someone calls me, though, I will offer to help. I explain that I’ll have to charge them to come out, and if I think they can troubleshoot it themselves, I will make that offer. If they say their filter pressure seems high, for example, I’ll ask if they’ve backwashed it.

[On a service question], if it’s a regular customer then I’ll have one of my five pool cleaners go over there, and I don’t charge for that. But if my service manager goes out, I charge, even if it’s a regular service customer.

A tactic I think we could employ on service is to come out and charge $100, but that money would go toward the purchase price [if we get the job]. We haven’t embraced that yet, though.

Jay Carswell
Owner, Flamingo Pool Supply
Frederick, Md.
Policy for Estimates: Depends on the situation

I’ll try to walk someone through a problem [on the phone] every time. That’s just good PR for the company. But if it’s a circumstance where a customer can’t explain exactly what the problem is, and it’s convenient for us — if I’ve got somebody close and it fits into our schedule — we’ll swing by and take a look firsthand and … give them a price on that.

But, typically, we charge $119 for the first half-hour of a service call. If we’re going to send a guy out, and he’s got 20 years’ experience, he’s got a sidekick with him, and we’re paying $4 a gallon for gas, we’ve got to pay this guy well. We can’t be paying them to ride around and look out the windshield.

Recently I sold a pump over the phone [and] the customer was giving me all the signals that he needed a new pump. But we got out there and it turned out a wire was just loose. So we converted that into a half-hour charge and saved him $600, and his pump is working fine now.

So we’re not out to run up the bill or get him for every cent we can. We’re concerned about our customers down the road. We take each circumstance and try to troubleshoot it over the phone, and set up appointments where appropriate.

Jerry Wallace
President, Swim Chem
Sacramento, Calif.
Policy on Estimates: Charge for them, with a few exceptions

We used to do free estimates. We’d give [homeowners] a nice, written estimate with a description of the parts we would use to replace or repair the problem, including costs and everything, and they’d take it down the street and say, “Here’s the blueprint. What can you do for me?” And those other people just had to say, “OK, we’ll beat it by $150.” Here we’ve spent all that time and effort, and we don’t get the job.

So we stopped doing them four or five years ago. It’s a pain, yes, because even our longtime customers want them, mainly because a lot of people offer free estimates. But if they’re a loyal customer and we do the work, then we’ll credit back the charge. 

So we try to give a ballpark, over-the-phone estimate. If we can do that, then that makes it easy on everybody, and we can do that for free. Five minutes on the phone, that’s no big deal, especially on someplace where we know what’s going on.

Our competitors give free estimates on service and repair work. We’re kind of stand-offish in that sense — when you reach a certain level, there are things you just don’t do because you don’t think you have to. Absolutely we’ve lost jobs because of it. And if I didn’t have enough work, I would probably rethink it. But because we’re successful enough in what we do and how we do it, I don’t have to make that concession.

Debra LeClerc
Co-Owner, The Pool Doctor of Rhode Island
Coventry, R.I.
Policy on Estimates: Always free

We offer free estimates on everything we do. Everything.

We do it because it gives us the opportunity to meet a potential client face to face. In the world of the Internet, companies are telling customers to e-mail them pictures. How can we really give someone an estimate without looking at it? And why should we charge them for that? It’s always been our policy ... and I know we will never change.

Actually, it’s pretty common in our area to do free estimates. When somebody wants you to come to their property, it also shows that they’re legitimate. It’s the ones who are calling around just getting prices — I don’t like to put much effort into those conversations, nor should my staff.

We easily have a 75 percent closure rate on what we quote and what we get, especially on major restorations and renovations. We get people who tell us we’re the only company that called them back. Or we’re the only company that came to look at the job. I think that’s a poor reflection on the industry.

In our case, no estimates are given out in the field. They’re all returned back here to the store. A formal estimate is completed on letterhead and enclosed with the appropriate literature, along with a signed letter from [the management]. If it’s a major restoration, then there’s a nice contract included, and it’s all in a glossy envelope [that bears] our logo. It takes time and you waste some money on postage. But we get a lot of people telling us we’re the most professional company they’ve dealt with.