Two types of customers — or perhaps non-customers — have long been a thorn in the side of pool and spa businesses.

First, there are the homeowners who buy a product from the Internet at a lower cost, then want a local professional to install it.

And second is a DIYer who plans to complete their installation or repair by using the free help of a friendly neighborhood pool and spa business.  

When these consumers first became an issue, there were plenty of people who resisted.

“For the longest time our mindset was, ‘You bought it on the Web? Good luck. Have a nice life,’” says Bruce Bagin, a partner in B and B Pool and Spa Center in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.  “But because of the economy, I changed my attitude. I stepped back and am not taking it personally.”

Bagin is not alone. More and more professionals are altering their approach to these customers due partly to a downturn in business and partly to the fact that Internet commerce and the DIY movement have become so common they now are part of the American landscape.

Here, retailers, builders and service technicians discuss how they handle these clients today.

Web buyers

The Internet purchases hurt the most.

Some professionals have responded by boosting their hourly labor rate if the client didn’t buy the equipment from them.

“If they’re willing to give me full profit on the job, then I’ll do it,  explains one service tech who didn’t wish to disclose his name. “But generally they don’t want to do that, because the whole purpose of buying online was to circumvent the markup that the retail outlets and service people are getting.

Some make an exception to the higher hourly rate if the homeowner is a regular customer, or if the product is one that actually eases a service tech’s job, such as an automatic cleaner.

Others will install the equipment for their regular price, with hopes that on the next occasion the customer may buy from them rather than going online.

“I’ve found that if I work with people, eventually I become the first call on their list,” says Bob Nichols, owner of Precision Pool in Glendora, Calif. “Next time they have trouble, there I am! I think it’s good business to build relationships with people based on their needs rather than yours.”

But there is one instance where he won’t perform an installation, and that’s if he thinks the equipment is wrong for the pool. “I won’t do it just for the sake of the install charge,  Nichols says. “I’ll tell them to send it back and I’ll tell them what to buy.”

But no matter how accommodating a professional may be with installation, they will not do free warranty work on the product.

For his part, Bagin offers the customer a choice of two installation rates — one with a warranty, one without. Either way, he charges for plumbing and any other parts needed.

In addition to the price of the parts themselves, some will collect a fee for finding them. “I liken it to a handyman,” Nichols says. “Many of them may take an hour and a half chasing parts, and they charge for that time.”

An assist

The other question comes when a do-it-yourselfer asks for advice.

Some retailers have taken advantage of the trend by setting up their stores with parts and equipment to sell.

“When you start having all these people coming in who want to do it themselves, I began to wonder why I was sending them down to the plumbing store to get a 1-1/2-inch 90,” says Irvin McGoohan, owner of Splash Pools & Spas in Lawton, Okla. “I look at everyone as a potential customer, whether they come and buy a fitting or whatever else.”

McGoohan’s staff will give the customer as much time as they need to explain the repair. In addition, he will sell the homeowner the exact amount of pipe or other product that they need, rather than the larger quantity they would be forced to buy at a hardware store. In exchange, he charges more.

Bagin helps by loaning out his tools, as long as he gets a substantial cash deposit.

But even the most accommodating professionals agree that no advice should be given over the phone to a cold caller. Instead, customers need to come into the store or schedule a service call.

“At least once a week I get one of those phone calls,” Nichols says. “They’ll say ‘My motor’s making a funny noise. What do you think I need?’ I can’t answer that. Or, I’ve had people call where they bought a timer at Home Depot and then ask me how to hook it up. I tell them, ‘I can’t help you because I don’t know what color wires or what voltage they’re talking about.”

In addition, it’s not a good idea to tell homeowners how to perform anything that could possibly cause a liability claim. Some are uncomfortable explaining how to fix or install a heater, clean a filter, work with lights or find leaks.

However you approach it, many professionals agree that it’s wise to try to work with almost everyone.

“One time I helped a guy and now I’ve got five of his neighbors [as accounts],” Nichols says. “If I had refused to help, I would have lost a lot of money. My suggestion is don’t walk away until you’ve taken a good, close look at the situation.”