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Summers sells service

Commitment to customers still comes first.


January 5, 2012
By Brandi Cowen

Technology may have changed in the 95 years since Summers Drilling installed its first water well, but for this third-generation family business, quality work and committed customer service are timeless.

Technology may have changed in the 95 years since Summers Drilling installed its first water well, but for this third-generation family business, quality work and committed customer service are timeless.

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Summers Drilling opened an 8,800-square-foot state-of-the-art office building and showroom in 2008.

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Summers Drilling is a family-owned and -operated company located in Stony Plain, Alta. Founded by James Summers and Norman Akley in 1917, the company’s first wells were drilled by a horse-driven rig. In those days, they charged $1.25 per foot, and customers provided room and board for both driller and horse for the duration of the job.

“I remember even as a little kid, at five years old, I could run that rig and build the casing,” says Dave Summers, the grandson of James Summers, the great nephew of Akley, and the current owner of Summers Drilling. He remembers travelling to jobs with his father Jim, the second-generation owner, and watching the horse go around and around, slowly drilling down to tap the water hidden below.

These days, the company relies on a different type of horsepower, but talking to Summers, I can sense the pride behind the fact the original horse rig has been restored to working order and could be used. The rig is just one of many traditions passed down through the company’s history.

A tradition of service
Exceptional customer service is the foundation Summers Drilling is built on. Referrals account for almost 90 per cent of the company’s work; advertising and website traffic generate just 10 per cent of the jobs they take on. With statistics like that, one thing is clear: a satisfied customer represents a valuable marketing tool.

During the boom of 2007 and subsequent bust of 2008, the number of wells the Summers Drilling team installed held fairly steady. They drilled approximately 130 wells in 2007, and about 120 wells the next year.

“Even when it was booming, we did a little more work, but we didn’t take on a whole pile of extra and hire just anybody to do it all. We were committed to a certain quality of work,” Dave explains.

He credits the “years and years of people knowing our work” with the company’s ability to secure a relatively consistent number of jobs under wildly different economic conditions.

Creating a satisfied customer often starts with educating that customer about water wells, making sure they understand how a well system works and have realistic expectations for the one they’ve chosen to install.

“The biggest challenge for us out here right now is educating people on water wells compared to cisterns,” says Dave. In the past, many land developers in the region chose to build cisterns rather than invest in more expensive wells. Now homeowners looking to replace their cisterns are exploring what wells have to offer.

One key tool in educating customers is the 8,800-square-foot, state-of-the-art office building Summers Drilling opened in Stony Plain in 2008. The space features a showroom outfitted with a functioning constant pressure system that staff use to demonstrate how a well system works. Curious customers can also check out the various materials and casings that go into a well system. The company’s four drilling rigs are kept in back of the building.

Following up on a job well done is another component of the customer service strategy. At the six-month mark, Summers Drilling calls new well owners to check in and make sure they’re satisfied with their wells.

This simple phone call helps keep the company top of mind when it comes time to service the well. It’s a wise marketing move, considering service jobs account for approximately 40 per cent of Summers Drilling’s income.

From first contact with the customer, right through to the end of the well’s life, Summers says their customer service strategy is guided by the principle of “doing good honest work for an honest dollar.”

“There’s not a place that I’ve worked at that I don’t think I could go back and have a coffee. The customer isn’t always right, but you’ve got to treat them good.”

Drilling to make a difference
Just as the business has been passed down from father to son, so has a strong commitment to customers from all walks of life. Summers Drilling has a tradition of helping others that seems to grow stronger over time.

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Jim Summers and crew hard at work drilling a 24-inch well.
Photo credit: Summers Drilling


 

“[My father] drilled a lot of wells for people in the past that didn’t have the money and never knew when they’d be able to pay him. He knew their kids needed water, so he’d go drill them a well. It wasn’t steady, but he did lots of that,” says Dave. “I’ve kind of done the same thing. We have to do our business, but if someone’s really stuck, we’ll give them a longer term to pay.”

One customer, raising four children and dealing with a cancer diagnosis, took eight years to pay off her well, but pay it off she did. This extended payment period isn’t an option they can offer to everyone, but the Summers Drilling team does what it can to make life a little easier for customers who find themselves in a tight spot.

This commitment to helping others is also evident in the aid work the company and various members of the Summers family have been involved with over the years.

In the 1980s, the United Nations (UN) approached Jim Summers about taking on some paid drilling work in Africa. A World University Service professor familiar with the company’s reputation for quality work had recommended Summers Drilling for a project. Jim was reluctant at first, declining several times before ultimately signing on.

It took six months to purchase equipment, ship it all overseas, and get everything in order to start drilling. The project really got underway in 1986, when they began drilling using four rigs purchased with proceeds from sales of the song Do They Know It’s Christmas? The record-smashing single, recorded by 44 pop superstars performing under the name “Band Aid,” raised millions for relief efforts during the 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia.

Twenty-six years and two covers of Do They Know It’s Christmas? later, those four rigs are still at work in Ethiopia. The country is once again facing a severe food crisis.

Working with the UN inspired Water For Life in Africa (WFLA), a charitable organization dedicated to ensuring poor, rural villages have access to safe, clean drinking water. Dave’s parents, Jim and Regina, and his brother, Robert, a licensed well driller and professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, founded WFLA in 2002. The organization drills wells that villagers can maintain themselves without investing in lots of high-tech equipment that may be costly to maintain and repair. Often the wells are hand dug and hand drilled. When the hydrogeology of an area requires it, WFLA may rely on more advanced drilling methods to tap into the water table. Villagers are asked to contribute labour and funding to each well project, giving each community a sense of ownership over their well.

WFLA recently completed six wells not far from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. In the spring, they’ll return to drill an additional six wells.

“It’s true aid,” says Dave. Time is given freely to the project, and all expenses – including airfare and hotels – are paid for out of pocket. “Our family takes a lot of pride in it. That’s one of the key things that keeps us going. It takes all of the stress of just doing everyday business and gives us something a little different.”
“You’ve got to help people too. What you give all comes back to you in the long run.”

The list of projects Summers Drilling has been involved in is long: installing water wells and hand pumps for Alberta’s provincial parks; drilling the elevator shaft for West Edmonton Mall; delivering temporary water services and all new wells for the town of Wabamun, Alta., after a 2005 CN train derailment spilled 196,000 litres of oil into the lake supplying the town’s water; and various aid projects in Africa.

For a company with such an impressive record, Summers Drilling’s secret to success is remarkably simple: “Do good work and be honest and look after your customers,” says Dave. “Nobody minds paying for a good job, but you have to give them service.”