When seeing is not always believing

Nov. 1, 2013

Certain phrases, terms and clichés surface from time to time throughout the course of a lifetime. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and “seeing …

Certain phrases, terms and clichés surface from time to time throughout the course of a lifetime. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and “seeing is believing” are two that come to mind which we can apply to selling water services. Today, when many water treatment dealers cultivate and meet new prospects, they are usually greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism. As we witnessed with the growth of the personal bottled water business, however, future gains for point-of-use (POU) and point-of-entry (POE) equipment and services are promising.

Modern day customers take advantage of information — and, there’s a lot of it out there. As a result, homeowner and business-owner buying habits have drastically changed over the years. The most recent transformation has turned buyers into shoppers. Shoppers place less value on the company they purchase products from and more value on price and value-added services.

However, the rules and regulations are continuously evolving in water quality. A reputable water treatment dealer has the technical know-how and marketplace awareness to ensure customer safety. And, while some industries can afford to risk losing the dealer-customer relationship, this is not an industry that can trust the information found on the Internet or through hearsay in order to protect public health.

Common sales challenges facing dealers

In most areas of the U.S. municipally supplied tap water is considered a cheap commodity. This may factor into a customer’s hesitance to purchase your POU and POE products. And, referencing our popular phrase mentioned earlier, when customers see clear water, they tend to believe it is safe. Further, the “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” crowd will argue that their families and staff have been drinking the same tap water for years with no ill effects.

Dealers’ sales ethics continue to rank in the top five of most important industry issues in our annual Benchmarking Survey, which is published in the July issue. This year, 58.4 percent of respondents and last year, 63 percent of respondents — ranking fourth and second respectively on our list — indicated that this was a “very important” industry issue.

We reached out to several water treatment and testing experts to find out what tools and credible information is available to help dealers walk the line of reality and avoid coming across as using scare tactics.

According to Tate Burckhardt, vice president of Better Water Industries Inc., dealers often encounter customers that have a false belief that their water is safe since their entire family, including grandparents, has consumed this water for their entire life with no related health setbacks.

“It is hard to explain to these people that their water may have been safe at one time, but [as the years passed they] may have [a] contaminated water source today,” explains Burckhardt. “Next, [dealers] can explain how the earth (ground) is Mother Nature’s filter. We are an industrial nation and things we do on the surface, [such as using] crop or weed killer, can saturate [into] the ground and find its way to our water [supplies].” 

Water standards and chemistry

The fact is, water can appear clear and contaminant-free but can be fatal if consumed in a small dose or over a period of time. Unsafe water can even taste good, but can still contain dangerous contaminants such as arsenic, lead, radiologicals, bacteria, synthetic organic compounds and disinfections byproducts. Additionally, adds Marianne R. Metzger, business manager for National Testing Laboratories, established Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards can offer false comfort for certain consumers.

“In municipal water there are established safety levels called Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), which are intended to protect public health. Even water that meets these levels can cause health issues for some individuals; the levels are meant to protect a majority of people taking into account current technology available as well as costs,” explains Metzger, noting also that water is considered the universal solvent which means its quality can change rather quickly. 

Customers should also be aware that in some cases, scheduled testing of public water supplies only require synthetic organic chemical testing once every nine years. So, continues Metzger, contamination could go undocumented for several years. 

There are many contaminants that cannot be seen in water but may be present. And, this number of “hidden” contaminants is growing. As an industry educator, it is your job to be aware of this list and spread awareness to customers.

Frank DeSilva, national sales manager for ResinTech Inc., highlights some common contaminants that may be missed by a customer’s visual examination.

“Let’s go down the list and look at some contaminants that cannot be ‘seen’ in water: Hardness, arsenic, nitrate, chromate, uranium, radium, radon, perchlorate, boron, heavy metals (such as copper, cadmium, zinc), hydrogen sulfide and fluoride,” offers DeSilva, who maintains an expertise in the dissolved ions in water included in this list. He adds that virtually all the “emerging contaminants” that everyone is talking about these days also cannot be detected by standard visual means.

“What should also be mentioned is the potential presence of organisms in water that cannot be seen, but can be dangerous, [including] bacteria, viruses, cysts, etc. And, let’s not forget the traces of pharmaceuticals that are being detected in public water supplies,” he says.

Use education as a care tactics strategy 

Many dealers enjoy the benefit of job satisfaction when it comes to delivering safe drinking water to customers. Playing a pivotal role in the well-being of your customers is not a responsibility that should be minimized or downplayed. When it comes to your sales and marketing strategy, your focus should be on education and not price.

“Shoppers” need to understand that their health should not be something that is factored into a budget. Regardless of the water source — municipal or private well — dealers should take time with new prospects and current customers to help them thoroughly understand water quality beyond appearance. This value-added service will help customers understand the importance of POU and POE equipment and focus less on just the price tag.

In water treatment, customers need to understand that the industry does not provide a one solution fits all approach. Therefore, while our senses may or may not be able to accurately predict a water contamination problem, water testing will provide the complete picture.

“Most people look at their water and if it doesn’t look or taste funny, they don’t think they have a problem; you tend to rely on your senses. For example, sulfur stinks and leaves stains,” notes Scott Harmon, director of technical and customer support at Aquion Inc. “[But] proper testing is the key tool.”

Water treatment dealers who understand water can use testing to effectively explain the real facts about a customer’s water quality. Water testing equipment, both in the field and the laboratory, have advanced and today’s equipment makes the process even more straightforward with easy to use features and detailed reports.

“[Certain lab reports] contain primary and secondary standard information and you can compare local area water to national levels,” says Harmon. “The report is very helpful and more than anything, it will provide piece of mind to the consumer.”   

DeSilva concurs, saying numbers don’t lie. He recommends that dealers invest in a good field testing kit and utilize a full service laboratory to test for the full spectrum of drinking water contaminants.

In homes and businesses that receive municipally treated water, treatment plants test and verify that the water quality, which may change as it goes through the community’s infrastructure and into the customer’s location, is meeting established standards when it leave their facility. For private well customers, testing is completed at the owner’s discretion.

“Testing private wells is left up to the owner of the well and the cost of testing can be significant so homeowners tend to test for the things that can make them sick right away, such as bacteria, without considering the long-term health effects of ingesting natural contaminants such as arsenic or radiologicals,” explains Metzger.

Beyond the eye test

Customers who are keen to their water quality may also use other senses to determine whether or not contaminants might be present. Certain chemicals, such as chlorine, may leave a bad taste in some customers’ mouths and irritate and dry skin.

In fact, there are a variety of contaminants that can cause taste and odor issues with water. Many can be harmless, such as iron and manganese, which can discolor the water as well as make it unpalatable, says Metzger.

“Hydrogen sulfide, which is another contaminant that causes major odor problems in water across the country, does not discolor that water but it does produce the rotten egg type odor,” she explains. “Hydrogen sulfide is unregulated, poisonous and flammable so there are health risks associated with high levels. Certain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can impart a taste and/or odor to water so it is important to test when you suspect VOCs may be present.”

How to Sherlock homes and other locations

In general, people are attracted to our POU/POE industry for two reasons: They care about health and well-being or they experienced a water problem. Regardless of the reason, water treatment dealers should always complete their due diligence and test water so a proper solution can be implemented. When addressing a water problem, some investigative skills may be required.

If a taste, odor or color issue arises, says DeSilva, dealers should immediately start asking questions, such as:

  • Was the onset of the problem gradual or sudden? 
  • Is it related to a change in the seasons? 
  • Has the water source changed (did the municipality start drawing from other wells?)  
  • Is the problem apparent in the cold water, hot water or both? 
  • Is there existing equipment at the customer’s location? 
  • When was the last time that the carbon unit was re-bedded? 

“And, my favorite: Is there salt in the brine tank?,” adds DeSilva.

Metzger adds to the list of investigative questions. She inserts:

  • Is the water discolored? What kind of color? Reddish-brown? Black? Blue? Green? 
  • Is there an odor present? 
  • Is the odor musty, metallic or chemical-like? 
  • Is there a difference in taste?  
  • Does the well have rust? Is the cap on properly? 
  • What is the condition of the plumbing? Are there signs of corrosion?

“It’s important to get several opinions on the type of odor and taste as this can be subjective so getting a few opinions can be helpful and then look, smell and, if you’re brave, taste for yourself. Other things to look for include: Bacteria growth in common areas like the back of toilet tanks and the bottom of water heaters,” concludes Metzger. 

Although information is readily available to customers in many formats, recommending reputable sources is also part of the education process. The experts we contacted for this article offered several to choose from, including: EPA’s MCL; U.S. Geological Survey, which may have information on naturally occurring contaminants in the region; www.ewg.org/tap-water/whatsinyourwater/?zip5=60007&search.&x=GO; and WQA.org.

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