Fumbling for that plumber

Fumbling for that plumber

Fumbling for that plumber

Desperate to get their homes repaired, Bengalureans old and new are often trapped searching for the right people in a hugely disorganised and fragmented service industry. Driven by this huge demand for plumbers, carpenters, painters and other home service personnel, aggregator startups are fast emerging to bridge the gap.

Leaking pipes, electric wires dangling dangerously, doors in deep decay... Returning after a long vacation, the Sharmas were in desperate need of a plumber, an electrician, and a carpenter. Confused and clueless, their frantic search for a service-provider seemed heading nowhere. Could they trust that agent next door, or the neighbour’s reference, or settle for a Google search?

Trapped in a City with a disorganized, highly fragmented service industry, Bengalureans old and new know it is a tough call. Long settled in the City, old-timers might bank on those part-time, semi-skilled workers in an informal setup. But is this sustainable for long in a city of migrants? Isn’t it time the startups with Ola-like aggregators of plumbers and carpenters stepped in?

Physically verified

If the taxi cab sector could do it, why not the service segment? Active in this space since February, the startup, Bro4u, has shown how it is possible with a smart mix of physical verification, technology and networking. It isn’t exactly rocket science to then link up the unorganized service-providers with households, benefiting both.

Of course, there are challenges. The sector is still in its infancy. But Bro4u’s founder Pramod Hegde has found huge potential in connecting those job-starved but skilled repairmen with customers who badly need them. “We also offer them grooming sessions, like how to be on time and not get into undue bargaining,” explains Hegde.

Internet search and aggregator models based on telephone calls often throws up a dozen service-providers. Eager to get a carpenter, a homemaker often ends up making endless calls. This is where the startups could step in with a model that helps instant, one-to-one connection. Says Hegde, “We personally visit the service-providers, verify their credentials in real-time.” 

Localised service

Once a customer’s requirement is identified, he / she is then linked to a service-provider in his locality. “If a plumber is required from Kasturinagar, we ensure that the man is from the same vicinity. While the customer can give his / her feedback, every service-provider is also required to do the same.” 

But can this model be scaled up to benefit thousands of lowly-paid, small-time plumbers, painters, carpenters and other service providers spread across the City? If Ola, Uber and Merucabs claim their model has benefited huge number of drivers, can it be replicated in the household services sector?

Not everyone is sure. Working for decades with domestic workers in the slums, Geeta Menon of Stree Jagruthi Samiti feels the startups can survive only if they came to terms with different skill levels. “Many workers have very basic skills, and prefer to remain so with word-of-mouth work information. They may ask an apartment’s security guard if anyone inside requires their service,” she explains.

“It all boils down to economics,” Menon elaborates. “Long used to this method, the small-timers prefer to remain independent of any agency or aggregator. It gives them flexibility. They are under no obligation to adhere to any discipline.” But doesn’t the startup model make better sense with the right mix of interactive websites, mobile apps and structured, one-to-one, customized service? 

A seasoned carpenter with 35 years experience, S Perumal does not instantly understand the dynamics of a net-savvy ecosystem. But once explained, he agrees it could benefit the traditional system, provided the networks are adequately localized. “Otherwise, it does not make sense for someone from Indiranagar to do a one-hour repair job in Yelahanka,” Perumal reasons. 

Placement agencies

If they succeed, the aggregator startups could seriously challenge the dominance of placement agencies. Many agencies, as Menon and others in the social sector point out, employ lowly-paid, and often low-skilled workers sourced from across the country. “It is a web of control and exploitation. Currently, this works better than honest, professional networks,” contends an NGO worker.

These agents have monopolized the industry for full-time workers, especially domestic maids. There are hidden issues of trafficking that are extremely tough to track. But their operations are far more controlled, commercial and outwardly better structured than the still-evolving startups.

Perumal draws attention to the huge influx of migrant service providers from Odisha, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other states, many of them attached to agencies. “Many locals find it hard to compete with their work cultures. They have no issues working even on Sundays,” he says. 

However, unlike migrant domestic maids, the pay-scales of these service providers have begun to rise, says Perumal. The prevalence of middle men in this system also drives up the cost for the customers. 

No middlemen

A conspicuous lack of middlemen is what makes the aggregator startups stand out. For instance, Apoorva Mishra, founder and CEO of home maintenance service Gapoon, was himself directly involved in interviewing the plumbers before they were brought into the fold. “We researched the market for five to six months, and found that the service-providers / vendors were also in trouble, unable to find customers and without any online presence,” recalls Mishra.

It had to be a direct process as Gapoon chose to collect every attribute of plumbers in the Koramangala area. “Attributes such as their minimum wage requirement, location and service sub-type were collected. This helps us connect a customer directly to a specific plumber, based on the former’s requirement and the latter’s expertise. Our attribute-mapping lets us do this seamlessly,” Mishra explains. 

Technology then drives the connection. Gapoon has designed a simple, image-based Android mobile app to help even housewives to directly connect with a service provider. Once a request for a service comes in, an automated Central Management System (CMS) dispatches it to the vendor’s app, who has the option to either accept it or reject it. Acceptance triggers an alarm and eventually a connection between service-provider and the customer. 

The service, as Mishra informs, has already solved home maintenance problems of over 1,000 families since the startup launched operations in February. Many more such aggregator startups are emerging across Bengaluru. Will it be the next big thing after Ola?

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