Succeeding in the Residential Market

July 9, 2023
The stars aligned for Venus and Mars Locksmith, profiting through superior customer service.

Mike Hitman is the owner of Venus & Mars Locksmith in Hammonton, N.J.  He has built a successful locksmith business by providing great customer service in a relatively small market. He shared some of his tips for starting and running a locksmithing business with Locksmith Ledger.

Locksmith Ledger: Mike, if I remember correctly, you started out operating your locksmith business out of the family-owned auto parts store, correct?

MH: Yes, I would’ve been 3rd generation if it were allowed, but it didn’t work out that way. Before that didn’t work out, I had started tinkering with locks and keys as a hobby. It was a legitimate business when I left the family business.

LL: How did the lock thing begin for you?

MH: I began learning to duplicate keys at the age of 10 or 11. The store had already been doing this for the public and I learned to identify and make auto and house keys. We were able to make better keys than the other places in town since we would adjust and calibrate our machines. We knew how to cut keys when the original was worn out and we didn’t have many coming back.

LL: How did you transition from that to knowing how locks worked, etc.?

MH: When I was about 15, I went to the local public library and found two books on locksmithing. I checked them out, brought them home and for whatever reason they proved to be not very helpful at all. I brought them back and put the dreams of understanding locksmithing back on the shelf with the books themselves.

LL: What happened next?

MH: Like any kid, I loved locks. Fast forward about 15 years. I’m 30 years old and still working at the family’s auto parts store but completely dissatisfied with it. My great uncle had a store named the same as ours but in Pitman, NJ. I went to work there once a week just to get out of the Hammonton store.

I was eventually introduced to my future wife, Vicky. I started hanging out at her house a bit. She lived in a very old, worn-out Victorian-style house with bit key locks throughout. She was a single mom with two young daughters and their bathroom door didn’t lock, which was unacceptable. I took it apart, figured out how to fix the broken spring and got it to lock. I worked my way through several other locks and was successful. Vicky was impressed and encouraged me to take locksmithing seriously since she knew how unhappy I was with my current work situation.

I went to visit the guy who’d been the town locksmith. When I showed up he was literally packing boxes; he was done and moving on. He offered to sell me some tools and showed me a few things.

LL: So now you were ready to be in the locksmith business?

MH: Not quite yet. He showed me information about the Little Falls, N.J., locksmith course. I started the correspondence course and every project I was sent in the mail was fun and interesting. I was successful at the tasks and felt good about things.

In 1990 we drove down to the county seat to register my business name. We looked through all the books and didn’t find a Venus & Mars Locksmith, which means Vicky and Mike, women and men. I opened a bank account with my new business name. As soon as word got out that the town locksmith was gone, I was able to carve out some counter space at the auto parts store and that’s how it began and grew more each month.

I was already mechanically inclined, had worked as an auto mechanic and while in Michigan even worked for a fastener company so I learned the nuts and bolts about nuts and bolts. I didn’t have to add too much to the basic set of tools I already had except for hole saws, etc.

LL: Did getting involved with locksmith associations help at all?

MH: Yes. As soon as the county phone book came out that spring of 1991, I got a call from ‘Big Mike’. A locksmith from a neighboring town called to invite me to attend and then join the South Jersey Locksmith Association, which had just been formed in 1989. The friendships with the members, life long, as well as sharing of information. techniques and customers, have been invaluable to me.

LL: What portion of your business is residential? Have you noticed substantial changes since you began?

MH: I get a good mix of automotive, residential and light commercial so about a third residential. As far as my general approach to residential work, the hardware itself, I’m occasionally replacing locks that have been on the home for 30 years before they finally failed. With the locks I install now, I’ll be back in less than five years to do the same. Like everything else, it’s made to get out the door for sale as quickly as possible and not designed to last.

LL: There’s the hardware and there’s the people part of our business. Did you have a particular way of approaching things and has that changed over the years?

MH: No and I don’t know either. These days I find myself asking a whole lot of questions before I go out. I’m not able to charge for my time on the phone but spending those few extra minutes to get the information I need will save time later. With people having the ability to send photos, I can see what they’re talking about, and I like that. I finally have the questions down that I should be asking – is it an exterior door, etc. We still get requests for double cylinder deadbolts, and I won’t do that typically.

LL: Are there times that you wonder if it’s even worthwhile to even go out to a home?

MH: In this photo you can see the condition of the door and they only wanted me to fix what was there, not replace the door. I don’t have the after photos, but I wound up using one long door wrap with both holes and the long 18-inch strike. I installed a passage knob and deadbolt, and they were happy.

LL: What would it take for you to say thanks but no thanks and not go out at all?

MH: The questionable situation. They’re on vacation and their dogs are there. Sometimes it’s a landlord who wants me to lock out a tenant without doing it correctly. At the beginning I’d answer the phones 24/7 and go pretty much anywhere at any time. I don’t do that anymore. I had to be home to answer the phone back then so leaving had to be worthwhile. I did have one of the original mobile phones since we sold them at the store. I had the big, long wire with a magnetic antenna and stuck it on top of my first truck, which was a 1978 Chevy school bus. I ran it about three years, but I can tell you that when a school is finally selling a school bus, it’s done, don’t even consider it.

LL: You have a fairly unique-looking truck to go along with an interesting business name. Does this have any effect on your business?

MH: Some people will ask and others already know when it comes to the name. I get called Venus a lot and I have to tell them ‘I’m Mars, men are from Mars, women from Venus.’ The uniqueness of the truck has definitely gotten me accounts. One of my commercial accounts had a guy working for them that really wanted to use me because I had the funny name and the crazy truck. 30 years later they’re still an account of mine. I still get people calling for residential work who ask if I’m the guy with the purple truck.

LL: What else has changed over the years that’s more of a challenge to deal with?

MH: When I got started, the finish options were really basic: Shiny brass was it and then some antique brass, dull chrome and oil-rubbed bronze. Another difference has to do with the choices people have when looking to buy lock hardware. You can sit at your desk and type in Amazon or Build and find what you need at ridiculous prices.

LL: So how do you deal with sources like this as far as competition goes?

MH: I try not to consider them competition. If I’m asked to install a product purchased from one of these sources, I tell them yes and I don’t warranty anything. The same with someone who buys transponder keys elsewhere and wants me to cut and program. I tell them how much and that’s whether they work or not.

If you buy it from me here’s the price. If it doesn’t work, then you pay nothing. When asked to install any hardware purchased elsewhere, I quote my service call and hourly rate. Send me pictures of what’s on the door now and I’ll get you an accurate estimate. If it works, hooray! If it doesn’t, it’ll be on the door and you’re on your own hooking it up. I’m not pushing any buttons, that’s not my strength anyway. As we discussed at the beginning, I am and have always been mechanically inclined. Even if I’m supplying the product, I don’t want anything to do with their passwords, etc.

LL: What kinds of callbacks do you get and how do you handle those?

MH: I don’t get many of those. If someone calls to say I rekeyed their house two years ago and I’ve lost the key. Do you have another one? No, I do not keep records of this for several reasons. I don’t want it; I don’t need it because if you’re locked out I don’t need that information to get in. If my house is compromised, I don’t want them to have access to your information.

LL: How do you handle it when you’re called to do something already attempted by someone else unsuccessfully?

MH: The typical one is “we bought these locks and just can’t get them on and finally realized we should call a professional.” One thing you’ll see in these situations is that they’ll have part of the hole ground out to fit the wrong backset. They think they have to make the hole larger instead of just using the correct backset latch or bolt or adjusting it properly. If I explain how to adjust the backset, I get such an appreciative response. If they ask about paying me, I ask if they bake. On more than one occasion I’ve gotten a box of treats. I’d rather not charge a service call to go out and twist the bolt to get the backset right if that’s all they need.

LL: Do you ever find yourself being called to follow the work of another locksmith?

MH: Occasionally yes. Sometimes an emergency comes up and you have to leave a job unfinished, and the homeowner tries to finish it. There was a time before licensing when we were considered tinkerers, that a supposed locksmith would simply do a terrible job. There may be a master key system in place that was accomplished with plug filing, and I have to explain why a new lock is needed. 

LL: I’ve noticed that you make it a point to not make people feel bad about their situation. Is this intentional on your part?

MH: It’s okay, no reason to feel bad or stupid because you’ve locked yourself out again! I don’t get my jollies from making others feel bad. I’ve locked myself out of things while on a job. I’ve locked myself out of the door I’m working on and have had to walk around the building to get back in. Back when I had the school bus as my vehicle, I was doing a job for a customer I’ve done many jobs for, and I locked my keys in the truck. I had to go ask for a coat hanger because all of my tools were in it. They were able to tease me for months each time I went back there.

LL: After many years of experience and all the wisdom you’ve accumulated over time, do you now have a particular approach you use with residential customers? Also, do you attempt to upsell customers or simply point out things they might benefit from taking care of while you’re there?

MH: Of course, to some degree you need to tell people when something’s wrong or needs to be replaced. like when I replace or service a lock and let them know it needs to include a UL latch. I’ll point out that all of your exterior doors should have a deadbolt. I also typically recommend when adding a deadbolt that the knob be changed to a passage function. I explain that it prevents you from accidentally being locked out. It also forces you to use the deadbolt when you’re home and away. With all the big soft weather stripping being used now, it’s much easier to compromise a latch. Most people agree. You’re giving them what they want but not giving them something they shouldn’t have.

LL: How do you deal with the frantic calls locksmiths tend to get?

MH: People are sometimes frantic and I’m not. I didn’t take any psychology courses, but I still will bring them down a bit and help them make a better decision and not be frantic. “I’m locked out of my house and need you right away!” “OK, are you in a safe place and where are you calling from?” I let them know I’ll adjust what I’m doing now so I can get to you sooner. No matter how upset they are, I don’t get upset with them and they can pick up on that. I’ve gotten plenty of comments about my calming effect and how much they appreciate it.

LL: Are you able to turn some of your residential customers into ones who call you for other types of work?

MH: I do take the opportunity to remind people while I’m at their home that we do other work. I’ll remind them that we also do automotive lock work. When I’m doing automotive jobs, I’ll make sure they know we also do residential and/or commercial. Every job is an opportunity to acquire a new customer for all kinds of work in the future.

LL: It sounds like you’re doing what you love and making a living from it.

MH: I’m not all about making a ton of money. I grew up in the same town I’m in now and I feel that I’m here to provide a service to the local people first. Vicky would like it if I focused more on the making money end of things. She’ll suggest that I spend too much time with people. Despite someone being a bit of a pain, it’s a job and people deserve to be treated fairly and kindly. You have no idea who they’ll tell about their experience, but you know people talk. Small towns can be a blessing and a curse.

People do still drive up to the house thinking I’m ready to take care of them because they see my truck and I’m here. There are times I wish I had a shop for them to come to, but I’ve never wanted to get into the payroll thing.

Some of the places I do work remind me of why, for example, I’ll never be a landlord. I see what tenants can be like. I’ve been to way too many evictions; one eviction I was called to work had a guy inside who barricaded himself in. We didn’t know that until I unlocked everything, and we still couldn’t open the doors. People seem to be angrier these days and have no problem taking a stand and/or becoming aggressive. Domestic situations are never pretty and I’m much more cautious. Whenever I park, I make sure my truck is positioned forward for a quick exit just in case. Another thing I always ask is whether or not there are any pets since I don’t want to have to run after a cat or dog that just got out.

LL: If you were taking someone under your wing now, what kind of wisdom would you be inclined to impart about residential locksmithing?

MH: I would suggest that you pay attention to everything you see and be even more aware of the things you say. Do not say everything on your mind; sometimes I’ll even be asked to sign a privacy statement that prevents me from talking about what I’ve seen. With homes, you don’t go talking about some artwork you saw on a wall or how lovely or disgusting a kitchen was.

A long time ago I went to a residence to work on the front door. While surveying the door I commented “wow, this is a mess” and she got very angry. I looked up into the rest of the house and I realized she was a hoarder. The rest of the house was much worse than the door I was there to help with. She asked me to leave. That was the last time I made a comment like that.

I become friends with many of my customers and I really like that. The way I see it is that I get paid every day to do my hobby and I’m lucky I got into locksmithing.