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As we come to the middle of the busy season for many wholesalers, our take is that 2019 is shaping up to be a pretty good year across the country. The wholesalers we talked to are, as always, guarded, but when asked about the state of their business, we get a coy smile and the statement, “Not too bad.” The recent drop in the interest rate will possibly offset, somewhat, by the impact of the looming tariffs, so the last quarter might be OK.
As businesses in our industry are rocking and rolling, it’s quite easy to become immersed in the daily operation and fire drills and to forget about some of the time-tested basics. So, this month we dedicate our column to reminding you to get back in touch with your customers and even spend some quality time with contractors who are not currently your customers, endeavoring to convert them to your customer base.
The proliferation of electronic and social media has caused many wholesalers to focus their efforts on developing and evolving these high-tech channels. Often this focus has caused them to ignore or demote the other basic communication channels that are critical to identifying customers’ needs, understanding their pain points and determining how you might better serve them, thus continuing to earn their business.
Further, there is a continuing need for every wholesaler to ask, “How are we doing?” and our favorite customer question, “What do we need to do to earn more of your business?”
A fraction of your customers is using electronic commerce and social media in conducting their business. As we’ve said before, we know some traditional wholesalers are doing a small percentage (single digits or low double digits) of their business electronically. A significant number of their customers seem to be using cell phones, text messaging and email to communicate with their wholesaler partners.
Some trade customers are involved in using social media but, in our experience, the majority is used for personal reasons and not related to operating their businesses. The upshot of this is that, while wholesalers must be building their electronic repertoire, they must not neglect the nonelectronic communication channels to their trade customers. As we said in July, putting all the customer-touch eggs in a single basket is a grave mistake.
People Still Buy from People They Like
For years, we promoted that a fundamental component of becoming a trade customer’s day-in/day-out supplier is “being liked.” While we believe the recipe for being a liked is evolving, it is still required to maximize the business with each customer. For some younger-generation customers, their enthusiasm is directly and solely related to the experience they have on your website, your webstore and your social media portals.
However, for the majority of your customers, their bonding is directly related to their person-to-person contact with your company. Take time to audit each of the customer touchpoints to ensure your team is offering customers the best possible experience. Some areas to start your thinking:
• The contractor’s lament. It’s the “I just want to buy a bag of fittings” moment. Years ago, a contractor described his experience with a wholesaler. The wholesaler embarked on a revitalization project that had reorganized the wholesaler’s counter, warehouse operation and computer system. It created an environment that was much more attractive but much less efficient for the trade customer.
Instead of walking about 30 feet from the parking lot, through the door into a cramped “in your face” counter area, customers are now faced with a maze of self-service bins where they had to find their own product. Then they walk to a counter approximately 75 feet from their truck, where they had to wait for a counter person to take the rest of the order using the new slower computer system and then wait while the guys in the reorganized warehouse pick the order.
The wholesaler, having spent a bunch of money to create this new environment, thought customers would swarm to his new counter area. In fact, the “upgrade” made it more difficult for most contractors to do the most fundamental part of their job — get the material needed for the work.
What things are you doing that cause your customers more pain? We have previously mentioned the Staples “Easy” button is the proper attitude for your thinking.
• Routing phone calls. Ideally, your phones are answered by a person who can take the contractor’s order. Why route the call to any other place? Hearing a friendly voice, ready to help them, does make a difference to customers when compared to the greeting, “This conversation may be recorded ….”
Why not have a direct line to sales? No operator, no extension, no “I’ll connect you.” Of course, calls roll to an operator when all sales lines are busy. Route the vendors, truckers, bill collectors and scam artists to your primary phone line for routine handling.
• Automated phone attendant. Many of the electronic systems that answer the phone are antiquated or in disrepair. The directory is out of date or unusable. The menu systems are cumbersome. Even if you know your party’s extension, you cannot enter it until you have endured a lengthy introduction that was seemingly written by an attorney.
• Drive-through pickup and quick delivery service. There is undoubtedly a trend in retail/online sales headed toward delivery and drive-up/drive-through pickup. Over the years, we’ve known several wholesalers who have offered drive-through service quite successfully. It has been especially successful in areas that experience significant inclement weather. The contractor drives into a covered area where the order is loaded onto the truck.
In our opinion, delivery and order pickup (without having to come into the counter area) will become more prevalent in our industry’s future. The younger generation will do almost anything to stay home or in their truck, so you should assume this will seep into their business habits.
• Do a walk-through of your locations. Are they giving the best possible impression? Are your locations functional and clean? Do they open on time? Do they stay open until the posted closing time? Will your team stay open later to help a customer with a problem? Are your restrooms clean and well-serviced? For a reprint that includes our branch walk-through checklist, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Management should still take time to meet with customers face-to-face, ideally in the customers’ place of business. As businesses become more successful, it is common that managers become too busy to spend time with customers. This is a significant mistake! It is the most reliable way to gain an understanding of the customers’ needs and pain points. Further, it is a palpable demonstration to the customer that you care.
With face-to-face, in-person meetings, you get the facial expressions, body language and voice intonation that is absent in electronic communications or even in many phone communications.
• Second-hand information is never as good. At its very best, it is biased and incomplete, lacking the nuances that provide critical information. At its worst, it is misrepresented or fabricated. We have fond memories of reviewing sales call reports for a business that had closed several years earlier.
• Surveys seldom get the guidance you want. Plus, we are inundated by them. Rich counted five survey emails from about every place he had made a purchase in the last week (including the doctor’s office and the billing department at the doctor’s office).
A final thought concerning your electronic commerce activities, new product lines or any new initiative: In contrast with building a baseball field in rural Dyersville, Iowa, “If you build it, they won’t necessarily come.” If you’re going to invest in any new initiative, you need to promote the heck out of it.
Every person on your customer-facing team must be trained and armed with proper collateral material designed to inform and support the new initiative. Merely telling your customer-facing team about the initiative is far from adequate. This assumes they will assimilate the information, understand the business proposition represented by the change and then correctly communicate it to your customers.
We understand most wholesalers are quite busy right now, but we think a small amount of energy focused on the basics will help to ensure that the remainder of your year is the best it possibly can be.