Supposedly there is an ancient curse that states, “May you live in interesting times.” It sounds like a blessing, but it’s meant ironically since interesting times can be chaotic. As a plumbing and HVAC wholesale distributor, you are, unfortunately, living in interesting times. So are we as your manufacturer partners. But working together, we can be stronger than ever.
Your competition has been evolving for the past 30 years or more. Back in the day, your biggest worry was some other plumbing-heating-cooling wholesaler would move into your sales territory. Then the big-box home improvement stores became a national force. The trades waged a long battle against their encroachment on the professional channel, but the box stores upped their game, effectively adopting some wholesale distribution traits.
PHC wholesalers can fight back, however, by always embracing the fact that selling product alone is not enough. Anyone can sell a piece of equipment, as the success of home centers and online sales giants prove. But wholesalers have always done much more for their customers than selling a widget; they offer services their competition either cannot or will not.
In the face of today’s competition, you must become a technical training and business development resource to your customers to help them succeed. You must get to know their business needs, not just their product needs. Here are some areas on which you can focus.
• Training. Wholesalers have always been a great source of training for contractors — local, convenient and authoritative. Contractors sell and install products they know and with which they are comfortable, making training crucial. Plumbing and heating manufacturers understand that offering training is one of the best ways to build relationships with customers, and they are eager to work with you to conduct classes with your contractors.
It’s incumbent on you to know what training options are available from your manufacturers and proactively share the information with your customers.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the nature of training, perhaps permanently. Five years from now, we may still be using virtual and on-demand video training that began in the last six months. Because so much training these days is virtual, tell your contractors how to find it — is it an online training module, a live webinar or a YouTube video? Also, some manufacturers live-stream training sessions.
Send the information to your customers by email, in social media posts and on your website. Manufacturers want to work with you, so help set up training opportunities with them, either at your facility or virtually.
While sponsoring manufacturer training is essential, consider developing your own training program. You can hire technical experts who can train and troubleshoot, and then work in another support capacity during downtime.
Small contractors need business management advice. Do you have a member of your accounting team who you would be proud to put in front of contractors to train on proper accounting practices or how to increase profitability?
• Inventory, financing services. Emphasize the inventory and financing services you offer that the competition doesn’t do as well. A contractor can come into your facility at 7 a.m. and his order is picked, shrink-wrapped and ready to load on his truck, or else you’ll deliver it directly to his jobsite.
You will put a contractor’s purchase on his account and bill him later. Wholesale distributors invented that — home centers were forced to play follow the leader on ordering, delivery and financing.
• Rebates. Your customers will appreciate any opportunity to save money or enable them to offer savings to their customers, so research and share manufacturer and utility rebate information. Provide contractors with a list of websites where they can apply for rebates online or a supply of forms for active rebates they can take to their customers.
Share that information through your primary customer communications channels, including emails to customers on your list, counter cards, social media postings and on your website.
• Codes. While contractors, by and large, are good at keeping up with codes, especially their local codes, know the latest code requirement resources available related to your line card and primary areas served. Codes, permits and licensing procedures are sometimes different from one town to the next, so make sure your contractors are aware of it.
If something changes, post it and share it so your customers know the information as quickly as possible. Once again, share the information through your primary customer communications channels. They’ll appreciate that you’re looking out for them and their customers.
• Support services. Many of your customers may be small contractors and even one-person shops, so tell them about available contractor services that will help them grow.
Most likely they need help on the business side, so research services available to them, regardless of how big or small they are. There are small-business services providing assistance with everything from bookkeeping to full office and field management. Many contractors use QuickBooks; there are many support services for that.
• Online business, marketing tools. Recommend contractor websites that are helpful and productive. Low-cost best-practices subscription websites are loaded with valuable management tools and advice.
These sites contain marketing tools such as sales brochures, postcards, coupons, flyers, email newsletter templates and Facebook ads. Subscribers can download business tools such as recruiting documents, job descriptions, sample contracts, business forms and calculators.
• Review sites. Five-star reviews are a big deal, so research and recommend review services in your area. Know which manufacturers exhibit the highest degree of loyalty to the professional trades and possess the best resources available to help contractors grow their businesses.
• Industry groups. All your contractor customers should belong to a contractor organization. Know the benefits of local, state and national plumbing and HVAC organizations so you can make appropriate recommendations based on a customer’s specific needs. If customers are telling you about their problems, be sure to pass those along to the local association.
Get a seat at the table. Many of these local associations include an associate member category that wholesalers can join. Go to the meetings because you can get a lot out of informal conversations. And support the association by buying the pizza for the meetings or sponsoring their golf tournament. Every local association is looking for speakers, so offer a subject matter expert to speak at an association event. Always be visible and bring value.
• Customer interaction. Focus on the contractors’ experience interacting with your company and provide options. How does a contractor want to interact with you? Younger contractors may not be interested in conducting business at your counter, or even by phone, not that these paths to market are not incredibly important. But some contractors will want to transact with you via app, video chat, website or text.
If COVID-19 taught us anything, it taught us the importance of flexibility. Let the customer choose.
Make sure your value as a wholesaler offsets the convenience of the big-box stores, which are intent on taking away your customers. That includes both their brick-and-mortar buildings and online offerings to pros. You can do this by offering services such as training that you’ve always done. And ensure your customers are fully aware of all the advantages you offer so there’s no way they will favor the alternatives.
You’re not alone in this. Your suppliers will partner with you to carry out many of these suggestions. When you help your customers grow their businesses and please their customers, you make yourself indispensable to them. If you believe you are losing customers to home centers and their e-commerce sites, the problem isn’t with your line card. Customer service is the most crucial part of your complete value proposition to your customers.