We have been on a crusade to get wholesalers into the e-commerce game. Getting started takes time and many wholesalers are still sitting on the sidelines allowing competitors to take their loyal, tech-interested customers by default through their inaction.
This month, we want to remind wholesalers that they need to continue to develop and promote their person-to-person relationships too. We had a recent experience with an online seller that reminded us of something we already knew — that a skilled and engaged salesperson almost always trumps a webstore. We'll will reiterate the key phrase “skilled and engaged” because therein are the key differentiators. It also demonstrated that high-performance wholesalers will have complementary personal and web selling activities in order to provide the best service to their customers.
Here’s what happened. Rich needed a repair part for something in his home. He tried several local supply houses and found them out of stock. (He has a personal policy of always giving local suppliers the first shot at his business whenever possible.) The local suppliers were willing to order it for him with an estimated arrival five to seven days out — with no guarantees. None of them offered to nail down a more accurate date by calling their supplier. The option that they offered was to order it and hope for a speedy delivery.
We consider this an error on the part of the supply houses since Rich might have purchased the part from one of them if they had offered to provide an accurate estimate. In one case, he was standing at their counter ready to lay down his credit card to order the part, but all the guy would say is that they had -1 in inventory; that he could order it and it might be to them within five days if their supplier had it in stock. Not all buyers care about when the item will be available, but since Rich asked, the counter man should have then responded with, ”Do you want me to check on that to get a faster or firmer delivery date?” Rich was the only customer at the counter so either the man didn’t know to ask or, if he did, he opted to not make work for himself. In the good old days when customers didn’t have another option, wholesalers could get away with this sort of mediocre service. But the Web has raised the bar with regards to information and service.
First, find the part!
All of the local supply houses were listed as authorized warranty locations for the manufacturer. (This was not a warranty claim, just an opportunity to sell a high-margin part.) Interestingly, none of the local suppliers was able to look up the part using the product model number. They found the part only after Rich gave them the manufacturer’s part number for the repair part he needed. The guy at the counter was able to show him the manufacturer’s website but either he couldn’t use it or was just lazy. Luckily for Rich, he had memorized that part number which helped one to look it up in their computer system and the others to look it up in the manufacturer’s printed parts catalog.
In the end, it was disappointing to have wasted so much time with the local guys. we gave them three strikes then went to the parts locator expert named Google. Frankly, Google didn’t do a great job with the product model number and repair part description; but nailed it when we entered the manufacturer’s part number for the repair part. There were just over 5,000 results ranging from companies selling the part to YouTube videos showing a detailed procedure on how to install the part.
We and many of your customers have been spoiled by the Internet. They can access many online webstores, see stocking levels and get a commitment that the order will ship today or tomorrow. In our experience, most of the shipping commitments have been honored. Of course, you need to have this information available on your webstore, but we also think your team needs to be able to provide this type of information as a part of their normal person-to-person sales and support activities.
We have had retail salespeople say, “I really don’t know anything about this product, but you can go onto our webstore and look it up.” This is wrong, wrong, wrong!!! When we search online, we may see their webstore, but we will likely see 5,000 or more other sites selling the same or competing products. This is akin to sending the customer to a competitor when he asks a simple question about a product that you stock and sell. (We know this will make some of you uncomfortable, but we'd bet that your people have done this today or at least this week.) To be clear, we are talking about properly selling and supporting the products that you stock and sell.
Know your own website
At the very least, a wholesaler’s team should be able to look up the information on their own website/webstore or the manufacturer’s website and then provide that information to a customer. Optionally, a wholesaler’s salesperson could browse to the website/webstore and show the information and parts explosion to the customer. (This requires that the sales team have access to the Internet, be able to find their own store and then turn the screen so the customer can see it. None of this happens by accident.)
Heck, if Radio Shack can train their 17-year-old seasonal sales people to use the Radio Shack site, a wholesaler should be able to train their full-time professional sales people to provide similar support. Just so you know, I am not talking about providing detailed engineering specifications but being able to answer a question like, “Can I get this product in polished brass?”
Back to my story. Having given up on my local suppliers, I was now looking at 5,000+ search results. I picked a couple sites, easily found the repair part I needed, compared pricing to see what was fair and was ready to buy. I visited Amazon.com and added to my cart. On the checkout page, I was shown an estimated delivery of 3 days plus or minus 3 days. Not real precise, but more credible than the prerecorded answer that I got from the local guys.
I decided to leave Amazon and try some of the other companies on the Google search results hoping for a site that would ship today. I looked at 3 sites, then selected one that looked modern, clean and easy to use. While I was looking at the item it suggested some other items related to the repair, but I had a question. While I was looking at the specifications, a window popped up asking if I wanted to start an online text chat with a salesperson. The picture that was shown in the pop-up hinted that the salesperson was a smiling 25 year-old-woman with blond hair wearing a headset.
I declined to chat and decided to call the 800 number that was clearly shown at the top of the page. I was connected directly to a very nice woman named Lisa who said that she could create the order and answer any questions or get the answers to questions if she didn’t know the answer. She added the repair part to start the order then addressed my question about another part. She indicated that the parts explosion listed the part I needed as an item in a kit with seven other items. She indicated that the kit was in stock and added it to the order. That led to another question with a reference to another kit that was out of stock. She then said, “Let me see if I can find the part number of the item you need to determine if it was available outside of a kit.” She found that it was. It was in stock, and she added to the order. I asked about one final item that she quickly located and added the order. In the end, the order was now about twice the price of the original part that I needed. As we were completing the order, she mentioned that one of the parts was made of rubber and that soaking it in hot water would make it easier to install. (Nice finish.) She told me it would ship today and arrive by priority mail in 2-3 days. She also offered next day service for an additional $85 which I declined. (Note: the part arrived by mail in 2 days.)
My original mission would have resulted in about half the order size. Having a skilled salesperson with good online tools who was quickly able to answer questions and look up information caused me to expand the order. As long as I was ordering the original part, I decided to order a couple other parts as spares in case those parts are needed for this or a future repair. The difference was the easy access to a person who was able to navigate her system and provide information. I can tell you that I will give significant points to this company whenever I need repair parts in the future. If I were a trade guy who repaired this kind of product, I would consider how easy it is to call Lisa whenever I need this kind of part.
There is, of course, a cost for this kind of support. As with all costs, it must stand the test of ROI; but I think the wholesaler of the future will be a seamless blend of pickup service, delivered products, phone sale/support, online chats and websites. (Some of you might wonder if counter and will call services are on the way out. I would point to Amazon opening a will call location to test the value of providing same-day service.
Make sure that your website promotes your easy access to a real person to help with simple or complex problems outside the scope of your regular webstore. Also make sure that your people are trained to provide fast, friendly and competent support when they get an at-bat with customer or prospective customer.
Rich Schmitt is president of Schmitt Consulting Group Inc., a management consulting firm focused on distribution and manufacturing clients for pricing, consulting seminars and profit improvement. He is also the co-owner of Schmitt ProfiTools Inc. (SPI), which provides web storefronts and handheld tools, print catalog software, content creation and services, and pricing management and analysis. Visit his company websites at www.go-scg.com and www.go-spi.com. Schmitt can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org