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We all have heard some variation of the sentence, “I hear what you’re saying about how much you did for me yesterday, but what have you done for me today.” It’s been around for years. We think the future will be more like, “What have you done for me on this item on this order.”
The coming generation of contractors will be much more transactional, better informed and more demanding of their wholesaler vendors. They will be more “loyal” to transactional convenience than to personal relationships.
For years, we have preached that wholesalers need to earn the role of “primary supplier” with their target customers. The idea is to become and remain the customer’s supplier of choice. The customer starts the day by planning his work, placing an order to you and ideally picking up that order at one of your locations. You may remember the four components in earning that role; we’ve added our take on how it must evolve in the future:
1. Product selection. Have the products the customer needs, stocked in the quantities the customer needs.
Our take: Your web store must represent your offering with robust, high-quality content. This offering will include stocked items and products available from master distributors — all the items you want to sell to customers. If it’s not there, they will assume you don’t sell it, even if you plaster your site with “We can special-order it” banners.
2. Reliability. Being reliable, reliable, reliable, convenient and easy to do business with.
Our take: The big polluted river company and other online sellers are setting high expectations. We have it. We can ship it today. You can track it. If it isn’t right, return it for an immediate refund. Most buyers know polluted river’s actual performance isn’t perfect, but the closer you can get, the better off you will be.
3. Relationships. Building a relationship with the ownership and all levels within the customer’s organization. We have long said, “People buy from people they like.”
Our take: A lot of the future will be “people buying from online depictions they like.” The modern, neat warehouse on the site is actually a corner of their Quonset hut that they “modernized” for the photoshoot. The picture they show on the store is a friendly-looking young woman wearing a headset who is purported to be in customer service.
In truth, it’s a stock image (or maybe she actually works for about 100 online companies) and customer service is manned by a guy who looks and acts similar to the guy in the movie “Grumpy Old Men.” But, like it or not, people respond to the idea they are going to be buying from the fake warehouse and talking to the woman in the picture.
4. Fair pricing. Providing fair and competitive pricing.
Our take: Pricing will be much more public, available and much less “special.” It is critical to know what the market price is online; decide how yours will compare and how quickly you will respond to the market. With that said, price management will be much more important going forward than ever, even if it is much different than the past.
Selling to the Next Generation
It’s anyone’s guess as to what it’s going to take to sell the next generation of tradespeople. We know generalizations about any group of people do not apply to all members of that group. We present this list as thought-starters for consideration as you work to build marketing programs focused on your future contractor customers. By the way, some of the following describe a growing number of your current customers.
The contractors of the future:
• Will be much more tech-enabled than the previous generation but maybe not much more tech-savvy. To us, this is quite obvious and while the use of technology is quite pervasive, the depth of understanding is often quite shallow. At about two years of age, both of Jen’s kids walked up to the family TV set and tried to swipe the screen (like an iPad) to change the show.
The technology is pretty easy to use, which has increased the number of users greatly, but most contractors won’t have a clue about how to set up and use technology in their businesses. You can help them with tools to better manage their businesses.
• Will have a smartphone and be very skilled in its use. Contractors are quite comfortable with information provided on a small screen. Using a tiny screen to create a “full picture” of information based upon mentally pasting together groups of small screens as they are scrolled back and forth is a skill that seems quite natural to this generation and unimaginable to previous generations. Tolerance for zooming in to view a desktop-focused website or store is very low. You need to have a real mobile solution.
• Will have more sophisticated social media skills than the previous generation. This new generation of contractors has grown up through the evolution of electronic human interaction. They are comfortable interacting with multiple social media tools simultaneously and seamlessly. Short abbreviated semi-English interactions are more efficient and comfortable. GTK (good to know)! You should actively manage your social media image toward trade customers and to end-users of your products.
• Will have fewer direct people skills, in general, than the previous generation. Some will prefer to send electronic communications to others in the same room rather than walk 10 yards to have a face-to-face conversation. It’s almost as if they prefer not to harvest the wealth of insights provided by human facial expressions and body language. They may feel discomfort with providing that same feedback to someone else or lack confidence in their social skills.
You can adapt your customer and selling interactions to accommodate the individual’s style and preferences. It is no longer the one-size-fits-most approach to customer contact. It is our style fits you.
• Will have an orientation toward providing and receiving information in photo form. The proliferation of cameras in all cell phones has allowed people to leverage the old saying, “A picture is worth 1,000 words.”
We have seen this phenomenon in our industry as techs send a photo of a model number, serial number, broken part or hand-written “electronic order” to their favorite wholesaler asking for assistance. You can explicitly encourage customers to use this technique and actively support it, thus making it easier for them to buy from you.
• May not necessarily be more skilled with “the tools of the trade.” Rich’s grandfather was a master plumber. In his day, before the building codes were as comprehensive and licensing was required, earning this “degree” involved many years of experience and true mastery of all the important skills of the trade.
A master plumber could sign off on jobs, and hire and train journeyman plumbers. It was the trade’s way, developed over centuries, of ensuring quality work by the artisans of the craft. He was respected among his peers because not all plumbers could make the grade or would invest the time to earn the “degree.”
We were recently in a conversation with a plumbing contractor who remarked that some of his techs had probably forgotten how to sweat copper fittings. The company’s use of PEX, press-fittings and push-fit fittings have allowed traditional skills to atrophy. For more complicated installs, their MO is often not to know things but to know how to Google things effectively, then assemble information into just-in-time wisdom.
In some cases, contractors’ ability to perform the task is directly related to their favorite wholesaler’s ability to advise them. Try to be their “go-to” source of information. Start creating simple entertaining videos to address your customers’ major questions.
• Will not understand the value of an account with terms of 2/10, net 30 but will understand points on their credit card towards Bass Pro Shops or the 1-percent cash back feature. We believe this is a mixed blessing for wholesalers. In the past, the wholesaler acted as the trade customer’s “bank.” It was, of course, a double-edged sword because it allowed the wholesaler a somewhat preferential relationship with customers but also involved financial risk.
As customers are paying with a credit card, the wholesaler often gets paid promptly by the credit card company but at a price. There is not only the X percent that the credit card company takes from the sale but also a loss of the preferential relationship/loyalty, as it is now afforded to the credit card company.
This is one area where we think you have two choices: Get on the train and allow credit card purchases and payments on account or don’t get on the train. The contractors are getting on the train with or without you.
• Will not listen to voicemail message even if you are able to leave one. Often their voicemail will be full, removing the option entirely. Voice communication is often considered to be quite inefficient in favor of electronic communication, as discussed previously.
Provide tools to your team to allow both emails and texting (from their desk). We have watched salespeople work on information for a customer, then pull out their phone so they can text information to the customer. It is very inefficient and the only record of the communication is on the sales person’s personal phone.
• Will prefer text messages over emails and either over a voice call or an in-person meeting. Rich was talking to a territory manager who had recently sat in on interviews for some new junior sales employees. His comment was, “I have never felt more secure in my job as I listened to these smart young people interview for a job in sales. None were prepared in any way for the interview; they were self-involved, with awkward social skills. The most fun was when one guy checked his text messages while someone was asking him a question. He asked the interviewer to repeat the question. The guy was completely unaware of the impression he was making. These smart people were just clueless about rudimentary social skills and etiquette.”
There are still people who do possess good interpersonal skills, but it is not as common. You will have to dig for them or train them.
• Will make buying decisions based on convenience rather than cost as opposed to the traditional cost/convenience approach. In a previous column, we discussed the phenomenon of delivered fast food — consumers would rather stay in the comfort of their own home paying a significant premium to have traditional fast food delivered to them. Fast food companies are jumping on this wagon, it seems, since drive-through and delivered food is probably less costly than food delivered in their spartan dining room.
Consider providing quick deliveries, quick pick-up and drive-through service — at a profitable price, of course.
Get prepared to deal with the future, or don’t. There are plenty of large nationals, big-box stores and new-age Internet companies that would be happy to see you quietly concede market as you ignore the reality and keep on keepin’ on.