Golf Lessons for Wholesalers

August 1, 2009
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I watched the British Open recently and was witness to one of those rare instances in Golf Majors when Tiger Woods wasn’t leading the tournament. In fact, Mr. Woods didn’t qualify and it was Tom Watson, 59 years of age, who led the tournament until he lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink. Mr. Watson’s advanced years reminded me of a golf story of my youth and how the lessons I learned can apply to wholesalers.

When I was a much younger man, I played a lot of golf. I was never a great player or even a really good player. At my best, I was a 12 handicap and I played several times a week during the summer months. This was when I was young and single and before I started a family. I had plenty of time and some spare money and if you don’t have that, you can’t play golf enough to get very good at it.

The small town I grew up in was a county seat of about 20,000 people, the county was about 70,000 in population and, if memory serves, there were five golf courses that surrounded us in that small town. One of golf courses was laid out around a river bottom and it was the one I frequented the most with my golf buddies. The golf pro at this course was a local legend. He was in his early 60’s at the time, and had been a dentist for nearly four decades before he sold his practice and became the resident golf pro. The pro, Brian, was a golf prodigy in his youth and he went to a Division I college where he was a star on the golf team, was medalist in many tournaments, and was encouraged to go pro. But Brian had a calling greater than golf which was taking care of people’s teeth, and so he went to dental school and was a dentist in that small Southern town until his retirement.

I befriended Brian when he found out I went to his alma mater and he would give me some tips on my game when I played nine holes in the late evenings of summer. One evening, Brian shocked me by inviting me to be his partner at a well known tournament at one of North Carolina’s better known courses. I reminded him that I was good for a bogey every two-thirds of a hole and I was no great partner. Brian’s regular partner was on vacation, however, and since the course was the home links for our alma mater, he felt it fitting to invite an alumnus. So, early on a Saturday morning, I threw my clubs into his big old Buick and we headed north two hours to the tournament.  

Brian was one of the most relaxed and contented people I have ever known. He always said there were two things he did well in life and that was playing golf and being a dentist. When we arrived at the course, I realized Brian was right about doing two things well because, in other things, he was not as accomplished; such as remembering to bring one’s clubs to a golf tournament. We had maybe a half hour before our start time. Brian could have used my clubs except he was much taller than I was. But he knew golf courses and he hunted down the course manager and went to the recesses of the clubhouse with me following. There in a lost corner of the clubhouse were three rain barrels full of clubs that were forgotten, lost, or used as spares. Brian spent about 10 minutes rummaging through the barrels, measuring the shaft lengths and came out with a three wood, three iron, seven iron and putter. He stuffed the clubs in my bag and we were off to the first tee. I don’t remember much about the course. But my score was in the mid 80’s and I remember well that Brian shot one under par. 

On the way back home, I asked Brian how he managed to shoot one under par with four borrowed and not-so-good clubs. What he told me had great effect and I’ll relay that, and then wrap up this installment with how the lessons apply to wholesalers.

Brian told me that most golfers were insufferable duffers. His definition of an insufferable duffer was someone who played to their best level of ability, wanted to get better, but stayed at that level for most of their golf careers. In essence, they seldom sought professional help, kept repeating the same mistakes and believing their scores would get better. Management gurus would later call this insanity. This was the biggest problem with most golfers. For those who weren’t insufferable duffers, there was another problem, one of excess and lack of focus.

Brian told me that most golfers carried too many clubs and didn’t know how to use them.  There were really four types of clubs; woods, long irons, medium and short irons, and putter. Each of these clubs required different; sometimes subtle changes in mechanics.  Most golfers carried too much equipment and didn’t focus on mastering the basics. They ended up with bad lies, or out of bounds, or on a bad place on the course because they didn’t concentrate on the fundamentals and didn’t know how to use their clubs. Brian told me, for fun, he once played a round with a five iron and putter and shot five over par.   

The use of too many clubs caused players to lose focus and take risks with shots that they didn’t have the skill to complete. As such, most players added tremendously to their score when, if they knew the basics of hitting a few clubs, they would have done much better.   

The lessons of the insufferable duffer and too many clubs reminded me of some wholesalers I know and how they could learn something from the advice of this old pro of the Southern climes.

Insufferable Duffers

There is a president of a sizable wholesaler that calls me once a year. He is big on pricing and he was one of the first to buy my book Capturing Value: Pricing Management for Distributors when it came out eight years ago. He has never purchased one bit of consulting from me or, my guess, anyone else. He calls me up to try and pick my brain on some bit of pricing that he is having trouble with. Not long ago, at an industry function, I ran into a friend who has worked for several wholesalers in a marketing and sales capacity and he told me he had interviewed with this company for an executive slot. He told me that the company’s pricing was all over the place and while the president thought he was a pricing star. He was, to use Brian’s term, an insufferable duffer. Because of this, the company’s earnings were low and there was a lot of work done in processing credits to customers for over charging or not charging an agreed to price. 

My friend also looked at the company’s sales processes and, these too, were antiquated and not up to par. Obviously, my friend was not excited about the position and turned down a second interview.  

I meet plenty of consulting window shoppers and this is common among knowledge workers. What I don’t understand are duffers who want to get better at a function and excel in it but keep shooting the same old score. If you are not getting greater earnings with your pricing efforts, consistently and over time, you are a duffer and should get help or either quit. Here’s a quick test; if you don’t know what the terms pricing scaling, transaction size pricing, prospect theory, upper limit theorem, cost recovery pricing, transaction type pricing, elasticity testing, ANOVA, and list multiples mean or how they work, then you don’t know much about distribution pricing. In short, you are a duffer. You may think you are good in the subject but you really are a duffer and calling this level of expertise anything else would be patronage and not helpful.  

The same thing applies to sales management. If you don’t know of and can’t explain terms like account thresholds, territory balancing, territory loading, account migration analysis, control system balancing, and service cost allocations, then you are a sales duffer. You may have been in the position a long time or you may be a nephew of the boss, but you’re still a duffer. You are insufferable if you try harder at sales management without rethinking things and don’t have valid empirical evidence that you are progressing.  

I’m confident a sizable amount of readers who are in pricing and sales management and who manage these positions don’t know the preceding pricing and sales terms but they have real meaning and are fundamentals to the functions. A lot of distribution knowledge doesn’t talk about fundamentals anymore. The talk is about “new and different” or changing times, etc., but there seems to be a real lack of fundamentals being taught.

Maybe people don’t think they need the fundamentals but that was what my golf pro friend was talking about. Most people tried to self-learn something or take advice from other duffers and, over time, called it experience. In truth, much of this experience was taught poorly, it was unexamined and had a lack of empirical proof and poor reasoning and they would have been much better off if, at some early point in their career, they sought professional help.

Of course I know that getting professional help is expensive and takes time but if you keep on repeating the same mistakes in what you are doing, and not getting any better, then that is insanity and you should quit and do something you are more qualified for. The old pro, Brian, told me that most people would rather remain duffers than seek help from a golf professional. I can say the same about pricing and sales knowledge for distributors. I don’t mind duffers when they stick to their own game but I do mind them when they try to pick my brain or act as if they know something about their craft when they really don’t. And, when they don the ego to give advice to others, I tend to label them impostors who cause a lot of harm.  

Too Many Clubs and Lack of Focus

I know quite a few wholesalers who do a lot of things and work very hard. They keep up with the latest knowledge, develop detailed plans, hold employees accountable, and keep score like an accountant on steroids. The problem is, while they score better in earnings than most insufferable duffers, they never seem to hit their peak with any consistency. In essence, they can score well, but then fall off and never can really predict when they’ll score well again. 

I worked for a distribution business like this many years ago and the bottom line on the business is that they tried to do too many things. They were literally all over the place and lost focus because of it. They didn’t identify the key things they needed to do well and concentrate on that and, because of this, they were inconsistent in earnings.

If you want to refocus your business and find out what you do well, ask your customers.  I recommend a tool called Derived Satisfaction Research but picking up the phone and calling customers can help also. I don’t recommend asking employees what you do well because most employees will either tell you what you have told them about what you do well or they will patronize you by saying you do things well that you really don’t. Either way, employees seldom can tell you what to focus on or are political animals and patronize you. You have to go to customers for good information on what to focus on and what matters.

My friend, Brian, told me that the hardest thing to do with golfers that had too many clubs was to get them to put the clubs away and learn to swing a driver, a long iron, medium or short iron, and a putter. Most golfers became dependent on a full set of clubs and would swear to you, if they didn’t have them, their score would balloon. But Brian knew better and, when possible, he would take students to play a round with four clubs. Brian also told me that less than 10% of golfers could use a full set of clubs really well and that most would be much better off with a much trimmed down selection.  

The Courage to Seek Help

As a dentist, Brian told me that a lot of patients would come to him when they realized they had a cavity or some recurring pain or ache that wasn’t normal. Their body was telling them something was wrong. He mused that there should be golf clubs that wrapped around a duffer’s legs, balls that would smart off after a bad swing, or tees that would bend out of the way before a slice or hook. These things would make the game much better. But Brian said that “most people lacked the courage to seek help.” It seemed insufferable duffers or club-dependent golfers had monumental egos and a certain yellow streak when it came to admitting they didn’t know something. 

In wholesaling, as in golf, you should ask yourself if your game is getting any better and, if it is not, seek some help, refocus the business, and improve your score. Doing the same thing from day to day and year to year without improving is insanity. It also costs a lot of money and is unfair to shareholders and employees. It takes real courage to admit you are an insufferable duffer or club dependent, seek help, and change for the better. Most people never get that far.

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