There was a time when you worried most about another plumbing and heating distributor moving into your sales territory. The competitive landscape has since evolved, with new competitors such as big box stores and online sales. In the past, they sold more to handymen and remodelers than to professional plumbing contractors, but now they’ve become significant competitors.
Selling product alone is not enough. Anyone can sell products, as the big box stores and websites have proven. Now you must be a valuable resource to your customers to help them succeed. You must get to know their business needs, not just their product needs. Here are the areas on which you can focus.
Be a resource for training
Wholesale distributors 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. Most plumbing and heating manufacturers offer training, so it’s incumbent on you to know what training options are available from your manufacturers and proactively share that information.
A lot of training these days has become virtual, so you have to tell your contractors how to get to it — is it Zoom, a webinar or a YouTube video? Send that 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 from your manufacturers that offer to come on-site or virtually.
Consider developing your own training program. Hire technical experts that can train and troubleshoot, and then work in another support capacity during downtime. Do you have a member of your accounting team you would be proud to put in front of contractors to train on proper accounting practices or how to increase profitability?
Offer knowledge on rebates
Your customers will appreciate any opportunity to save money or that will enable them to offer savings to their customers, so know and share manufacturer and utility rebate information. Have a supply of forms for active rebates your contractors can take to their customers or a list of websites where they can apply for rebates online. 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.
Stay up-to-date on codes
While contractors, by and large, are good at keeping up with codes, especially their local codes, you should know the latest code requirement resources available related to your line card and primary areas served. Codes are sometimes different from one municipality to another, so make sure your contractors are aware of that. If a code 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.
Many of your customers may be small contractors and even one-person shops, so tell them about contractor services available that will help them grow. They need help on the business side, so research services that are available to your customers, regardless of how big or small they are. Let them know about services that help with everything from bookkeeping to full office and field management. Many contractors use QuickBooks, and there are plenty of support services for that. Just Google, “bookkeeping services for contractors,” and you’ll come up with a long list for your area. Recommend contractor websites that are helpful and productive.
There are best practices websites that cost just $50 a month for a subscription that are loaded with valuable management tools and advice. Five-star reviews are a big deal, so research and recommend review services in your area. Know which manufacturers have the highest degree of loyalty to the professional trades and have the best resources available to help contractors grow their businesses.
Be active with associations
All of your contractor customers should belong to a contractor organization. Local contractor associations can do a great job tracking the code changes I mentioned above. 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 have a division, such as an associate member category, that allow wholesalers, manufacturers and reps to join.
Go to the meetings — you can get a lot out of informal conversations. And support the association with your resources. Buy the pizza for the meetings, sponsor their golf tournament, offer a subject matter expert to speak at a meeting. However you do it, always be visible and bring value.
Focus on the contractors’ experience interacting (not just transacting) with your company and provide options. How does a contractor want to interact with you? Up and coming 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 do contractors demand transacting with you via app, video chat, website, text, etc.? If COVID-19 taught us anything, it taught us the importance of flexibility. Let the customer choose.
Your takeaway from this is you have to make sure your value as a distributor offsets the convenience of the online ordering giants and traditional retailers that are now heavily focused on taking your customers. If you don’t, a contractor has no reason to favor you over the alternatives.
You’re not in this alone. Good manufacturers will be partners in helping you with many of these suggestions. Make yourself the only option for your customers by helping them grow their business and please their customers. If you are starting to see customers slipping away, don’t just take stock of your product inventory — take stock of your complete value proposition to your customers.