Let's call this a follow up to an article I did last year titled "Know Your Competition" (May 2002). I recently did some "mystery shopping" for one of my consulting clients and came away so discouraged about how too many plumbing wholesalers run their showrooms that I've decided to pass along several things that put me in the doldrums. I've also listed several bullet points on items that many of you need to pay more attention to. You'll never be as good as you should unless you learn to do the "little things" well! Starting today, let's go back to the basics.

One of the fun, educational exercises I did when I owned my business was to act as a mystery shopper on my competition. I had a "scorecard" of about 30 items that I used to rate the other stores. Almost always I would see several things that were good and I might "borrow" those ideas. Usually there were quite a few items that got poor ratings, making me feel good that we were doing more things correctly than our competition.

After my poor ole bald head became more recognizable and I couldn't personally do the "mystery shopping," we would send a staff member or hire someone to do the shopping for us. We always learned a lot and always shared the results with our entire staff. This shopping also included the "big boxes."

Since I sold my business in 1995 and Darlington Consulting has grown, I've encouraged my clients (wholesalers and independents) to incorporate mystery shopping of their competitors into their annual business plans. Several of these clients have asked me to be their mystery shopper when I'm in their area. I haven't gone to the wig and beard yet, but I do try to remain incognito. This hasn't always worked! About a year ago I was "shopping" one of my client's competitors and the owner asked me who I was and why I was in the store. I said I was moving into the area, building a new home and would need several bathrooms of plumbing, door hardware, etc. The owner replied, "That's not true. You're Hank Darlington. I read your articles in Supply House Times and attended one of your business management seminars." Oops! Since then I have come clean when recognized!

Recently I've done several mystery shopping exercises for a couple of different clients, shopping both my clients' showrooms and their competitors' (mostly plumbing wholesalers). The results have been very disappointing.

Some of the showrooms I visited were knockdown gorgeous - beautifully built, accessorized, up-to-date. But in almost 100% of the cases I would spend 30-45 minutes shopping and no one even said hello! Every one of these showrooms was well staffed and they weren't that busy! (There were salespeople not waiting on clients who should have met and greeted me and started the qualifying process.) If I owned one of these showrooms, I certainly would want my salespeople meeting, greeting and qualifying. This happens so often that I have to resist the urge to ask for the boss and tell him or her that apparently the showroom salespeople don't need or want the business as badly as they should!

When I'm mystery shopping for clients I give them a full report of my experience, the good and the bad. In fact, I use the same report card I used in my business. If you'd like a copy, contact me or Supply House Times.

There's nothing more important or basic than approaching every person who walks through your front door - find out who they are and why they've come to your showroom.

Here is a list of "little things" that too many showrooms don't do well. This isn't meant to be negative, but constructive. If you do all the "little things" well, it will add up to a "big thing."

The approach to your business, the parking area and immediate front outside of the building needs to be clean and appealing.

A lot of people still smoke. If you don't have one of those good- looking urns at your front door, you'll be cleaning up butts all of the time. Or, they'll lay there and give a lousy impression.

If you have front window displays, be sure they are well done. You never have a second chance at first impressions!

If you have signage on the front door or windows, be sure it's professionally done and not cluttered with decals and too much verbiage.

Be sure the showroom is clean. Check it every day. If you utilize a once-a-week cleaning service, don't leave all the cleaning to them. Floors get dirty; products get fingerprints. Walk the showroom first thing in the morning and be sure it's 100%! Make cleaning and straightening up everyone's responsibility.

There should be no holes in displays ever! Don't rob or sell anything off display. It looks bad and gives a bad impression.

If you have model numbers, descriptions and/or prices on display product, make sure it's done in a professional manner. There should be no handwritten tags.

Keep sales workstations neat, clean and clear of boxes, RGA's and other miscellaneous clutter. This stuff seems to grow. Clean your areas every day.

Spend a few extra dollars and accessorize the displays. Include towels, soap dishes, plants (real, not fake) and pictures. Make the displays and products feel like home. If you don't have an eye for this, hire an interior designer to help.

Salespeople should dress appropriately. If you sell higher end products and market to higher end clients, dress accordingly. Check at your favorite jewelry store or better clothing stores: the salespeople dress up! And they don't do "dress down" Fridays. You want to look good all the time.

How you answer the phone is another very important basic. It may be a first-time caller. You need to make a great first impression. Telephone technique and etiquette is terribly important. Putting people on hold, the number of times the phone rings before you answer, messages on hold, are all opportunities to impress or UNimpress!

Good lighting is very important. If you spent a lot of money building out displays and purchasing display product, you want to show it off to its best advantage. Four-foot fluorescent bulbs won't get it - well placed direct lighting will! This is another area you might want to retain professional help. Be sure all light bulbs are working. Burned out bulbs indicate a lack of attention to details.

For products you want to sell off display, use professionally done sale tags.

Remove all the tags and stickers from all the products on display. When they're in the home you won't find them, so why in the showroom?

Don't have brochures lying around. It looks cluttered and gives out too much information!

Well-placed and spaced sales workstations help make sure clients won't be ignored. One of the nicest showrooms I mystery shopped recently was in a long and narrow building. All the sales stations were behind a counter right at the front door. If a client, or in this case a "mystery shopper" walked by there, the person could get lost in the maze of displays. And in this case, no one came looking! If workstations had been placed throughout the showroom, maybe someone would have humored me and said hello.

If you serve refreshments (coffee, tea, soft drinks) do it in style! No plastic foam cups. A nice china cup with your name and logo served with a nice paper napkin - again with your logo - will make a much nicer impression. Have your local bottled water distributor do your label on the small bottles of water you serve. Ask a vendor to co-op the label and put its name on it also.

The point is, do the little things well and get the basics down. Be sure your first impressions are only good ones. Everything is in the eye of the beholder.

Hank Darlington will present two seminars at ISH North America:

On Wednesday, Oct. 1 "Grow Your Gross Profit Margin - Starting Today!" is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. and on Thursday, Oct. 2, "How to Manage For Showroom Success" will be offered at 1:30 p.m. ISH North America will be held Oct. 1-3 at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino Convention Center. For information, call toll-free: 866-984-8016, email: ishna@usa.messefrankfurt.com or visit: www.ish-na.com.