Only charities can get away with slipshod service.

The Salvation Army is the top recipient of my family's charitable donations. We admire their devotion to society's basket cases. It's also because the Army has about the lowest administrative expense of any charity. We like knowing that 90 percent of every dollar we give goes to helping those in need rather than elevating the lifestyles of professional fundraisers and administrators. (You can evaluate how charities perform at

My favorite charity can be exasperating to deal with, though. Last spring cleaning turned up a bunch of clothes that no longer fit along with usable household items that had fallen out of favor. So we scheduled a pickup by the Army, and a comedy of errors ensued. It was supposed to be a Saturday pickup, and I ended up staying home on a glorious spring day awaiting the Army truck. When it didn't arrive by mid-afternoon, I called their office and was informed they made no weekend pickups. The following Monday we came home to find a card advising us that an Army driver had come by that day only to find nobody home.

The original scheduler apparently thought they made Saturday pickups. Whoever discovered the error simply assigned it for the next available day without checking with us. That didn't make sense, but here's where the organization's mission comes into play.

The Salvation Army recruits much of its work force from "clients" served. They nurse some of these people back from rock bottom to the point where they can earn a pittance of a wage while learning job skills and paying back the Army for its benevolence. You can tell from talking to them on the phone these folks have lived a hard life. The Army gives them enough training to get by, but most need more refining before they're of much use to a business employer. Working for the Army at least demonstrates a bit of the character required to make a go of it.

Time's A Wasting

Understanding all this, I cut the Army some slack and arranged for another pickup. But the episode unleashed a hurricane of bad memories about the many hours of life that have slipped away waiting for delayed deliveries or service calls. To Type A personalities such as myself, idling around the house is as agonizing as root canal surgery. Charities can get away with slipshod service, but it's hard to forgive businesses whose services one pays a pretty penny to receive.

These thoughts ended up mingling with information gleaned from a superb seminar on customer service by Torrington Supply's Joel Becker. Becker cites a survey in which customers rated the most important services provided by a wholesaler. More than half of Becker's top 10 had to do with saving customers' time in some manner.

Collaborative research conducted by the ASA Education Foundation finds contractors saying over and over, "Don't waste my time." There seems to be an urgency about this that wasn't present when I first started covering the industry a quarter-century ago.

Partly this may be because back then contractors were able to make a lot more money on material markups. It was an inflationary era, and the big boxes were not yet around to teach consumers what plumbing products were "supposed" to cost. Now, consumers are armed with that knowledge, which clamps a vise on the material prices contractors are able to get away with. This, in turn, puts a premium on labor efficiency. Bidding has tightened to the point where a few excess labor hours often spells the difference between profit and loss. No wonder contractors get mad as hell when wholesalers make mistakes that cost them time.

Out of thousands of conversations with wholesalers over the years, I've never heard one admit to giving lousy customer service. On the contrary, almost all claim their supply house gives the best service in town. Ask their customers to evaluate them, however, and you hear a different story. Best example I can think of is the disconnect when it comes to stock-outs. Almost every wholesaler will brag about an order fill rate in the 95%+ category. Yet, just about every contractor complains that PHCP wholesalers in general never have what they need.

An exaggeration to be sure, but it's a matter of perception. Customers take for granted the 95% of items you have in stock, the nine times out of 10 your delivery truck arrives on schedule, the 99 items out of 100 that are exactly what they ordered. It's the misses they remember, no matter how few and far between. The misses have always been there, but from the contractor's perspective they are more costly than ever.

Mistakes cost time. Time is money. With virtually every penny squeezed to the max when it comes to buying low and selling high, success in PHCP wholesaling nowadays is largely a matter of eliminating mistakes.