Okay folks, this is going to be a little different! Instead of preaching and teaching, I'm going to play the role of a client coming into your showroom. I'm going to write this in the first person, so you'll be hearing my observations and comments. After doing this column for more than 10 years, it might be fun to do something a little different!

Here's the scenario: I just turned 50, I'm married and the last of my four kids just graduated from college (hurray)! Both my wife and I have been pretty successful and we've decided to build our dream house up in the mountains. A friend of ours has agreed to be the general contractor and he's given us the okay to select and purchase all the finish plumbing products for the three and a half bathrooms, the kitchen, wet bar and laundry room. Heck, it's our project, our money, our style preference and our time frame, so why shouldn't we take charge of this phase of the project? My wife and I have divided up the responsibilities of selecting products. She's going to do the interior design phase, and I'm doing the bathrooms, kitchen and exterior building products. Our contractor has used your showroom before, both with and without a plumbing contractor involved. He's assured us that as a fairly large plumbing wholesaler, you'll extend us very fair pricing. I like shopping the big boxes for some things, but not for this project. So let's get started.

I called for directions to your showroom and the gal who answered the phone did a good job. But while she was giving me directions, she had to put me on hold twice to answer other calls. This was a bit annoying, but hey, you're busy and that's a good thing. While on hold you had a local hard rock music station playing - and I thought to myself that you missed an opportunity to tell your story by not having a professionally done “message on hold.” Besides, I really don't like hard rock!

Since your showroom is located in your wholesale building, it isn't in the most friendly retail location. It's a bit off the beaten track and in an older part of town. But I'm thinking that's okay, because it's probably a lower rent area and I want to buy wholesale. This helps keep your expenses down.

I drive up to your building and see a sign to the showroom entrance. I don't see any “Reserved for Showroom Customers” parking spaces, so I park between two plumbing contractor trucks and make a dash for the entrance. You see, it's pouring rain and I think a parking space near the entrance and an awning over the door would be nice - but I guess you didn't think about that option. I hate to admit it, but I still smoke. I arrive at your front door with an almost-finished cigarette in my hand and there is no cigarette urn by the door. I stamp it out on the sidewalk along with a pile of other butts. I wonder why someone doesn't clean them up!

The entrance is for both the plumbing counter and the showroom, but I see a sign for the showroom entrance and go in. Did I mention that I own my own retail business so I'm pretty in tune to how a retail business should be operated? So far, I'm not very impressed with your business, but I'm open-minded and my contractor said you'd do a good job. (Did you know that clients will form an impression about your showroom in the first 15 seconds after they step through the front door? That hardly sounds fair, but it is what it is!)

I stop and scan your showroom. It appears to be pretty open, has a high ceiling, which I like, but it's not well lit. I notice it has traditional fluorescent lights, but no track lighting, which would really highlight the various products you have on display.

I'm not really sure how to get started - I'm here to select a whole house of products and haven't done this for about 20 years. I know I need some help but don't see anyone, so I begin looking around the showroom on my own. Wow, I can't believe how much styles have changed and how many colors and finishes there are. Heck, it used to be white fixtures and chrome faucets. This may be tougher than I thought.

I notice there's carpet on the floor with a nice feel, but it's obvious the vacuum cleaner hasn't been out of the closet for awhile. The wall of faucets is pretty cool. The names on the boxes tell me you have Moen, Delta and Kohler. I'm wondering why the boxes they're mounted on are all different. Being in retail, I know that if all your boxes and boards were the same and had no names on them, it would be a much more coordinated look. But then I keep forgetting you're a wholesaler and probably don't have much retail experience.

I didn't check my watch, but I'll bet I've been here 10 minutes and no one has even said, “Hello.” I hear voices, so I head in that direction. A guy and a gal are sitting at their desks. One is on the phone and the other is glued to the computer. I walk up and ask if there's someone who can assist me. The gal says, “Sure, give me a minute.” One minute turns into five, but I stay busy walking around. I'm in the kitchen sink area. There are sinks of all shapes, sizes and materials. Most of the sinks have faucets on them, but I notice a couple have several “holes” - no strainer, no faucet, no anything. This certainly isn't very good merchandising. I'm thinking this wholesaler is missing an opportunity to show more products.

The lack of accessorizing throughout the showroom has also caught my attention. It sure would look friendlier if they added a few towels, soap dishes, etc., to make it feel like home. And the fake plants and flowers don't get it either. They're old, tired and dusty. In fact, the entire place needs a good cleaning!

Finally, the gal at the computer comes up and asks, “May I help you?” I'm thinking, I certainly hope so, I drove out of my way to find you, I've been here 15 minutes and you're just getting around to saying hello. But, hey, I'm a nice guy and I play it cool. I say, “I'd appreciate your help.” She asks, “What's your project?” I tell her. She asks if I'm working with a plumbing contractor. I tell her no, I'm working with a custom home builder. She says they prefer to work through plumbers. I say, “That may be, but in this case I'm going to be making the selection of products and paying for it.” Now I'm beginning to wonder if she even wants to work with me. What's that all about? It appears the company has invested a lot of money in building out the showroom. Why wouldn't they be excited to work with everyone? I have to remember to ask my buddy the builder about it. I wonder if all the clients he sends in here are treated the same way. But back to the situation at hand.

The sales gal's name is Sarah. I'm a bit surprised that she's dressed in blue jeans. It doesn't seem consistent with the feel of the showroom. I know that my retail business is higher end and I insist that my salespeople dress accordingly. Oh well, something else I don't quite understand.

Sarah asks more about my project, if I have any style preferences, what my budget is, what the time frame is, etc. She actually does a pretty good job of asking the right qualifying questions. I notice she doesn't tell me anything about herself or her company. Maybe she assumes I should know how they work and why they are the place I should spend my $30,000 budget.

She wonders why my wife isn't here and I try to explain how we've divided up the responsibilities. I can tell she's skeptical, but we get started anyway. She tells me it would have been a lot easier if I had called ahead and made an appointment. There are only two sales consultants and sometimes they get busy. She says we can get started, but I might have to come back another time if I don't finish. I'm thinking, I'm here now and I have the time. Why would I want to come back? But I decide to see where it goes.

Sarah grabs a notepad and we start walking. Almost everything on display appears to be “traditional wholesaler”-type products - the same ones that the other wholesalers and the big boxes have. I tell Sarah I'm looking for some really different and unusual products. We want our project to be special. I'm not sure she gets it, because so far she's not showing me anything very different.

We get to toilets (Sarah tells me they're called water closets), and I ask about the new water-saving deal and if less water really cleans the w.c. She says, “No, not really, but if you flush two or three times they get pretty clean.” I'm wondering, “How does that save water?” Then I explain that my wife and I have traveled in Europe and Asia and have used bidets. We think we'd like to put one in our new home. Sarah says, “Nobody ever buys a bidet.” She doesn't think they're necessary, so why not save the money and put it into something else?

I mention to Sarah that we'd like to learn more about steam units and saunas, because our new home has an exercise room. Sarah tells me they don't sell these - they stick pretty much to the basic plumbing products. The big box is sounding better and better!

I ask where the men's room is and am directed to a restroom that is used by the warehouse crew and showroom clients. The place is dirty and it is out of toilet paper. That is it!

If I'm going to spend 30 grand, I want it to feel good. This hasn't felt good - so I ask Sarah for a bunch of brochures, which she gladly gives me. I tell her, “Thanks, I'll call later.”

Okay, so none of this ever happens at your showroom - but I know for a fact that it does happen! I've done too much “mystery shopping” and had similar experiences. It's sad, it's disappointing and it's frustrating. So please, don't let this be the experience your clients have!