Mike Dandridge

Most wholesalers cling to a business model for a customer that no longer exists. Big Box merchants and DIYs blur the line between retail and wholesale as they hungrily look to take a bite out of the traditional wholesale distribution market. Forget about demographics. That's your customer they're after.

The contractor at your counter today will buy from at least one retail business this week. Tonight he might take his five-year-old for ice cream where the server behind the counter turns a double-dip cone into performance art. When your store is closed, he'll go to a DIY and a knowledgeable greeter will eagerly welcome him inside. He'll take his truck in for an oil change and enjoy complimentary coffee and fresh-baked cookies while he waits. He likes how retailers treat him. Companies like these have raised the standards of service as well as the standards your customer is willing to accept. The exceptional has become the expected, and it's the new benchmark your customer expects you to meet.

The world of wholesale distribution is changing with lightning speed. Good old-fashioned customer service just isn't enough to win you “the Distributor of Choice Award” anymore. Why? Because today's savvy customer expects great service. To exceed customers' expectations, you must impact the buying experience in a positive and memorable way. Do it consistently and you'll turn customers into business advocates.

Introducing Customer Experience Architecture, or CXA, a means for adding value to the customer experience by evaluating all of the points of contact between the customer and the distributor. Key indicators show performance gaps and provide information for necessary improvements. In CXA, everything matters, from the way you answer your phone to the striping on your parking lot to the toilet paper in your restrooms. CXA focuses on how your business appears in the eyes of your customer. If that seems simplistic, bear in mind, most managers have a totally distorted view of how a customer sees their business compared to how the customer really sees it.

For example, when I was an outside salesman, I would invite customers to “drop by and see the store.” Invariably, when a client would visit, he didn't want to see me at my cluttered desk or walk through a warehouse full of the same parts he used every day. He wanted to see the sales counter, so he could touch and hold the tools of his trade. He wanted to feel the weight of a new hammer drill and explore the features on the latest hand-held test instruments. He wanted to sip strong coffee and swap stories with his colleagues. In other words, it was through the sales counter that the customer “experienced” our branch. It could have a positive or a negative influence on his perception of our entire operation.

The purpose of Customer Experience Architecture is to positively shape that perception. When a customer walks up to a well-lit sales counter filled with a wide assortment of merchandise, he assumes the warehouse, too, must be full. On the other hand, when he approaches a counter with dusty shelves and empty wall hooks, he wonders if this business has the inventory to meet his needs. Upgrade the resources at your counter and your customers will perceive you as a unique solution provider capable of handling the challenges they face.

In fact, one of the fastest ways to increase market share and to separate yourself from your competition is by utilizing CXA to design a better customer experience. Three foundational building blocks form the strategy behind this process.

  • Appearance - everything your customer sees: lighting, merchandising, personnel, your logo.

  • Performance - the actions you take: level of service, promptness, operational energy.

  • Generosity - what you're willing to give-away: value-ads, no-fee services, samples.


1. See Through Your Customer's Eyes.Enter the sales counter through the same door as your customer. Stop. Look around. What's your first impression? Full warehouse, or do you need to post “Going out of Business” signs on those empty shelves? Slowly walk by the displays. If there are empty spaces, “front” your shelves. Move the products you have forward, flush with the shelf edge, making the display look fuller. This sounds absurdly simple, but few wholesalers do it. Rather than randomly display products just to fill up shelf and wall space, build a consistency to your sales counter. Design your own plan-o-grams for each display in the sales counter. This creates uniformity in your merchandising and simplifies reordering inventory. Think customer-centered rather than product-focused. Examine displays each day, preferably before you open. Good merchandising provides a competitive edge.

2. Merchandising Begins At Your Door.Manufacturers spend millions of dollars developing attractive packaging designed to sell the product inside. The world inside your door serves as the packaging for your branch. Cracked and yellowed flooring, water-stained ceiling tiles, burned out lights, stopped-up plumbing in dirty bathrooms, all contribute to the message you're sending your customers. The days when these things didn't seem to matter are gone and they're not coming back. “No money” and “no time” is “no excuse.” Many improvements involve little or no money. As for the lack of time, clutter and disorganization take the biggest bites out of the clock. Removing clutter and excess inventory from around your sales counter and any desks visible to customers goes a long way to make your workplace look more efficient and ordered. Replacing fluorescent lights and throwing on a fresh coat of paint over a weekend can transform a dungeon into a showroom. Washing windows and removing excess vendor decals from the door makes the inside seem less cluttered. A clean parking lot and a legible sign make a storefront more inviting.

3. Wake Up Your Sales Counter.If your counter looks like every other counter in town, it will be “invisible” to your customers. Learn from a mistake I made double ordering a quantity of expensive new flashlights. Displaying them side-by-side in neat little rows on three shelves of a prominent display sold two in four weeks. No one noticed them. So, I took the flashlights off the shelves and piled them into a wheelbarrow intending to pay the restocking charge for their return. Before I could roll them off the sales floor, three customers each bought one. I left the wheelbarrow where it was. We sold out in three weeks. The simple lesson is, be different. When appropriate, use non-traditional displays. For example, find a couple of old hardware store “pickle barrels” to hold bulk material. Or, use open stepladders to display hard hats or extension cords. Experiment. “Appearance” refers to anything that contributes to the physical expression of your store. Anything new, surprising, or out of the ordinary will gain the attention of your customers and keep your counter from being “invisible.”


1. Action speaks louder than words.Your customers are in a hurry. Show them you're in a hurry to help them. Speed up. Greet them when they enter your business. Waiting until they're standing in front of you and mumbling, “Help you?” won't win any gold stars for your service. Customers want to be engaged in the buying transaction. What your customer hears, touches and smells when entering your business plays a part in influencing his mood. Persuasive selling isn't just reciting a list of benefits. It's multi-sensory. If the customer leans against your counter and gets his hands sticky, if he pours a cup of coffee that turned into syrup, if your music offends him, if he tries to throw away a candy wrapper in a trash container that's overflowing, it forms a negative memory of your business. These things matter.

2. Power Up.“It's against company policy.” Have you ever heard that one? How'd it make you feel? Your customers feel the same way. You may never have said those exact words, but you may be delivering the same message by saying, “Uh, there's nothing I can do. You'll have to speak to the manager.” Managers: Empower your employees to handle problems with customers when you are gone. A business owner I know authorizes his employees to “do what I'd do if I were here.” The less you do, the more you allow others to achieve. Employees: Few things are more off-putting and frustrating than when you tell a customer, “I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do.” There is always something you can do.

3. That's “Infotainment.”REI, a retail co-op that sells outdoor recreational gear, has a “try before you buy” policy. Test a weatherproof jacket in their “Rain Room.” Pedal a mountain bike through a simulated trail. Scale a rock wall with your climbing shoes before you buy them. You know other merchants who offer in-store demos and educational sessions to introduce new products. You can provide similar offerings in your business. Purchase a combo TV-DVD player for product videos or for seasonal sports programs that your customers enjoy. Partner up with your vendors to implement a “lunch-and-learn” or after-hours product demo. Believe me, they're waiting for you to ask.


1. “Lagniappe!”Tom Boudreaux, one of the best counter salesmen I've ever known, shared with me the one-word secret to his success: “lagniappe.” Every month when Tom received his commission check, he would buy a bag of 500 wire nuts, a couple of boxes of tape and a carton of assorted batteries. He'd tear open the wire nuts, repackage them into little plastic zipper bags of 10 and dump the batteries and the rolls of tape into a bin under the counter. As he was finishing a contractor's order, he'd pull one of the items out of his bin and hold it up ceremoniously in front of the customer. Then Tom would smile and say, “Lagniappe!” before dropping his gift in with the rest of the order. Lagniappe (pronounced lan-yap) came from Tom's Cajun heritage. In Louisiana, it refers to any time a generous business owner adds a little something extra to a customer's order. Tom didn't do it every time, so customers never knew when it was their turn to receive lagniappe. The practice made him quite popular. Many would wait on Tom to wait on them. He led the other counter salespeople by a wide margin. Spending his money on the gifts earned him extra commission that offset the cost. That's tough for most people who work for someone else. The thinking seems to be, “Well, the company should provide that.” And maybe they should. But, Tom didn't blame the company. He simply made the best of his situation and his customers loved him for it. What are some inexpensive extras your customers would enjoy? Starting the practice of randomly adding lagniappe to your customers' orders will quickly set your name far ahead of your competitors.

2. Budget For It.I dreaded the day those caps with our company name embroidered across the crown would arrive. There never seemed to be enough. Then a customer would get mad because someone knew someone who got a cap and he didn't get one and don't I spend enough money here to get a stinking cap? Looking back, I see the problem resulted from never buying enough. As far as giveaways go, caps are quite expensive. Although when you think about it from a marketing standpoint, it's a bargain. If you have a good-looking cap, your customer is going to wear it like a billboard advertising your company all over town. Now that's cheap advertising, and it's much more effective than an ad in the paper that no one sees. Here's the lesson. If you do choose to offer a giveaway, budget enough money for it so that you don't run out. Ever. If you can't afford to do that, then don't do it at all. There are other ways to be generous without having to give away something as costly as a cap.

3. If you feed them, they will come.I stole the idea of serving cookies baked in a convection oven from my friend Tony Jeter, a marketer extraordinaire. Tony told me the fan in a convection oven would blow that fresh baked cookie smell through offices or a showroom. Soon the dusty, musty odor of our sales counter succumbed to the fragrance of warm chocolate and sugar. The oven cost ninety-nine bucks and the cookie dough came from a wholesale food service supplier. Again, it was cheap advertising. Customers spread the word quickly. New customers and “old” ones we hadn't seen in years started frequenting our area. The resulting new business more than offset the hard cost of cookie dough. Of course, you don't have to bake cookies. Many inexpensive treats have universal appeal. Popcorn machines are more affordable now and create an appetizing aroma in your sales area. We had other successes with Tootsie Pops, doughnuts, and bubble gum. The key is to find something customers will identify with you. Many businesses set out a bowl of peppermints, but a jar filled with Atomic Fire Balls is unexpected. Use your imagination. Hold “Counter Days,” or customer appreciation days, and cook hot dogs or hamburgers for your customers. Try different things until you find something that is a signature for your business. Word will spread. Feed your customers and they will feed you.

Appearance, performance and generosity: these are the foundational building blocks of Customer Experience Architecture. Of course, this is only the beginning. CXA can provide a blueprint for your entire operation. Constructing an effective customer experience is an ongoing process, but the benefits along the way are manifold. Involving your staff in the process of overhauling the customer experience will likely raise morale and improve attitudes. Building something together unifies people and gives them a sense of belonging. Not only can it improve client and employee retention, it can also transform your existing customers and your staff into the biggest word-of-mouth marketers for your company. “Wow” them, and they will tell others.

There are no borders in business anymore. Wholesale distribution will continue to thrive, but only by moving into new territory. There are wholesalers who are doing business today the same way they did in 1970. “If it ain't broke, don't fix it,” they exclaim, pointing out accomplishments of the past. But, it is broke and successful growth means leaving something behind. DIYs and Big Box merchants will continue to be a threat. Fortunately for the wholesaler, these behemoths belong to mega-corporations that are unwieldy and slow to respond to changes in the business landscape. The success of the wholesaler depends on its autonomy and its ability to adapt. The secret of the Distributor of Choice lies in its individuality and the ability to offer customers a more personalized service. The pundits can say all they want about B2B, but the fact remains that people buy from people. This is the heart of Customer Experience Architecture. Design a compelling counter experience that serves as the bridge between the contractor and the wholesaler so they may more easily form a mutually beneficial business partnership and you'll become known as “The Distributor of Choice.”