Brock McVey’s showroom in Lexington, KY. Photo by Pat Lenius.

What I’ve enjoyed most about my career in this industry are the personal relationships developed with fellow employees, vendors, trade professionals and customers. The networking that trade associations, civic and charitable organizations, conferences and educational events offer is invaluable. One of my best friends, Ken Rohl, was at one time my supplier. He has been and remains a mentor and confidante. Ken and I met 30-plus years ago when he was sales manager for a large, well-known plumbing product manufacturer and I was helping run a fairly good-sized plumbing/HVAC distributor. We are the same age (young and getting younger), we’re both from Pennsylvania, and we both have a passion for this great industry, studying to remain on the “cutting edge” as much as possible.

Ken and I started our businesses in the same month in 1983. Ken is the founder/owner (with his three sons) and chairman of Rohl Corp. I started - and owned with my wife, Carol - The Plumbery. I remember when Ken and his rep in northern California came into The Plumbery toting the strangest looking kitchen faucet I’d ever seen - it had a pull-out spray! He wanted us to put it on display. I asked about the retail price: $275. My less-than-informed reply was, “It’s three times the price of faucets being purchased, it’s not very good-looking and who would ever want a faucet with a pull-out spray?” This was the original KWC faucet that Rohl Corp. rolled out across the U.S. and turned into the best-selling faucet in history. After we put it on display, it immediately became our best seller.

Ken and I became strong business associates and fast friends. We talk at least once every other month and try to get together a couple of times a year. We may do a little fly fishing or take a swing at a golf ball, but for the most part it’s business. We talk about what’s new, trends, and what we can do to help make our industry partners better and more successful.

We recently had one of those conversations. I continue to be impressed with Ken’s insight into what’s going on today, what will probably be happening in the near future and his overall grasp of our industry, specifically the showroom side. So I asked if I could interview him for this article. Because we are good friends and he is always willing to share, he said, “Sure.” What follows are some questions I had for Ken and a combination of his and my thoughts for the answers. Both Ken and I are ferocious readers of business-related books. Many of our opinions and thoughts combine our own knowledge with what we garner from others.

Q: You made the statement that what has worked in the decorative plumbing and hardware showrooms in the past may not be what will work well today and into the future. Please elaborate?

Ken Rohl:The marketplace has changed dramatically. There used to be more customers than we could handle. Now far fewer people are walking through the showroom doors. We used to work with a nice healthy mix of new construction, remodel and replacement customers. Now it’s almost entirely the latter two, and it will probably stay this way for the foreseeable future.

The Internet is big - and getting bigger. Showrooms must learn how to sell their value in order to beat this growing phenomenon.

Traditional methods of marketing (print ads, TV, Yellow Pages, radio, etc.) are expensive and may not be the best choices. Given our tighter budgets, using Web sites and social media cost less and enable us to put our brand in front of more people.

It’s more important than ever to become active in professional trade associations (Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association, National Kitchen and Bath Association, American Society of Interior Designers, American Institute of Architects, etc.) and in local civic and charitable organizations. Get your name and brand out there. Network! Learn to share.

(Ken and I have always worked hard to back up these philosophies. We served together on the NKBA and DPHA boards and have always been very active in our local areas).

Q: You know how passionate I feel about teaching showroom managers and sales associates how to become professional salespeople and not just “order takers.” What are your thoughts on this subject?

Ken Rohl:Rohl Corp. and our reps work hard to help our customers become as strong as they can possibly be in product knowledge and more recently, in selling skills. In 2009 and 2010 we have been a major sponsor for an NKBA Selling Skills workshop. I know that you (Hank Darlington) have written a book and multiple articles about selling skills, in addition to doing a workshop for the American Supply Association. (Search for Hank Darlington’s columns on selling skills

Not only are fewer potential clients walking through the showroom doors, but their projects are smaller (remodel/replacement vs. new construction) and their budgets are tighter. They are looking for the best overall value and the best possible price. Showroom sales associates have to close a higher percentage of these customers than ever before. The only way to achieve this is to become a true professional salesperson. Start developing a first-class selling skills training program for your sales team, both new and experienced people. This should be an ongoing, never-ending effort!

(Hank Darlington:After traveling the country consulting and teaching workshops on the subject for the past 15 years, it is my opinion that less than 15% of showroom sales associates are true professionals. Most folks spend a fair amount of time on product knowledge training, but little or nothing on learning sales skills. Ours is a selling business. Nothing happens until the sale is made! Why aren’t we all teaching our people how to be true sales professionals?)

Ken Rohl:We need to teach our people to jump up and greet customers when they come through the door. Make clients feel really welcome. Get their names, find out what project they are working on, what’s the time frame of their project and where is it? Do they have a builder and plumber? What is their budget? Ask all the really important qualifying questions so that you can render the very best service.

Q: You said that today's showroom market is defined by maximum value and lower pricing. Please explain?

Ken Rohl:Today’s consumers are highly educated, very bright and Internet savvy. They do more research on their projects and the products for these projects than at any time in history. They understand and want value: well-trained salespeople, quality products and help with design, styles, finishes and trends. They will search out companies and salespeople that offer the total value package (not necessarily the lowest price, but a competitive price for that total value package). They will pay more for that value. This poses a challenge both for sales associates and their companies. If we don’t change the way we do business, we will be the losers as we all struggle to learn to do business in these challenging and changing times.

Thank you, Mr. Rohl! We only covered a few subjects here, but I’m in complete agreement with Ken Rohl’s comments and projections. Don’t wait to start incorporating your changes. You don’t want to be one of the growing list of losers!