Editor Jim Olsztynski says contractors won't always tell you what bugs them but they'll just go elsewhere.

It is as reflexive for contractors to complain about distributors as it is for baseball fans to boo the umpires. Sometimes, though, it’s good to listen to the critics. Here are some of the most common contractor complaints, with varying degrees of validity.

1. Wholetailers. Actually, the ancient ritual of beating up on wholesalers that sell to the public has diminished over the years. That’s simply because in most markets it’s hard to find any “pure” PHCP wholesalers. Most contractors have become more or less resigned to this reality. What really bugs them, though, is when their plumbers drum their fingers waiting for the counterman to take care of Suzy Homemaker. Many distributors have tackled this problem with separate stations for trade and retail customers. When a layout allows it, putting them out of sight of each other is a good idea.

2. Stock-outs. This has replaced wholetailing as the most prevalent complaint. “Wholesalers just don’t stock the way they used to,” goes the refrain. Distributors who are honest with themselves will admit as much. They’d go broke trying to do so. The full-service supply house of yesteryear has evolved into one that can supply most A and B items most of the time, and can obtain C and D materials within a day or two.

That’s not good enough for a service plumber who needs it right now. The best solution is to sell a substitute from your shelves, which leads to the next complaint.

3. Inadequate product knowledge. Counter personnel just don’t have the knowledge they need, say contractors over and over. In private many distributors ’fess up to this shortcoming as well. Counter jobs tend to lag in pay and prestige and thus don’t attract the most knowledgeable people. Upgrading the job with sales incentives can pay off via increased sales and profits from product upgrades, add-ons and substitutions that keep plumbers from running to a competitor or Home Depot.

4. Lousy service. Most PHCP supply houses continue to operate during traditional trade business hours, with doors closing in advance of dinnertime. However, many progressive (or these days, desperate) service firms are now making evening and Saturday calls. Some of them end up patronizing the big boxes out of necessity. It may be time to reexamine hours of operation.

Another service policy that sticks in the craw of contractors is when they get hassled on returns. We live in a business world in which consumers are bombarded with money-back guarantees. The big boxes generally accept returns with no questions asked. Yet, many distributors get bogged down arguing whether it was the product or installer at fault. Delays in issuing credits also irk the contractors.

Manufacturers often are the real culprits to blame for tough return policies. However, contractors expect that a distributor will go to bat for them jawboning against restrictive return goods policies.

5. Too much charity. Distributors think they’re doing contractors a favor by carrying them when they get in trouble. Most don’t realize that top-notch contractors who pay their bills on time go ballistic over this practice. They see it like keeping someone on a respirator after the brain ceases to function.

Our industry is overrun by plumbers who don’t have a clue about how to run a business. Even in good times, the only marketing they know is to bid work at impossibly low prices, and in bad times like these it’s hard to find a bottom. The better contractors would be relieved to see these folks go belly up as soon as possible. In most cases, the deadbeats also would be better served working for someone else rather than trying to sustain an untenable business.

Distributors who give in to every hard luck story jeopardize themselves, of course, but they also make life difficult for their best customers.

6. Frivolous use of resources. Elite contractors also take a dim view of distributors who pinch pennies on customer services, only to see thousands of dollars go toward barbecue and beer bashes. It does little good to explain that vendors are picking up most of the tab, because they’ll just turn around and tell you to ask those vendors to invest that money in product and service enhancements instead.

I was the founding editor of Plumbing & Mechanical (PM) magazine and have had a continuous role there for 27 years. In that time I’ve gotten to know many contractors and still hang around with them. These are the things they talk about. Constantly.





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