In this high-tech, hustle-and-bustle day and age, a phone call to businesses in many walks of life likely will include dealing with some form of nonhuman interaction.
At Great Neck, N.Y., master distributor Kolson, voicemail is a foreign term. That’s because voicemail doesn’t exist at this Long Island-based company. When a customer calls Kolson’s main showroom location, receptionist Wendy McPhatter is on the other end of the line to greet them. If a Kolson employee is with a customer or out of the office, McPhatter takes a message by hand and delivers it to the employee as opposed to putting the customer into a voicemail system.
“Everybody knows Wendy,” Kolson President Dale Landy says in the company’s first-floor conference room. “Wendy makes everybody comfortable. There is that sense of familiarity. When Wendy is on vacation, customers are disappointed. They expect to talk to her.”
Making sure an actual person greets customers on the phone is just the tip of the customer-service iceberg for Kolson, which specializes in the master distribution of decorative hardware, kitchen fittings and sinks, and bath accessories and fittings.
“Always helping the customer is the ultimate goal,” Landy says.
Five decades of service
Kolson’s commitment to superior customer service dates back to the company’s formation in 1960. Landy’s father, John Landy, and grandfather, Louis Landy, bought Kolson Hardware, a general hardware store in Great Neck. After merging with local locksmith Henry Korenge’s business, the store moved to its current location in Great Neck in 1970. At the time, it featured apartments on the second floor and a lumberyard in the back of the location.
“My father kept the name because everybody knew the Kolson name,” Dale Landy says.
Originally a hardware store that carried everything from screws to drills, John Landy noticed homeowners were becoming more sophisticated in their tastes and saw an increased demand for high-end plumbing fixtures and decorative hardware. Kolson’s business model gradually changed and adjustments to the property were made.
The lumberyard was closed and converted to inventory space and the second floor was turned into a kitchen-and-bath showroom. The lumberyard dock in the back of the second floor is still used to lift materials.
Today, the 10,000-sq.-ft. showroom/headquarters (5,000 sq. ft. on each level) features decorative hardware and plumbing products and accessories from more than 50 high-quality, customer-service-focused vendors. Kolson also has a 15,000-sq.-ft. wholesale office and warehouse location in nearby Farmingdale. Between the two locations, Kolson employs close to 20 people.
“A lot of our employees have been here awhile and a lot of our customers have been coming here for a long time,” Dale Landy says. “Some customers are on their third remodels of their homes. Our salespeople know about their customers’ families and things such as their family vacations.”
Kolson General Manager Sandy Lamberg adds: “We care about our customers. That’s the type of place we have here.”
Going above and beyond
Dale Landy, who has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations and a master’s degree in sociology from New York University, joined the family business in 1985 around the same time her mother, Ruth, joined the company full-time. Ruth Landy became heavily involved in the administrative side of the family business, performing numerous critical job functions.
Dale Landy distinctly recalls a solid piece of business advice her father gave to her. “My father always said if the cash registers don’t ring, there is no business,” she says. “How do you get the cash registers to ring? You take care of the customers.”
And one way Kolson takes care of its customers is by offering what it calls its Kolson concierge service.
“I will spec a job and I’ll walk through a house,” says Lamberg, who joined the company in 1983 from the garment industry. “The more work we do, the less work the professional has to do. Contractors know they can come to Kolson and pick out products and then don’t have to think about them. That’s one more thing they can scratch off their list.”
That concierge service also extends to special deliveries. “If we can’t deliver it ourselves, we’ll hire a messenger to do it,” Landy says. “If we need to get something to a customer we will make sure it gets there. Those are the kind of details we pay attention to.”
Landy and Lamberg are equally proud of the service the company provides after a sale is completed.
“A guy bought a deadbolt but he needed it for an extra-thick door,” Lamberg explains. “He put it in and it didn’t fit right. He got back in the car and came here and we helped him with the extra parts and installation and everybody was happy.”
Landy recalls a customer who came into the showroom a few months back looking to replace a shower unit.
“They tried to repair, but it needed a lot of work with the rough-in and trim,” she says. “The rush was on. The customer basically had no shower. I explained that the unit was too old and instead of having a plumber come out and keep fixing it, why not buy a new one and save money in the long run? They bought a new one and were very happy.”
Landy and Lamberg are staunch advocates of brick-and-mortar showrooms. Kolson does not sell any product through e-commerce channels.
“E-commerce is a threat to everybody,” Landy says. “It may be cheaper online, but what kind of service are they going to get? Did the computer ask you what thickness of door you have and how many fittings you need?”
Lamberg adds: “It’s not like buying a book online. There are always problems. We want people to see what they are buying. The Internet just sells numbers.”
Landy brings up the case of a couple who had purchased a sink from Kolson several years ago. “There was a problem with the drain,” she says. “We gave them the part and the problem was solved. They also had a problem with a faucet, but that faucet wasn’t on our bill. They bought the faucet online. We looked at the manufacturer’s book and they needed certain extra parts to make the faucet work. That wasn’t explained to them on the Internet. We were able to get them the parts they needed. There isn’t somebody on a website doing that for them.”
Landy says the company looks for vendors who have that same in-person customer-service philosophy.
“Vendors like the brick-and-mortar showrooms because they know we have the ability to take care of people,” she says. “We’ve been with a lot of our vendors for a long time. We will phase out the ones that don’t meet our level of customer service. We’ll see who else is around and find a more customer-focused vendor.”
Adjusting with the times
Landy and Lamberg learned plenty from the recent economic downturn and now are applying those lessons each day.
“A business consultant said to me at the time to look at everything you are spending money on and you will be able to cut back or cut it out completely,” Landy says. “We made some modifications to our building here that helped us. My parents grew up in the Great Depression. My father (John Landy died in 2011; Ruth Landy died in 2003) said the past recession was the worst he’s seen in 50 years of business. If you go through something like this, you will learn from it and remember it the rest of your life.”
Lamberg has noticed a change in customer and vendor habits since the recession.
“Customers learned as well,” he says. “Customers used to come in and say give me this, that and that. It doesn’t work like that anymore. Manufacturers aren’t stocking as much anymore. They are cutting back, which means a master distributor like us may very well have those items in stock. We’re known around here for having those B, C and D items. If a vendor has something on back order, a master distributor may be able to get that product in a reasonable amount of time. Customers appreciate that and come back and that’s where the role of the master distributor becomes important.”
Landy says the relationship between distributor and vendor is critically important in today’s economic environment. Landy recalls a recent transaction where a customer bought a product and came back and said they didn’t care for it. A call to the manufacturer provided a solution that benefitted all parties.
“I explained the situation and asked if there was anything they could do,” she says. “Instead of the customer being stuck with a product they don’t care for, we are going to make sure we make the effort to help them. That’s why you partner with good vendors who you have good relationships with. It has to be a partnership both ways.”
Kolson is constantly keeping up with the latest industry trends and that’s reflective in its precision showroom layout that maximizes space and emphasizes the products and accessories on display.
“You can have good products and a good computer system, but if you don’t keep up with change, you will become a victim of it,” Landy says. “We keep on the cutting edge, but there are things here that won’t change such as remembering where we came from, our family values and how we treat our employees and every customer that comes into this store.”