This story could be about any counter at any branch. It's based on a recent experience I had at a Nassau County, N.Y., plumbing supply house that will go nameless.

After deciding to purchase a new toilet and based on the preconceived notion that Kohler would stand the test of time, I headed for the Internet to see what styles looked best. As expected, the Kohler site was well designed and I rapidly narrowed my choices to one specific model. After noting the part number, the suggested retail price and accessories, I was off to a local plumbing supply house to check on price and availability.

Upon entering this sizeable facility, I was struck by what appeared to be time standing still. While the room's layout said “showroom,” product was arranged in no apparent order, without any concern for dust, neatness or product education.

Being comfortable around a professional counter, I headed for the back of the room and stood on line. The signs above the counter reminded me of the “old days” at our company when we declared, “No returns without receipt,” and, “We reserve the right to serve the trade first.” No problem with the policy, but it represents a certain attitude that says, “Go Away!”

I waited behind two other people; one of whom was being served, the other was simply waiting. It was 1:45 p.m., and I waited around to be noticed. After three minutes, the counterperson at the end of the counter stood up from his lunch, ambled over to the customer in front of me and took his order. Upon hearing the request, the counterperson said, “We don't have that,” and was unresponsive when the customer left saying, “Then I'll check elsewhere.” The counterperson then left without acknowledging me.

Three minutes later, the counterperson asked me what I wanted. Being the prepared customer, I recited, “Kohler K-3429-K00 with KKG handle.” My unshaven counterperson replied “Nope. We don't stock Kohler. Talk to the people around the corner.” Then he left.

Still trying to keep the business away from the “Big Boxes,” I walked around the counter to an open sales pit staffed with five people around computers. One woman was taking an order from a plumber across from her desk, another was discussing product with a customer, a third was doing a quote on the computer, a fourth was looking at a screen and the fifth person appeared to have clerical functions. One… two… three… minutes passed. Nobody acknowledged me.

Four… five… six minutes and I started to read the brochures and play with the display near the sales pit. Seven minutes… the person looking at the computer looks past me to a bath cabinet. Eight minutes… I try to make eye contact, but nobody wants the responsibility. Nine minutes… ten minutes… I'm out the door.

Still wanting to stay with a plumbing supply house, I call Blackman Plumbing. A quick pick-up by the receptionist followed by a two-minute wait on hold. Finally, Joe quotes me and says he has plenty of stock. They don't have extensions there, so when I'm ready to place an order, he said that I should just call back for Joe P.

On the way back to my office, I am struck with dread that customers at the counters of electrical distributors may experience the same problems and had the same response: going somewhere else. Electrical distributors spend huge sums on inventory, training, trucks, computers and facilities. But we chase customers away by:

  1. Subjecting them to long waits before they can speak to a receptionist

  2. Bouncing around in caller-on-hold hell.

  3. Servicing them at a counter that hasn't been cleaned in years.

  4. Making them wait at the counter without being acknowledged.

  5. Telling them by signage and body language that their business doesn't matter.

  6. Allowing them to hang-up without asking for a name and number to follow-up.

  7. Failing to say “No… But I can…”

Although this was a story about a plumbing supply house, do you see any common traits at your branch, at your counter?

The efforts of the sales and purchasing team can be discarded by one counterperson who couldn't be bothered to shave, eat his lunch elsewhere or acknowledge the customer. We all have a part in the chain of services that eventually gets the customer what he wants.


The author is general manager of Kennedy Electrical Supply Corp., Jamaica, N.Y.