Electrical Wholesaling magazine has a terrific resource that the magazine's editors tap into frequently to get a better sense of what's on the minds of your customers — its sister publication Electrical Construction and Maintenance magazine and the more than 130,000 electrical contractors, facility maintenance personnel, engineers and other electrical professionals that read it faithfully every month.

Over the next few months, Electrical Wholesaling and Channel Marketing Group, Durham, N.C., will be conducting a series of surveys of EC&M's audience on the customer service (or lack of it) that they get from electrical distributors; online shopping; the impact of distributors' marketing campaigns; how your customers are using smartphones and tablet computers; and other key topics of vital interest to electrical distributors. Our analysis of the top-line trends we discover in this research will be published in upcoming issues.

We are kicking off this research project with the following article on what end users think about the customer service that electrical distributors offer. What more than 500 EC&M readers had to say will intrigue, delight and frustrate you.

The service customers get from their favorite distributors is usually nothing too out-of-the-ordinary, but it's very consistent. Sure, there are big challenges from big-box stores, online merchants, hybrid distributors elbowing their way into the electrical market and other new competitors. But when electrical distributors stick to the basics of offering knowledgeable assistance on product selection, dependable levels of local inventory and fast turnaround on questions and resolution of problems, they can usually keep customers of all sizes pretty satisfied.

Kevin Elliott of Kev's Electrical and Construction, had this to say about his favorite distributor, Alarmax, Hackensack, N.J. “I'm a very small contractor, and I've known the inside sales person for 20-plus years. I've followed him from distributor to distributor, and he knows me, responds to my requests and provides technical info and suggestions when requested.”

There was quite a range of distributors that were mentioned as providing the best service, from the very largest national companies to some small niche distributors. Graybar Electric Co., St. Louis, was mentioned 18 times as providing the best service, while Consolidated Electrical Distributors (CED), Dallas; Rexel, Dallas (with several specific mentions of Gexpro); and Sonepar USA, Philadelphia, and its various subsidiaries were mentioned frequently as well. Of the subsidiary/operating companies of these large distributors, Viking Electric Supply, St. Paul, Minn. (Sonepar) had nine mentions from the 280-plus respondents to this particular question. One other distributor figured prominently in respondents' favorite distributors of electrical supplies — W.W. Grainger Inc., Lake Forest, Ill. End users liked the company's website and the online purchasing option it offers, as well as the service they get at the local branches. Said one respondent, “Grainger provides timely quotes, accurate invoices and their delivery dates are pretty accurate.” Several other end users said Grainger's counter personnel were helpful and knowledgeable.

But there's little doubt that smaller electrical distributors can provide the same level of basic service as these large nationals. Rex Walter from Duke University had this to say about SESCO Electric Supply:

“They are very trustworthy. I can rely on orders being handled almost flawlessly from the time a PO is issued until material arrives on the job site. They are proactive in averting delivery or shipping problems. They are very flexible on deliveries. Example: they will secure an order in their warehouse for me if we have a job site that does not have a good lay down area for storage.”

IAC Electrical Equipment & Supplies, a Rockwell distributor headquartered in Memphis, Tenn., won accolades from Motti Electric Co., an electrical contractor based in Stoughton, Mass., for their follow-through. Said the respondent, “IAC Memphis has devoted two inside salespeople to our plant and one dedicated clerk for tracking our orders and communications on delivery dates and price changes. Excellent email communications and delivery time estimates. Goes the extra mile to get us critical parts when needed.”

Griffith Electric Supply Co. Inc., Trenton, N.J., received mentions for its depth of inventory and the knowledge of its counter personnel and inside sales team. One end user sounded very dedicated to Griffith Electric Supply in his response: “Griffith Electric. My inside sales guy. Where he goes I go.”

Customers think special care and handling of emergency deliveries is the ultimate in superior service. When Electrical Wholesaling's editors asked respondents, “Could you provide an example of superior service that you have received this year?” we weren't quite sure what electrical contractors and other end users would tell us. But their responses were illuminating and many of them focused on dramatic examples of how an electrical distributor went the extra mile for them. Respondents told us about distributors who would air freight critical parts, send special couriers to job-sites or offices and often hand-deliver a product to a customer at work or at home.

Joseph Mulinix, J.E.M. Electric, Runnemede, N.J., an electrical service contractor, mentioned an example of how he worked with an electrical distributor's inside salesperson on a Friday night from 9:00 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. to get fuses from the manufacturer to the airport so he could have them the next day by 1 p.m.

And how about this example of service from Patrick Almquist, an EC&M reader working at the Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. plant in Tomah, Wis.?: “Due to a change in a project I had a need for made-to-order fixtures that needed to be installed on short notice to assure that the project would receive a certificate of occupancy. The outside salesman met me on the jobsite within hours of my request to discuss the application with him, and a quote was received the same day of his visit.

“An order was placed the following morning, and the inside salesperson immediately communicated with the manufacturer to discuss the urgency of the order. They proactively communicated to me projected delivery dates and information from several follow-up calls to make sure the delivery would be on time. As a result, the order shipped within one week of the date that the order was placed. I even received a follow up call from the outside salesperson to confirm that the shipment was received in good condition.”

IAC's Memphis location got another mention from a different survey respondent for its fast response to a customer emergency situation. Scott Carter from Georgia Northwest Technical College said when he had a 700HP boiler go down on a PLC card issue, he called IAC Memphis. Although IAC didn't have any spare parts on hand in its Memphis warehouse, it had the part couriered in from Illinois within eight hours to minimize the impact on operations.

When things go haywire, respond to the issue honestly and quickly. Stuff happens, and as long as you don't try to BS a customer or start blaming other people for a problem, you can usually learn from it and move on. The advice the survey respondents offered on this point was simple and direct. Said Reyes Torrez, Del Ray Electrical, “Fix the screw-up. I know mistakes can happen. Fixing mistakes is what keeps it cool.”

Timothy Keinrath, Timothy A. Keinath Builders, Millington, Mich. added, “Make it right without going into my pocket!”

Another respondent said simply, “When you screw up, you stand up. The relationship is always a two-way street. That's what we do with our customer.”

Said Aron Baze, Bazen Electric, Grand Rapids, Mich., “Apologize, correct the ‘mess' without cost to us or our clients, and make an effort to not repeat the same problem again. One failure does not mean the loss of future opportunities to support our projects — it's how and how quickly a distributor responds.”

We found it interesting that there were so many similarities in the types of services that distributors' customers value most (see Fig. 1, page 21). This observation became quite clear in the responses to the survey question, “If you had all of your electrical distributors sitting in the same room for 20 minutes, what would you like to tell them about how they could do a better job of providing electrical products and services to you?” One EC&M reader said he values knowledgeable counter sales personnel willing go that extra step to help him find what he needs for the job. “Make sure those counter people are taken care of and appreciated for their commitment to their customers and their job,” he said. “That goes a long way in providing customer service and bringing us back in the door.”

John Nunn, an EC&M reader with Cherry Aerospace, wants electrical distributors to stock more products at their branches. “I almost never go to counter unless I need it now,” he said. “Any half-assed company can get it for me tomorrow.”

One of the articles in this series will go deeper into what distributors' customers want in a website, but we saw quite a few unprompted responses in this survey on how distributors could be doing a better job with their websites. Said Tryon Rosser, Ramos Rosser Architects, Jackson, Miss., “Develop and maintain a comprehensive website with accurate and reliable inventory information and current pricing to reduce email and phone calls. The Grainger website is the best I've seen and I will often use them for this reason alone.”

The Electrical Construction & aintenance reader from Motti Electric relies on electrical distributors to inform him about new products, and he wants to see more of them in the counter area. “Most times I read about a new product in Electrical Contractor magazine before I see it at the supply house,” he says.

Gehard Blaszies, Doyle Electric Services, Tampa, Fla., did a nice job summarizing what it takes for him to maintain a business relationship with a distributor and why he keeps buying from that company. “My business depends on the efficiency of your team and availability of material. If you do not provide material on time and at a fair price, I will go to someone who does.”

FIG. #1: WHAT CUSTOMERS WANT FROM ELECTRICAL DISTRIBUTORS

Services Rating Average
Keep their promises to me 6.3
Deliveries arrive when promised 6.22
Meeting promised delivery times/dates 6.16
Complete and accurate invoices 6.11
Ability to provide accurate and timely price quotations 6.06
Speedy in responding to price & delivery inquiries 5.97
Being kept informed about changes in delivery dates 5.95
Having knowledgeable inside salespeople 5.92
Ability to respond to my questions/needs 5.91
Advice and technical support to solve problems 5.87
Easy, accurate ordering process 5.86
Availability of inside sales to answer questions 5.81
Ability to handle changes to existing orders 5.72
Having knowledgeable counter personnel 5.69
Deep and broad inventory 5.69
Having knowledgeable outside salespeople 5.66
Timeliness in answering the phone 5.63
Availability of management to address any issues I have 5.63
Relationship with my salesperson 5.62
Being flexible with policies/procedures to work with me 5.44
Provide ideas to save money, be more productive, be safe or enhance my project 5.35
Easy-to-use website 5.16
Informative technical training/seminars 5.07
Frequent communications about promotions, counter days and new products 4.6
More than 500 electrical contactors, facility maintenance personnel and other end users ranked the 25 services and other business basics that are most important to them on a scale of “1” To “6”. They could also answer “critical” (weighted as a “7”).

FIG. #2: HOW CUSTOMERS RATE YOU ON THE BASICS OF SOLID RELATIONSHIPS

Services Rating Average
Ease of ordering 5.35
Ability to provide accurate and timely price quotations 5.23
Ability to meet promised delivery times/dates 5.18
Knowledge/skill level of inside salespeople 5.17
Distributors' ability to be flexible in conducting business with you 5.17
Response time to answer the phone 5.14
Ability to respond to your questions/needs on a timely basis 5.12
Knowledge/skill level of outside salespeople 5.12
Availability of inside salespeople 5.11
Ability to handle changes to existing orders 5.10
Relationship with assigned outside salespeople 5.06
Provide advice and technical support to solve your problems 4.98
Knowledge/skill level of counter/will-call personnel 4.95
Inform about changes in delivery dates 4.83
More than 500 end users ranked electrical distributors on a scale of “1” to “7” (with seven being the highest) on the basics of their relationships with their supply houses.

FIG. #3: WHAT CUSTOMERS THINK ABOUT HOW DISTRIBUTORS COMMUNICATE

Services Rating Average
Management team's availability 4.77
Print and e-communications 4.64
Ideas to make your job easier or more profitable 4.54
Counter days/Open houses 4.49
Content and ease of website 4.39
Promotional/incentive opportunities 4.31
Product and application training/seminars 4.26
More than 500 end users ranked electrical distributors on a scale of “1” to “7” (with seven being the highest) on how distributors communicate with them.