Keeping electrical-contractor customers happy is a big concern for most electrical distributors. With a whopping 37 percent of electrical distributors' sales, electrical contractors are by far the largest customer group for electrical wholesalers.

As an electrical distributor, you're a major player in contractor customers' business activities, and they expect your help in achieving their goals. Although providing electrical products is the most important thing you do for contractors, many variations exist in the manner you provide this service and other ancillary services. It's important to get your variation right. After all, if an electrical contractor isn't satisfied with a distributor's service, he or she will find some other supplier.

This series will explore ways to keep contractors happy, longtime customers. In this installment, we delve into the expectations of contractors and the distributor's role when it comes to price, delivery, availability, emergency help and supplying information.

Price

Contractors want lower prices — always. On one hand, you cannot blame them; in theory, the less money they spend on materials means more money in their pockets. On the flip side, you need to stay in business, too. A bit of price tension will always be there, but ways to improve prices are abundant as well. For example, you might be able to set up drop-shipments for certain types of materials, or perhaps you can negotiate special deals with an overstocked factory or warehouse. Many possibilities exist.

By making continual efforts to get special prices, you'll occasionally succeed. When you do, don't just sell the specials; also sell the fact that your associates are always looking for specials.

Let contractors know about every special deal you stir up. Consider designating one salesperson in charge of specials, and make sure that individual e-mails, faxes or calls customers about special pricing — this is valuable public relations. E-mailing price notices is essentially free, and fax transmissions are also very low-cost.

It's well worth your time to keep contractor customers aware of your continual efforts to find special deals. Believe me, they will appreciate it. The next time a contractor is quoting a job, you may get the first call. Even if you don't have a special price for them that day, you'll still be on the phone quoting materials.

Delivery

Like prices, delivery is one of your everyday issues. Contractors want fast, complete, scheduled deliveries, but the complexities of real life continually throw obstacles in the way. It's difficult to keep everyone happy.

The answer is simple. Don't promise more than you can do. For a contractor, not having a delivery show up on time is a major hassle. A phone call saying, “I'm sorry, but we won't be able to get the shipment to the job until 1 p.m.,” will make a big difference. Sure, the contractor may grumble for a few minutes, but he or she can readjust work and not have a whole day ruined. That's much better than expecting the shipment at 9 a.m. and going half-crazy until 1 p.m.

Availability

Yes, electrical contractors want everything they need, and they want it now. But you can't stock everything. No one could.

Placate demanding contractors with information. When a product is not in stock, give solid information on when you will actually deliver the items. That doesn't mean a guess — that means real, reliable information. If you can give a contractor solid answers, he or she will generally be reasonably content.

With computers and databases, there is no reason not to have easy-to-access current files on backup sources for materials. With overnight delivery covering most of the world, you should be able to find most things quickly. This means keeping track of alternative sources and keeping your data current and organized. Although that takes some time and effort, it's worth it. Do it if you haven't already.

Emergency help

Years ago when I did a lot of service and emergency work, there was only one supplier I could always count on after hours. As a result, I gave that distributor a lot of my business. Yes, the distributor still had to give me good pricing, but they were always on my short list of preferred suppliers.

Decide who will be the designated “on-call” person(s), and let customers (at least your better customers) know who it is, and how to reach him or her. It will be worth it.

Information/gossip

Although this is something electrical contractors want from you, it's seldom discussed publicly. Electrical contractors want gossip. Call it “information,” if you like, but every outside salesperson knows contractors want information on their competitors.

This is a difficult subject. On one hand, you can't just divulge competitive information, and you shouldn't betray a confidence. On the other hand, many contractors really will give you an extra order or two if your salesperson passes along something helpful.

In most ways, this is a classic long-run, short-run dilemma. In the short run, you may get the extra orders for sharing someone else's private information. In the long run, it will probably hurt you. Think about this for a moment on your own. There are probably half a dozen ways this can come back to bite you.

Because of the long-term risks, it's probably in a distributor's best interest to “not tell,” but a salesperson concerned with next month's commission check will frequently push the borders on this.

Be aware of the issue and talk to your salespeople about it.

On a less touchy information subject, it's important to introduce contractors to developing markets and new products. Contractors will appreciate a heads up regarding opportunities on the horizon, and supplying this type of information certainly won't hurt your sales, either.


In addition to his book, “Successful Electrical Contracting,” published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Quincy, Mass., Paul Rosenberg is the author of 30 other textbooks and manuals. A regular speaker at industry conferences on aspects of the electrical-contracting business, Rosenberg was also an electrical contractor for many years and worked for a Chicago electrical distributor as a purchasing agent.