Do You Teach Your Customers?

I was a teacher for a manufacturers rep in New York for more than 10 years. I decided to go out on my own in 1989 and helping me make that decision was the fact that the classes I did for contractors in our conference room were always sold out. I attributed that to several things: I sort of knew my subject (learned out of terror because I once got up to teach about steam heating when my head was still mostly empty. Contractors can be brutal.) I was fun to be with. I had a lot of props and once even set myself on fire, but not intentionally.

We also charged for the class - not much but we did. We learned that if something is free it's also easy for contractors to sign up and then not show up.

And finally, we always had a waiting list, and before we sent out a mailed invitation to the contractors we filled the classes with the contractors on the waiting list. That may be a nasty way to do things but it led to us the hottest ticket in town.

"I just got this in the mail. I want to send my three guys."

"Oh, we're so sorry. That class is completely sold out."

"How is that possible?! I just got this in the mail. How can it sell out that fast?"

"Dan's class is very popular. Would you like to be on our waiting list?"

I always focused on the techie stuff and did my best to explain things in plain-English, with visual examples and without any mathematics because I have dyscalculia and math and I have never gotten along. A contractor once said to me, "You know I have never read a John Sigenthaler column that didn't have a formula, and I've never read a column of yours that had one. And you're both writing about the same stuff."


I never promoted a product that we sold during those times. Contractors hate being sales pitched during classes. If I mentioned a specific product it was in the context of how that product could make their jobs easier and them more successful. I talked about shortcuts and how to save money, and make money. Hoffman Specialty, for instance, had a Float & Thermostatic trap that has an H-pattern to its inlet and outlet. That's for the contractor's convenience.

You can connect to the supply from either side, and do the same with the return. What Hoffman doesn't tell you, and what I had to figure out on my own was that a contractor could use the trap's unused condensate outlet as a trap-test point. All it took was a nipple and a ball valve. That gave the contractor a way to see if the trap was working while it was in service. It was a great selling point to the building owner, and a wonderful way for the contractor to go into the trap-testing business a year after doing the initial installation. Everybody won.

Does your wholesaler offer systems/product training? If so, is it in-house? Online? What do you think of it? Does it sway your buying decisions?

Here's some of what they had to say:

"I used to attend a lot of those. Some were good and informative, and you could learn something. Others were nothing more than a sales pitch."

Some things never change, no matter how many years go by.

This is from a contractor in New Jersey:

"Since COVID and onward I haven't attended any classes. They always end up being just a sales pitch. If I asked any technical questions, whether about service, maintenance, or interesting piping and wiring it seemed like they either had no answer or pushed it to a not-seen-too-much sort of answer. I also stopped going because it seemed that a lot of people were there either because they were getting paid to be there or they were getting free food. None of the tougher subjects and questions went answered or they were just skimmed over.

"All in all, when I need to know, I do the research and read the service manual, and if worse comes to worse, I contact the manufacturer's tech service and speak to them. When you've been doing this work for a decent amount of time, aside from mod- con boilers and some of the newer digital controls, not much has drastically changed except for the price, availability and the warranty."

See? As I learned during my salad days, contractors can be brutal, but you probably already know that.

But here's a twist from a New York City contractor:

"I attend as many wholesaler-led seminars and training sessions as I can. I can't sell something if I can't answer questions about it, so I try to have the best understanding about the uniqueness of the product or system as I can. First, I need to know if it's right for me and my team. Then I determine where in the field it would be best applied. So yes, the product training does influence my purchasing decision.

"I'm on Day 2 of having two guys in Weil-McLain's School of Better Heating right now. They get a full salary while in class, and the course costs me $200 each. I'm getting killed, but what are you gonna do? This is what classroom learning in the trades looks like today."

A Northern New Jersey contractor had this to add:

"Some of our local wholesalers have training and some don't. All of them have the manufacturer's rep do most of the teaching. Occasionally, the manufacturer will have a company person do the training for them. Since 2020 there has been very little training available.

"I agree with the other contractors. It seems like many attendees are there to eat the pizza, and perhaps they are also getting paid for showing up. If there is a free baseball cap, tee shirt, or even a notepad they show the boss and act as if it's a trophy.

"I'm going to one tonight that a boiler rep is running (not a wholesaler). I know the rep well and I'm pretty familiar with the manufacturer. Hopefully, l'll learn something and possibly enhance my relationship with the rep and the manufacturer."

That last sentence grabbed me by the collar because it brought me back to my rep days. When I started my business, the relationships I built during my rep days were what the key to all that followed for me. This business is all about relationships.

That contractor followed up the next day with this. There's so much to consider here:

"As planned, I drove to a nice restaurant for dinner and product information. Sat with a friend from the trades that I've known for 35 years, our salesman that I've known for about 20 years, the owner of the manufacturer's rep, and a fellow tradesman that I've never met before. The conversations at our table varied from family to radiant to some large heating projects that we've all worked on. I miss these conversations and the comradery.

"Met the speaker from the boiler manufacturer briefly before the presentation. She was articulate, to the point, and basically showed us the company's current (and future) offerings. This was not supposed to be a six-hour seminar or even a question-and-answer session - more of a meet-and-greet while learning about products that most of the attendees had not seen before.

"While I did not learn a lot of technical information from the presentation, I was made aware of some fresh products. We also were treated to a great meal. What I enjoyed most was learning from the people at the table. One person was friendly with an air-traffic controller and shared some interesting stories. Another person explained how they utilize the heat coming off the refrigeration units in the supermarket to heat the radiant floors and sidewalks. One guy explained how an owner of an enormous junkyard who struggled to keep help in the winter decided to build a huge radiant heated warehouse, his profits skyrocketed and his employees were much happier.

"Thankfully, no one scoffed down their dinner and raced out of the building this time. Call me an old-school guy, but I got much more out of last night as compared to a YouTube video."

So my advice is this: Teach, don't sell. Be interested in your students as people. Get involved in their lives. Make friends. Help them. Be fun to be with, and while you're doing that, try not to set yourself on fire.


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