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What You Have to Do to Win Their Business


I recently posed this question to The Wallies, they being contractors who post nearly every day on The Wall at If a new wholesaler moved into your town, what would they have to do to win your business?

A contractor in California answered first. He wrote: “Hi Dan, I'd love to see them actually keep a good stock of parts. My local wholesalers keep paring down what they inventory, based on what sells fast. Price matters, but knowing they will have what I need quickly is more important.”

Along those same lines, another contractor had this to say:

“Most of the old-timey supply houses are gone now. You used to have relationships with counter guys, but now it's mostly all the big chains, and they don't give a crap, especially about the small guys. You’re just a number to them, and you don't buy enough to get their attention if you’re a small fry.

"There is one HVAC distributor in our area that probably has 15 locations in the Northeast. They are pretty good. They stock a lot of stuff. They will leave parts hidden in the bushes if you can't get there before closing. They make deliveries. Their prices aren’t cheap, but I see that as me paying for the service they provide. It’s a fair deal.

"One of the big chain distributor with multiple locations has some type of rule that if a part sits on their shelf for a month and does not sell they send it back to their warehouse. They are supposed to be the biggest and the best, but their stock is poor. If I need it that day, they may not have it. I went there to get a gauge-glass setup with the valves for a steam boiler. No dice. It took me five minutes to explain to them what I wanted, and the counter person had to ask two others what I was talking about. They told me they don't stock those and that I should go over there and look to see if I could make what I needed from loose parts. At that point, I walked out the door. And they’re the biggest supplier in the Northeast.”

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? This is a one-man shop, but there are many of those, and they are all paying attention and voting with their dollars.

A contractor who does great work down at the very bottom of New Jersey near Cape May, which is very dear to my heart, said, “All you need to do is open up and let us know where you are. I needed to travel nearly an hour to get to the closest supply house if I needed something right now. Otherwise, I would have to wait for the next delivery day. A company with four locations opened up in my county and became very successful for the plumbers and the HVAC trade in my neighborhood. Sometimes you just need to find a location where there is a void and a need. Their prices were right. Their inventory was just a little better than okay. Their customer service was great. I called to see if there was an item in stock so I could drive and get it. The counterman said, 'Where are you? I'll bring it right over.’ I was not used to that kind of service from the other suppliers. I bought stuff from the new guys, even if I could save money going elsewhere. Sometimes it's not the lowest price, but the customer service that makes all the difference.”

When The Lovely Marianne and I started our little business in 1989 we asked ourselves these four questions:

  1. What business are we in?
  2. Who are our customers?
  3. What are their problems?
  4. How can we solve those problems for them?

That planted the seed for what became, which has an audience of millions. We sold that business to our daughter, Erin Haskell, in 2016, and Erin regularly asks those same four questions.

Isn’t it a wonder that it took so long for a distributor to realize that there was a place called Cape May, New Jersey? And Wildwood? Gosh.

It pays to ask those four questions regularly.

Here’s another contractor, this one in Northern New Jersey.

Listen carefully: “I’ve been dealing with the same two places for over 25 years. I am stupid loyal to my supply house. They have never over-promised and under-delivered in close to 30 years. They have dropped everything and gotten material to me within an hour. This would never happen with any other supply house, and yes, their prices are a bit higher, but the service is beyond the empty promises of all other supply houses. I’m not just a number to them. I’ve known the owner for more than 30 years. They always make me feel welcome the moment I walk in the door. I pass their name along to others any time they ask. Why would I drop my supply house for a new guy in town? I wouldn’t do it to save a few bucks. Not me. I figure my loyalty to one, non-corporate supply house is my good deed to help a small business keep a roof over their heads and food on their table for their employees. That’s more important to me than helping the other guy raise his stock price.

“But this is me, and I really don’t split pennies on material purchases or job pricing. Plus, I figure everybody has to make a living and I’d rather help someone that maintains the same employees for decades over some corporate place where I am just a number, and so are their employees - just numbers. That is not my style, and I believe that being only corporate helps no one, especially if all you’re looking to do is to cut overhead and give yourselves bonuses while sticking it to the employees.

“There’s no way to win me over if you come to my town. Besides, I’m getting to the downhill portion of life, so all the filters are gone. The only one left is the truth as I see it, and it seemly never changes. Great question, Dan. Thanks for asking.”

I don’t know if you feel the same about my question, dear Reader, but that’s your customer. He’s a small fry, but he votes strongly with his dollars. And there are so many of those small fries.

A Long Island guy who believes in brevity, said, “Loyalty and price. I’ll pay more at a store that takes care of me.”

Another contractor, this one in Pennsylvania wrote: “Inventory, and a delivery service-like auto-parts stores and auto shops do it.”

From another part of PA: “Honesty. Good communication. Promises kept. Fair on pricing. All the stuff that makes for a successful business everywhere.”

And then there was this:

“Would this wholesaler who was new to my town also be an e-commerce business? Having direct access to the manufacturer and a one- to two-day delivery of non-stock items would be the key to their success. I doubt any brick-and-mortar shop could inventory enough, even with deep pockets. The bar has been set with the Amazon model of doing business.”

So that’s what they’re saying about you. Now that you’ve heard it, please take some time and ask yourself those four questions:

  1. What business am I in?
  2. Who are my customers?
  3. What are their problems?
  4. How can I solve those problems for them?

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