Why Contractors Order The Way They Do

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With all the technology we have these days I was curious as to if and how contractors were using it to place orders with their suppliers, so I asked on The Wall at HeatingHelp.com. The Wallies wasted no time in telling me how they do it nowadays, and more importantly, why.

The first contractor to answer said, “I exclusively use email and websites, preferably a website app. There are not many suppliers capable of giving me access to pricing and inventory levels online. Supplyhouse.com and Ferguson are probably the top two in regards to that. On a distributor level, Matco-Norca recently revamped and I am now able to check pricing and stock live with them. It makes a difference.”

I think back to 1997 when HeatingHelp.com began. We had an online store and contractors told me they would never buy a book from me because they didn’t trust the Internet. I was buying used engineering books online from a company called Amazon. They had 500 employees, which I thought was amazing. All they sold was books. Can your (potential) customers check the inventory on your site?

Another contractor, a one-man shop, said, “I mostly just call to check stock, unless it’s something I’m certain they will have. There has been a lot of turnover so I no longer have the long-term relationships or inclination to be there in person like I used to. Things have changed.”

They sure have changed, but not everywhere. Listen: “My suppliers are still mostly in the Dark Ages,” another contractor said. “If I need something the same day, it’s always a phone call for me. If it can wait, I use email. That’s it.”

The Dark Ages are probably not the best place to be right now, but that’s a choice, right?

“I like the app R. E. Michel has,” another said. “It lets me have a locker with my stuff in it to pick up each morning or evening, or even after closing. As I use a part of my truck’s inventory in a customer invoice, I can order the replacement part at the same time on their REM app. Since they are a 45-minute drive from my service area, I opt for delivery in most cases.”

A retired contractor said, “My son, who took over my business, now uses SupplyHouse.com as his go-to store. They have no locations anywhere close to us, but very often the part shows up a day before expected, and their return policy is great. The brick-and-mortar locations are becoming obsolete. If your supplier does not have an online presence, you might see them closing in the next ten years.”

Do you have an online presence? What do you think of the retired guy’s prediction? For what it’s worth, he’s one of the sharpest heating men I’ve ever met.

Another contractor chimed in: “As an independent operator, I'm using the Supplyhouse.com Trademaster program more and more for restocking and for volume PEX pipe, tanks, and other special orders. My volume does not improve the margin my local supplier offers, but that aside, the real killer for me are trips to the bricks-and-mortar shop. They are time- and fuel-wasters. But the big operators (fuel companies, and big plumbing shops) will keep the local bricks-and-mortar suppliers going for a while longer. And besides, we independents are a dying breed anyway.”

Seeing the future? How about the present?

“For me it’s either text or email,” another contractor said. “I like to have a record with a timestamp. That gives me plausible UN-deniability. There will be no twisting of words or their-side-of-the-story nonsense.”

“I use email,” another said. “If I call on the phone, I'm never sure if things were communicated correctly. With an email, I get a response of exactly what's going on, and I know for sure that what I ordered is what I’ll be getting. There are times I'll have someone call me, or I'll call them to discuss something, but I like it to be followed up with an email. If it’s not in writing, it’s not real.”

That came up a lot. Listen to this fella: “I greatly prefer to communicate with my vendors via email. Too many times they have given me a price over the phone and then billed a higher amount when it comes to invoicing. Or they were quoting the incorrect item, etc. There is very little ambiguity when things are written down. The only time I have had pricing discrepancies with a vendor or a customer was when things were done over the phone.”

And if it makes you feel any better, these challenges are not limited to the United States. A contractor who posts regularly on The Wall at HeatingHelp.com has his PHC business in Tehran, Iran, where, as you might imagine, he faces some unusual challenges these days. Here’s what he had to say:

“As for me, making several calls to different distributors and matching their prices, then in-person going to the markets for fairer prices, and finally ordering my needs by phoning for some goods, and emailing for some particular materials and for the rest of needs purchasing in-person. I do consider quality and fair prices, so I do endeavor to do it and get what I really desire for it. As there are many low-quality Chinese products in our markets, we have to dig deep into the markets for the worthiness of needed products. I am kind of an OCD person when it comes to purchasing and installing.”

See? We’re not so different.

Another contractor said, “I use apps, email, text, and phone, and usually in that order. I like digital because with digital, I have a record. There's no confusion about what I said and what they heard. I try to be as specific as possible. If I want a Viega part, I'll call with the five-digit number to ensure accuracy. Or if I want a Grundfos pump, I give the part number and not just the model to make sure I get the electrical set-up or material, or whatever variation I need. I try to make it as easy as possible on the ‘new guy’ to get it right.”

Let’s end with this one. It’s short and certainly sweet: “Email allows me to put the most information into my order, but when I need a quick answer on price or availability I tend to reach out to the guys I can text and give them the sale.”

Not many contractors are phoning it in anymore. Most of that has to do with a lack of trust. If I were you, I’d be thinking about that a lot.


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