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Getting Connected With Contractors

Getting Connected With Contractors

By Bridget McCrea

How one electrical distributor plans to align itself more closely with its contractor-customers in 2017.

During the coming year, electrical distributors will be undoubtedly looking for new ways to do an even better job of pairing their products and services with their customers’ needs. With e-commerce, mobile procurement, and other digital business methods continuing to change the way distributors do business with their customers, at least one midsized firm plans to focus more closely on connecting more intimately with its contractor-customers and strengthening the bonds that it already has with those valued buyers.

Rich Hamer, senior VP and CIO for a 9-location distributorship that specializes in electrical, automation, industrial, lighting, and generators, says his firm is putting more effort into finding automated ways to interface with contractors. This, in turn, allows buyers to obtain pricing, view product availability, and place orders in a very seamless manner.

This isn’t a new mission, but it’s one that more distributors are turning to as they look for new ways to serve their customers on their own terms. In 2016, tED magazine highlighted numerous online bidding options in The Rise of Automated Bidding Software. In that article, Matt Hittinger, project manager at King’s Electric Service in Cincinnati, talked about how his firm uses Trimble Accubid Enterprise in conjunction with TRA-SER, the latter of which is a subscription-based electrical pricing software that contains 2 million electrical parts from over 650 manufacturers, according to the software vendor’s website.

“That allows us to link to our distributors, each of which gets a unique identifier code,” Hittinger explains, “thus allowing us to bring in their vendor pricing into our system.” To create a bid, the estimating team pulls up the system, runs vendor pricing (either from a single source or a combination, based on the situation and pricing), and then uses the information to develop the bid.

Getting Onboard
As more distributors embrace the idea of a more automated, integrated approach to working with their customers, the need for streamlined, cloud-based software packages that can “fill the gap” between the two entities continues to grow. Up until now, for example, many distributors have handled this aspect of their business by furnishing—periodically, and based on requests from individual customers—pricing files that support those buyers’ estimating packages.

Using a commercial software package, for example, distributors can “batch” that information and share it with contractors, but without any real interface between the distributor and its customers. “We aren’t really connected to them,” says Hamer, whose firm currently utilizes The ElectricSmarts Network, a company that provides the electrical industry with web-based marketing, e-learning, and e-commerce services. Through its syndicated content network, e-Learning System, and NetPricer electronic pricing service, for example, ElectricSmarts works with thousands of electrical contractors, MROs, distributors, and manufacturers throughout the industry, according to the firm’s website.

Working Smarter, Not Harder
Knowing that e-commerce, online procurement, and automated estimating are all becoming increasingly important to electrical contractors, electrical distributors are taking steps to shore up their relationships with those buyers while also integrating sophisticated systems and platforms that support those efforts. In other words, these distributors are working smarter and not harder to more closely align themselves with their customers. This is particularly important in a business world where the next competitor isn’t miles or blocks away…it’s literally one mouse click away.

In the future, Hamer envisions a time when distributors will be able to connect with, transact with, and exchange different types of data with its customers. This would not only streamline the sales and transaction processes, but it would also help make contractors’ lives “easier, and their processes smoother.” But achieving this goal won’t be easy.

“In talking to vendors and users of the software, I’m learning that contractors don’t adopt these types of systems uniformly,” says Hamer. “In fact, everyone has a different software package and everyone is using different functionalities within those packages.” For example, it is not uncommon for contractors to use separate systems for estimating and take-offs, invoicing, and project management.

Making the journey more complex is the fact that some software packages have certain functionalities that others don’t. Where one solution may provide full labor and material management capabilities, for example, another option may be more focused on generating bills and materials from schematics.

E-Commerce is the Key Driver
When asked what factors drive distributors to consider interfacing with contractor business systems, Hamer sees the rise of e-commerce as a key driver. And while some define e-commerce as the actual online transaction process, for electrical distributors and their customers, the definition is much broader.

“There are a lot of sub-processes within e-commerce that can add value to existing customer relationships,” he says. “This can help differentiate the distributor from many other ‘online type’ suppliers.”

This should be encouraging for distributors who have resisted the pressure to move to e-commerce, in favor of a more personal, “face-to-face” approach. The truth is, is doesn’t have to be one or the other; the modern distributor is one that will find a way to integrate e-commerce into their existing relationships as a means to enhance, not hinder, their connections.

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.


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