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The Distributor-Contractor Relationship: Trust, Honesty, and Integrity

By Bridget McCrea

In the Texas cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, electrical contractors frequently deal directly with manufacturers rather than working with distributors to get the products and services that they need. In Houston, however, the climate is decidedly different. “Around here we work primarily through electrical distributors,” explains Joe Martin, executive vice president at KenMor Electric in Houston. “For that reason, we really value and rely on the strong relationships we’ve built with distributors in the area.”

For those relationships to be solid and long lasting, Martin says they must be built on trust, honesty, and integrity. Call him “old school,” but this electrical contractor says those three foundational elements must go into every distributor-contractor bond. “Trust is the first thing we look for and strive for,” says Martin. “When we get a product, we need to know that we can trust it. And when we work directly with a supplier, we need to know that we can trust that company to do what it says it’s going to do.”

In many cases, that trusting bond is established at the inside or outside salesperson level. As the folks who are on the front lines working with contractors on a daily basis, these sales reps can often make or break the very alliances that they’re attempting to solidify. “In most cases, we work directly with a rep that we’ve known and worked with for years,” says Martin, who points out that the job bidding process can get pretty hectic when contractors hold off on turning their bids into the general contractor or owner until the last minute (so that the bid can’t be “shopped around” for a better price).

Distributors take a similar stance with electrical contractors themselves – a sort of “holdout” that can create a lot of last-minute chaos. “It’s at those very moments,” says Martin, “that the distributor’s ability to get everything we need for bid time is absolutely critical.” For that reason, Martin says the distributors who step up to the plate and deliver in those critical periods are usually the ones that get the callbacks when new needs and/or jobs come up. “We have to know that we can rely on them both during ‘normal’ circumstances and when we’re in a pinch.”

Don’t Take Them For Granted
Spenser Villwock, CEO at IEC in Denver, says the fact that contractors like KenMor Electric place high value on trust-based business relationships is no surprise. “Honesty is a critical component for these companies as they build long-term relationships with their suppliers,” says Villwock, who adds that this sentiment prevailed even during the recent economic recession. “Even then we saw that the relationship between contractor and distributor won out over the lowest bidder or the next shiny object that was out there.”

Comparing the distributor-contractor bond to a marriage, Villwock says such alliances should be continually assessed and worked on. Letting them stagnate in today’s business world – where the next possible supplier is just a mouse click away – can quickly backfire on the distributor. “There are a lot of entities vying for contractor business right now,” says Villwock. “Taking those alliances for granted can be a major error on the part of the distributor.”

To avoid that trap, Villwock advises electrical distributors to stay abreast of what’s going on with their customers’ businesses and industries; schedule regular, face-to-face talks about wants, needs, and problems; and keep pace with changes in technology and ordering styles. “Have rich conversations with your customers,” says Villwock, “and use the knowledge attained to find ways to help them do their jobs better and more efficiently.”

Leading the Way
To distributors looking to shore up their own contractor relationships, Martin says some could do a better job at introducing new products. Many times, he says he doesn’t hear about the “latest and greatest” until he goes to events like Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC) conferences, where manufacturers are showing off their most recent innovations. At the group’s recent conference in Portland, for example, Martin says he got an eyeful of several different products that he’d never heard of.

“I gave the manufacturer my business card and wound up getting a product demo from a distributor in Houston,” says Martin. That rather circuitous route to new product introductions could be made straighter, he says, if distributors took it upon themselves to show him the latest gear when they learn about it. “Here in Houston, where we depend heavily on the distributor-based selling arrangement,” says Martin, “it would be great to see more distributors leading the way on this.”

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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