By Diane M. Calabrese / Published March 2019
Here’s the good news: Many contractors know exactly what they want to buy. Here’s the bad news: Many contractors know exactly what they want to buy.
Selling to contractors becomes a test of the seller’s ability to listen carefully and redirect tactfully, if necessary. A contractor may be unaware of a better machine, product, or approach.
A distributor who jumps right in and says something along the lines of “no, don’t do that, do this” may be perceived as critical or a specific product pusher. That’s why listening is so important.
Find a hook in the description given by the contractor and then, use it to start a conversation about alternatives. Talking with contractors who walk in or arrive via the internet is good. Even better is immersion—not in every case, but when possible.
“I have had the pleasure to work with customers ranging from sole owner-operators to large companies,” says Earl Jordan with Atlantic Pressure Washers in Linthicum, MD. Across that range, he has been able to tap on-site observations to inform his recommendations to clients.
“Being out in the field with them, monitoring their daily operations, helping to ease repair cost, speeding up processes while keeping the quality of the work the same if not better” are all part of his way of interacting with customers, explains Jordan.
In-field experience also provides information about how equipment is performing and how it can be improved.
Jordan says that one thing to understand about contractors is the difficulties some of them have in finding and retaining employees. A contractor’s choice of machines may help some with that difficulty.
Dependable equipment reduces employee frustration and may reduce turnover among employees. Efficient equipment may allow a contractor to operate with fewer employees.
Cost concerns gird all decisions contractors make. The overhead for business necessities, such as insurance, can go up because of high employee turnover.
When a contractor asks for a specific solution—machine, product, or approach—a distributor should put the choice in the context of everything with which the contractor is dealing. Motivating employees to work safely, maintain equipment properly, and do an excellent job is often a challenge.
Contractors may have novel approaches. “One contractor said the way he deals with the revolving door of employees is by contracting them to each job and making them pay for individual insurance,” says Jordan. “This, he said, has cut his repair cost down by 70 percent.”
The tired but true aphorism that for someone with only a hammer everything looks like a nail applies to any machine or tool. A sole operator may just be starting a business or in the early stages of growth.
Eager to learn more and do more, the operator appreciates a seller who can help by making good suggestions and explaining why they are good suggestions. The operator has a first machine. Which should be the second machine and why?
By strengthening contractors, distributors strengthen the industry. Manufacturers and suppliers who sell to contractors do the same. It’s a win all around.
Jordan relishes the chance to interact with and fortify contractors. “The fact that I’m helping them be prosperous is most rewarding to me,” he says.
Full-scale retreat from the virtual world is unlikely. A modest pull back or pause, though, reminds people that they can interact in real time—and gain much from the experience.
For manufacturers and suppliers who value all forms of interaction with their end users, person-to-person meetings with contractors is a good thing. “Unfiltered feedback for what the market needs” is what such encounters provide, says Brian Carter, president of Armstrong-Clark Company in Sonora, CA.
“Sometimes insight gets filtered when it comes through a store,” says Carter. “Additionally, retailers are very busy people, and getting feedback to a manufacturer can get lost. Through our relationships with contractors, we have learned of new colors they wanted, which we eventually developed.”
Carter gives two examples of how contractors knowing exactly what they wanted influenced product development—in this case, new colors. “One color, for example, was matching Cabot’s Mahogany Flame, which we did…In another example, contractors on pressure-treated pine back east went through our color palette—and through feedback eventually led to the development of our Amber.”
Good listening yields new products. It also builds relationships.
“Most of our personal relationships here at our headquarters are with contractors who are owner-operators of mid-size companies,” says Carter. There are other connections, too.
“We do have reps who work with contractors on the West Coast,” says Carter. “They typically build relationships with contractors through retailers. However, we have developed personal relationships with contractors through a combination of shows, internet discovery, and inquiries coming over the phone. We are currently having great success with Instagram, where contractors are finding us and reaching out to us with questions.”
Sometimes selling to contractors brings surprising—and useful—news. “We had a relationship with a contractor, Alan Broom in Birmingham, AL,” says Carter. “Alan discovered us on the internet and gave us a try. He really liked our product and started inquiring about us on the forums. The feedback Alan received was that no one had heard of us. This is when we started our free five-gallon pail for demo program.”
The worthwhile information from Broom extended to visualization of color samples. “When Alan discovered us, we were sending fan decks out to contractors with our stain for color reference,” explains Carter.
“Alan called Jake Clark to tell him that our colors did not look anything like the fan decks,” says Carter. “In hindsight, it made perfect sense as we really only have access to redwood, and in the Midwest you have a lot of pine and some cedar. Jake got on a plane and flew down to see what was going on.”
The trip by Clark led to a new approach. That is sending sample cans instead of fan decks. “Today we push sample cans as much as we can, as it is the only way to know for sure how any particular color will look on your specific wood.”
Relationships between sellers and end users can blossom into something more, Carter says. He emphasizes it’s a facet of selling to contractors worth remembering.
“We have two great retailers who are also contractors—The Stain Shop and The Sealer Store in Michigan,” explains Carter. “Both of these retailers have an application side to their business. As they had success with our stain, they wanted to become dealers.”
There are so many business-to-business ties in the economy that it’s difficult to anticipate which interaction might be the one that brings in many new customers or leads to a new product. Yes, a sale made to a small contractor is fundamentally a simple transaction. It does not involve a bid, supporting documentation, meetings with several principals, or any of the complexity of selling to a big company.
But small contractors are a potential source of new business. They talk to one another about their product preferences and approaches. A product endorsement from another contractor can mean more than all the information provided on company websites.
Website blogs—and other internet means of relaying information—are still important. A contractor may land at your website because you offer a primer on cavitation.
Contractors balance price, quality of product, and service when they make a buying decision. Sellers must appeal to contractors on all three fronts. A contractor will be persuaded to buy a better and higher-priced machine if that machine cuts time off job completion, is more durable, requires less routine maintenance, etc. It’s the responsibility of the seller to make sure the contractor understands the trade-offs between price and quality.
Sellers have many options for reaching out to contractors and getting to know them. Manufacturers and distributors exhibit at professional meetings that contractors attend. Manufacturers can occasionally invite contractors for a plant tour. Manufacturers and distributors may offer short seminars for contractors to introduce new products or cover a topic of interest (and introduce a few products).
The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) invites businesses of all kinds to obtain a GSA schedule contract, which qualifies a business to sell products or services to the federal government. The GSA welcome package has some tips for getting started selling to the government (when the schedule contract is in hand).
GSA tips for sellers, adapted slightly, apply in our context:
Sales team members should be well versed in all products so that they can make contractors, who have limited time, aware of them.
Every member of the seller’s team should understand their goal is to sell products. A contractor who brings a machine in for service wants the machine fixed quickly, but the contractor may be thinking about a back-up machine. Talk about it.
Business planning by sellers should include evaluation of the sort of purchasing assists (if any) that can be offered to buyers. Perhaps a seller can take three payments across three months.
Sell product, knowledge, service, and solutions.