What a Contractor Looks for in a Distributor

What a Contractor Looks for in a Distributor

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published September 2020

Photo by iStockphoto.com/Andrii Yalanskyi

What’s worse than finding a replacement part is not immediately available? Finding out that it has been discontinued.

Contractors who must take machines out of service to wait for a part or must replace a machine that is still a strong performer lose both time and money. Distributors that can keep their customers apprised of upcoming changes in product lines make such scenarios avoidable.

“I find that support is the number one need of contractors,” says Michael Hinderliter, president of Steamaway Inc. in Fort Worth, TX. “This includes offering a wide range of products and how to use them and repair them, as well as knowledge and understanding of the services contractors provide.”

It may be an informal one, but the partnership between a contractor and a distributor keeps the industry strong. A contractor gets a good fit and a reliable source of information and parts. A distributor serves as a liaison to manufacturers and, in doing so, keeps pace with changes.

“I see so many contractors buy from a big box store thinking they can save a few dollars, yet they end up buying the wrong equipment to properly do the job,” says Hinderliter. “And later they can’t get support for how to do work or repair their equipment.”

How do contractors view the idea of working with a single distributor? Is there a benefit?

“There can be a benefit when it comes to customer service,” says Hinderliter. “The more buying power a contractor has with one distributor, the more likely the contractor is to get better support for his needs.”


On the other hand, there can be a rationale for a contractor to work with more than one distributor. “When a contractor finds distributors with different skill sets that support the services he wants to provide is one example,” says Hinderliter.

Contractors do add to and change the focus of their operations. Doing either may necessitate changing distributors.

“Lack of support or knowledge of how to do the work the contractor is trying or plans to perform is one signal a change in distributors should be made,” says Hinderliter.

Support from a distributor comes in many forms. The distributor can demonstrate the use of a new machine and recommend ancillaries, approaches, and chemicals. A distributor who understands the work of a contractor can also make suggestions about the type of machine to buy. Perhaps there is a better choice than the equipment the contractor has in mind.

Changing Hats

The distributor has one primary function, which is serving the customer. “First and foremost is customer service and availability to the customer,” explains Doug Rucker, owner of Clean and Green Solutions in Porter, TX.

“As a contractor for many years—and now a distributor—that is what I looked for,” says Rucker. And he recalls some of his experience for us.

“When needed, being able to contact the owner, or person in charge with the most expertise, was huge for me,” says Rucker, “even if it meant just answering an email or returning my phone call—promptly—with answers to my questions.”

Be aware of a good fit. “I think a contractor should also look for a distributor that specializes or caters to that contractor’s services,” says Rucker. “A contractor that specializes in residential cleaning won’t benefit much from dealing with a distributor that specializes in selling equipment for the oil fields.”

Rucker advises contractors to ask questions to evaluate the expertise of a distributor. “Conversely, be aware of the questions your distributor asks you as it pertains to the services you offer,” he says.

Many factors might indicate to a contractor that a given distributor is not the best partner, and it’s time to move on. “Poor response time to phone calls or emails, especially if there is a problem with a purchase, is one,” says Rucker. “Slow delivery times or being often out of stock on frequently needed and purchased items” is another.

A distributor must listen to a customer. Rucker recalls his experience as a contractor with distributors who did not hear him. “I’ve had vendors that are very quick to blame me for a part that broke or an item delivered damaged or even missing parts,” says Rucker. “Don’t do that. Listen to your customer and work with them, not against them.”

A contractor may err in reporting a series of events. Overlook it to the extent possible. “There’s an old saying that ‘the customer is always right,’” says Rucker. “We all know this to be not true, but I firmly believe the customer is the customer.”

Even though he now wears the hat of a distributor, Rucker sees the benefit to a contractor in working with more than one distributor. As for when it makes sense, he says “all the time” and then explains.

“As a contractor, I always purchased from multiple distributors, and we do the same now as a distributor,” says Rucker. “We purchase from many different suppliers.”

In fact, distributor and contractor are looking for the same thing when they form a purchasing link. “Just like contractors, we are continually looking for the best customer service first, availability of products, shipping costs, and finally, the cost of the item, which is always last,” says Rucker.

“Just as a contractor is trained to sell his value over price, we look for the same thing,” explains Rucker. “The value of working with that supplier.”

And what about cost? “Price is always the last consideration because price is only a consideration in the absence of value,” says Rucker. “There is no sense in my finding the cheapest price and pricing an order, only to find that it will take six months to ship me that order.”

Is there a benefit to an exclusive relationship between contractor and distributor? “Maybe if you can find a great local supplier that can provide your every need and has exceptional customer service there may not be a need to shop further,” says Rucker. “But that would be rare, and it is always good to have relationships with more than one distributor or supplier.”


The tangible assets a contractor looks for in a distributor are easy to enumerate. Among them are excellent equipment, ready parts, good service, and knowledge of products and approaches.

A distributor may also possess intangible assets a contractor will welcome. The distributor’s network of customers may allow the distributor to point out useful ties.

A contractor specializing in commercial exteriors may have mentioned to the distributor that residential customers keep calling. The distributor may then talk to a contractor specializing in residential exteriors and suggest a conversation with the commercial contractor about referrals.

Similarly, a contractor looking for a used machine may ask a distributor to pass on any information. And contractors interested in leasing equipment may be able to sit down with their distributor and do a side-by-side comparison to figure out whether a lease would be a good option.

Many distributors lease equipment, but not every lease is the same. Some include maintenance at no extra cost; others do not. A lease allows a contractor to try a machine before buying. Some distributors may be persuaded to write a lease with a lease-to-buy option.

A distributor who understands the scope of a contractor’s work, including seasonality and competition in the geographic region, will grasp the cash flow challenges contractors sometimes confront. In that context, the distributor will be able to give the contractor a reasonable prediction of machine longevity, including cost per hours of service.

Frequently, contractors find distributors via word-of-mouth referrals from colleagues. It’s a good method. It’s even better when coupled with a visit to a distributor’s facility.

An experienced contractor can assess the array of products, the potential interaction with team members, and the range of offerings, such as presence of a service center. (It’s okay to ask the distributor about the type of customers served.) The investment a contractor makes in finding the best distributor or distributors solidifies one link in the supply chain.

The presence of distributors in our industry allows manufacturers to focus on innovation and efficiency in products. The manufacturers can rely on the expertise of distributors to get the correct products into the hands of contractors. In turn, a contractor with the best equipment for a job and the optimal approach gets a positive response from customers.

The positive response from customers turns into more work as satisfied customers recommend a contractor to others. Equipment sales increase as contractors take on more work. Distributors are busier. Manufacturers are, too.

A market chain has an aesthetic dimension. It reflects various entities doing their part to bring products and services into alignment—a beautiful sight.

When the chain is strong, the inevitable disruption—a machine that requires a new part—that occurs from time to time does not last long. Work at a jobsite resumes quickly. The customer is happy. And the contractor is most happy because he or she has the support of a distributor for whom the promise of reliability means everything. 

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