What a Distributor Wants in a Manufacturer

What a Distributor Wants in a Manufacturer

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published November 2019

Photo by iStockphoto.com/Gerasimov174

Do it all, and do it all well. We frequently hear tales of individuals who can, but it’s a fiction.

To take a close look at any successful endeavor is to realize how many people contribute to its success. A renowned solo violinist does not make the instrument, maintain venues, or schedule and travel without significant working partners.

Working partners make good outcomes happen. Distributors and manufacturers are working partners.

In the September issue of Cleaner Times, manufacturers told us what they want in a distributor. Here, distributors tell us their expectations for a manufacturer.

Dennis Black, president of McHenry Pressure Cleaning Systems Inc. in Frederick, MD, lists five things he looks for in a manufacturer: “Build quality equipment, provide marketing and engineering support, support distributors as their source to the marketplace, be willing to listen to us and appreciate our input, and be a manufacturer who is a true partner in business with our business.”

What about any non-negotiable quality a manufacturer must have? “I find it hard to narrow this to one, but I can narrow it to two must-haves,” says Black.

The first must is “a willingness to work with us on what we need,” says Black. “This involves custom jobs and engineering support.” The second must is “a manufacturer who dedicates themselves to only selling and supporting distributors, not a dual role of selling direct and through distributors, too.”

Growth and change in an industry require everyone to be flexible and ready to adapt. It’s the essence of being a good partner.

“I believe a distributor’s role in the market has changed,” says Black. “We have become more of a problem solver—our customers are the ones that need our expertise, support after the sale, and a willingness to provide good solutions to their cleaning problems. In turn, we need a manufacturer that is willing to work with us to provide the equipment and other items that this requires.”

By putting the end user in the picture, Black reminds us that distributors and manufacturers are working to serve the needs of the contractor on a jobsite, the in-plant maintenance team, and so on.

The end user—the customer of the distributor—wants concise and clear answers to questions plus reliable service and equipment. A strong working partnership between the distributor and manufacturer makes it happen.

“At our company, we strive to provide the best possible equipment and service to our customers,” says Paul Ponsano, sales representative at Bozeman Distributors in Baton Rouge, LA. “To help us do so, we look for manufacturers who have quality products and competitive prices.”

When a distributor can rely on its manufacturer, the end user can rely on the distributor. “The manufacturers we purchase from and represent need to stand behind their products, so we are able to keep our customers satisfied,” says Ponsano.

There are the essentials of a strong relationship, and there are the fine points. Some of the fine points can greatly fortify the give and take between distributor and manufacturer.

“Another aspect of being a distributor for manufacturers is to find out how much protection the manufacturer will provide us,” says Ponsano. “We feel that providing customers with local warranty coverage and service helps the manufacturer, so we deserve some consideration and hopefully referrals when end users contact them.”

A manufacturer who is focused on building the strongest possible ties with a distributor is important. “We try to shy away from companies who will sell to anyone who calls or contacts them online,” says Ponsano.

The first dictionary meaning of “partner” captures the common goal that partners have. A distributor and manufacturer work together best when they work collaboratively. If a manufacturer is sometimes acting as a distributor or sometimes making direct sales to end users, it can become problematic.

The foregoing is a complex issue. To some extent, the individual perspective and philosophy of doing business will determine how much of an issue it is. But if a manufacturer does direct sales that are more than rare, it is possible for the manufacturer and distributor to become competitors.

Determining when the line is crossed (or whether a distributor and manufacturer can be both partners and competitors) is not easy. Some perspective on the issue begins the next section.

Who is the customer?

“You can’t compete with your customer, being me,” says Roy Pennington, owner of Hi Pressure Cleaning Systems Inc. in Houma, LA. And he says it emphatically.

“I have two different manufacturers of machines and hoses that have been ‘cut off’ by my company because they were directly competing with us on sales of their products,” says Pennington. The stress belongs on sales because the distributor is often left with the service end of the equation.

Pennington explains he has had customers use their phones to take pictures of a machine or bar code. He knows what comes next. The customer will say the item can be purchased for less direct from the manufacturer online and request that he match the online price.

“For the longest time, I countered with ‘I can match the price, if you let me match the service,” says Pennington, meaning that he would give the same service as the online seller. In other words, the customer would pay for the machine and shipping in advance and then wait for it. After the machine arrived in a box, the customer would have to unpack and test it. And if there were any issues, the customer would have to repackage and send it back.

Pennington’s lighthearted way of letting the customer know the difference a distributor makes in ease of purchase and use of equipment and ancillaries did not always sit well with the customer determined to buy on price alone. “The customer invariably left in a huff and frugally bought online,” he says.

As for the two manufacturers that were directly competing with him on sales, Pennington resolved the situation. “My solution, I dropped both of the manufacturers’ products and replaced them with products from manufacturers who will not sell direct to the end user.”

The fundamental element of any partnership, though, is a shared commitment to quality. “Foremost, a quality product,” says Pennington, “is what a manufacturer must offer.”

“That said, quality modern pressure washers have evolved into an oligopolistic product,” explains Pennington. With a small number of large sellers dominating the production of quality products, quality in a machine is not difficult to obtain.

“Four gpm at 3000 psi coming out of a trigger gun is the same regardless of the engine, pump manufacturer, or whether the frame is steel, aluminum, or stainless steel,” says Pennington. “It comes down to a matter of personal choice…”

To illustrate the component of preference, Pennington cites attributes such as where the engine is made and colors of pumps. But with quality being the norm from the dominant manufacturers, such choices do not affect outcomes.

“Pressure washers have all evolved into premium products that when used and maintained properly will last for years,” says Pennington. He notes that his company serves a contractor customer who cleans six nights each week in the Central Business District of New Orleans. That contractor “has two of the ‘American brand’ air-cooled, twin cylinder engines on his hot water units that have 5000-plus hours on them courtesy of meticulous monthly maintenance.” (Pennington amplifies that by ‘American brand’ he means perceived U.S.-made but made overseas.)

Obtaining a quality, standard product is not difficult. What is challenging is meeting a need outside the everyday. Manufacturers with the capability to meet the special request make very good partners.

“Twenty-plus years ago, I went to several manufacturers looking for a two gpm, 6000 psi, 240-volt single-phase cold water unit that was on/off controlled at the gun,” says Pennington. “Most just shrugged me off and said, ‘Can’t do that.’ Then I went to the right manufacturer who listened to my request and said, ‘Oh, you have somebody cutting asbestos out of buildings.’ He absolutely knew my customer’s needs, and the unit is still in service today.”

Pennington reflects on consolidation—or at least buyouts—of smaller manufacturers by larger manufacturers. Larger manufacturers often have their own concept of how a distributor should interact with customers. They have a business model, and they want their distributors to adapt to it, explains Pennington.

But can one model really fit all needs? “It has taken us 28 years to evolve the company from a toddler in this industry to our international operation that now markets equipment worldwide,” says Pennington.

“We are a bit different from the norm because we keep in-stock the standard equipment you find at most dealers, along with explosion-proof machines, pneumatic machines, and voltages of 240, 300, 480, and 600 volts; and 50 to 60 hertz are the ‘new normal’ to us,” explains Pennington.

Distributors work with customers in settings as different as milking barns and deep-sea oil rigs. They hear—and often see—the precise needs of their customers. Manufacturers, as working partners, value the distributor’s connection to end users and appreciate that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (contributors). 

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