The World is FlatóIím Sure of That
by Dan Barber
Our company (a member of the NSDJA/AMD since its inception),
has been in business for more than 60 years and, until recently, we had
never received a phone call from Hawaii, although there was a convention
there once, but thatís a discussion for another time. But, thanks to our
website, a customer in Hawaii found us. I donít think I am revealing any
company secret to say we donít have a presence in this state. Frankly,
I couldnít name anyone that does. This one small example shows the power
of the Internet, and the amazing ways it is changing how we connect with
customers. Once a company creates a website, it is there for the entire
world to see. Be prepared for the world to find you.
Even as recently as the 1990s, it would have been extremely rare for a
homeowner to contact us directly. As a manufacturer and distributor, our
presence in the marketplace was exclusively through retail channels. Aside
from a number in the phone book, a homeowner would probably never even
know how to contact us. With the Internet, a simple search reveals our
website and complete access to our entire product line. The retail channels
are still in place, but now, more than ever, we are guiding homeowners
toward products that will best suit their needs, and then toward a retailer
in their area.
seen many companies purposefully withhold options and information from
the homeowner in the hopes the customer would simply pick something and
go with it."
Retailers have promoted our website and encouraged homeowners
to contact us directly as well. After all, if we make the product, then
we should know the most about it. We have become partners with retailers
in the sales process. This is in stark contrast to simply being a supplier.
Quite honestly, we are still getting used to it. It is difficult to balance
the needs of the homeowner and the retailer, and of primary importance
is keeping all parties on the same page. The worst thing that can happen
is to have miscommunication among us, the retailer and the homeowner.
Interestingly, we also are seeing a large number of customers directed
to us from our own suppliers. Often, our suppliers have sophisticated
websites that are superior to our own. A homeowner will find our supplier,
who puts them in contact with us, who we then put in contact with a retailer.
As you can expect, the retail chain can be both beneficial and frustrating
to the end-user. It is important that the homeowner understand that while
we are a partner in the sales process, the retailer is ultimately responsible
for the transaction. Finding the proper balance can be challenging.
Make Your Website a Priority
It is important that inquiries from the Internet are handled promptly.
The majority of customers that find our website simply e-mail us. These
e-mails are filtered to a specific set of individuals. While some inquiries
may be about products we do not sell, or in areas, such as Hawaii, we
do not service, we make a concerted effort to respond to every e-mail.
I have attempted to contact numerous companies through their websites
over the years and many times never received responses. The chance of
me using those companies in the future is slim. Our own company has made
every effort to respond to online requests to the best of our ability.
Telling a customer no, especially in Hawaii, is acceptable, but failing
to respond is not. We refuse to be a company that leaves its website unattended.
Many companies in our industry are still in the mindset of simply telling
the customer what they think customers need. Others think the absence
of information is the best approach. I have seen many companies purposefully
withhold options and information from the homeowner in the hopes the customer
would simply pick something and go with it. Unfortunately, many of these
companies are no longer in business. While I agree that homeowners should
not be overwhelmed with options, it is folly to suggest that withholding
information from them is a good idea. Guiding a customer to a sale is
different than telling a customer what to buy. There is simply too much
information available online to try to limit what a homeowner may purchase.
Donít Forget the Homeowner on Your Site
It was with homeowners in mind that we designed our website. Oftentimes
manufacturers gear websites towards other manufacturers or retailers.
Such pages are highly technical with too few pictures. Descriptions are
fine, but homeowners need to see the product to appreciate it. Our website
is overly simplistic and yet we receive compliments on it daily because
it has ease of use and clearly shows our product lines. I would encourage
other manufacturers and distributors to design websites for the end-user,
not the intermediate user.
Once a company joins the digital world, people will find them. A company
must be prepared to deal with the public, perhaps from every corner of
the globe. Even a manufacturer that does not sell to the general public
and operates solely through retailers will have to deal with the public
eventually. It is how companies approach the public that will determine
success. Customers will become increasingly educated on products and options
before they contact sellers. In addition, more and more customers will
be contacting manufacturers before they contact retailers, often in search
of better pricing and superior service. Dedicate specific individuals
to deal with Internet inquiries of all types. Respond quickly and professionally.
Do not assume the general public understands anything about your products
or the distribution channels. Guide the customer in the right direction
and act as a partner with the members of your supply chain. With a stagnant
economy and new customers increasingly difficult to acquire, unsolicited
customers should be treated with kid gloves; oftentimes they are not.
Whether due to lack of experience in dealing with the general public,
or insufficient staff to monitor website activity, manufacturers and distributors
may be missing out on potential sales.
Dan Barber is the vice president of finance and administration
for Barnett Millworks Inc. and first vice president for AMD. His opinions
are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this magazine.
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No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.