Volume 10, Issue 6 - November/December 2006

Severed Ties
Loyalty Doesn’t Mean What it Used to in the Film Business
by Les Shaver

Franz Hyland, owner of Shades Custom Tint, a film dealership in Hewitt, Texas, has been in the film business since 1987. In that time, he’s been successful, participating in tint-off competitions and running a strong business. The funny thing is, in three tint-offs, two different manufacturers have sponsored him. But, if you talk to Hyland, that won’t surprise you. In his almost 20 years in business, he’s sold about every brand of film out there.

“I’ve worked with them all,” Hyland said. “The quality is about the same. It’s more about the customer service.”

Hyland isn’t alone. The old days when a dealer picked a one manufacturer and distributor for life are over. They’ve been replaced by a free agency of sorts in the business. Dealers will work with manufacturers, but if there’s a problem or they find a lower priced product, they have no qualms about making a change. 

A Different Climate
It wasn’t always this way, say many of the people who remember the film industry’s earlier days. 

“Relationships between dealers and manufacturers were very different 15 years ago,” said David Read, sales development manager for Carson, Calif.-based Johnson Window Films. 

Others on the manufacturing side see the same thing.

“I think back then most dealers purchased 80 to 90 percent of their films from the same manufacturer,” said Paul Panarisi, product manager of window films for Madico, a manufacturer based in Woburn, Mass. “Personal relationships meant a great deal … and loyalty was rewarded on both sides. Dealers had established long-term relationships with reps that were built over time and there was a great deal of trust and loyalty.”

While some dealers still cling to a loyalty to the same manufacturer, many, like Hyland, play the field. Everyone seems to have a different explanation of why things have changed.

“Because only a few window film manufacturers were around at that time, there was a tremendous amount of loyalty between dealers and their suppliers,” Read said. “Today, the window film business climate is quite different. Dealers now have many choices when it comes to selecting a window film manufacturer.” 

With technology and more ways to gain information, dealers are more aware of those options than ever before.

“There are trade magazines that give dealers the ability to read about the different choices,” Read said. “There are Internet forums, where you can obtain information regarding manufacturers and opinions from dealers. And, there are better trade shows that allow dealers to compare different film manufacturers.”

More choices may give dealers a reason to look, but many dealers won’t stray unless they have a good reason.

“I still believe most dealers leave manufacturers because they are not happy with the relationship,” Panarisi said. “Loyalty is not dead, however. I think if you asked most field reps how tough it is to switch an account over from the competition, they would tell you it’s not easy—no matter who they work for.” 

James Black, regional manager of the Americas for Bekaert Specialty Films (BSF) in San Diego, sees three main reasons a dealer will leave a manufacturer: decreased levels of customer service, quality and marketing and technical support. Each has its own unique issues.

“Dealers rely on the manufacturer to meet their service requirements consistently and if they are let down through missed shipments, lack of technical support or poor customer service, this can cause them to look for a more consistent supplier,” Black said. “Dealers require products they can count on. Whether it is optical quality, user-friendliness or products which actually fail in some area, the dealers do not have the time to deal with poor quality.”

But there are things other than the quality of film. If manufacturers don’t support a dealer, that person can also grow unsatisfied.

“As small businesses, many dealers benefit by a close relationship with their manufacturer[s] as they can enjoy assistance with their marketing efforts and/or technical support on larger or complex installations,” Black said. “Manufacturers who can consistently provide this type of support will win the loyalty game.”

Why Leave?
When you ask a dealer why he/she has changed manufacturers, the answer often goes beyond more choices on the market, quality of film and technical support. Instead it’s something much more basic: the personal relationships.

“When they don’t come through with what they say they will do, that’s when I change,” Hyland said.

With Jeff LaClave, owner of Sunset Tinting, in West Melbourne, Fla., the impetus for his change was actually the International Window Film Tint-Off, sponsored by Window Film magazine. He says he was a loyal customer of BSF. He asked the manufacturer to sponsor his entry into the tint-off and he would pay for it. The first year, the company agreed to it. But the next year, things changed.

“The following year, I asked for sponsorship, but they already had it filled out,” LaClave said. “So I went to SunTek [Commonwealth Laminating and Coating in Martinsville, Va.] and told them [that] if they sponsored me, I would pay and give them all of my business.”

When a loyal customer decides to leave a manufacturer, it isn’t always the manufacturer’s fault, though. Sometimes, the distributor plays into the decision.

“It’s not necessarily the manufacturer,” Hyland said. “Sometimes, it’s the satellite distributors. The problem I have with most all of them, except for the ones I use now, is that they have no loyalty to their customer[s].”

For instance, Hyland once discovered a distributor was selling film to one of his employees who was installing out of his house. 

“He used the same manufacturer that I’d been using for all of those years,” Hyland said. “He was ordering from his house when he was working for me. A lot of them have no loyalty to the customers that have been with them for awhile.”

The Manufacturer’s Dilemma
Loyalty isn’t a one-way street. Yes, dealers can complain about suppliers with poor customer service, selling to ex-employees or offering no corporate support. On the other hand, manufacturers have solid arguments when a dealer just skips out to a company offering a lower-priced film.

“For some dealers, all they want is the cheapest film they can buy and they have no loyalty to any brand,” said Matt Jobe, president of G.D.I., a distributor based in Canton, Ga. “There is no desire to deal exclusively with any one brand and, therefore, the brand owes those dealers no loyalty in return.” 

Others see problems with this niche of dealer as well.

“The area in which dealer loyalty has not increased is with the dealers who base their purchasing decisions solely on price,” Black said. “Unfortunately, for the manufacturers that have nothing more to offer, they are stuck fighting a never-ending battle. There will always be someone who will sell for less.”

Even dealers who regularly buy a brand, but also purchase other types of film, don’t escape Jobe’s criticism.

“There are other dealers who choose to do business with just a couple of brands,” Jobe said. “Many of these dealers believe that they should have the complete loyalty in return from the distributor. Now, if you think of ‘loyalty’ somewhat like marriage, then why would a distributor feel that they owe their complete loyalty to a dealer who is disloyal to them? I do not think that would work out in many marriages and it does not work out in business relationships either.” 

Some dealers do more to irritate their suppliers than just buy different types of film, though. 

“Loyalty also means respecting the business and business practices of both parties,” Jobe said. “Should a distributor really be loyal to a dealer who bounces checks all the time? What about one that always abuses the distributor by paying late? Or one who abuses the warranty or co-op procedures? All of these factors, as well as a list of others, cost the distributor and manufacturer money and there comes a point where it might be more profitable for a distributor to stop doing business with a dealer.”

Providing Motivation
So the question is: how can manufacturers properly motivate dealers to stay loyal? With some dealers, those that buy based on price alone, it may be difficult. But both dealers and suppliers maintain that it’s possible to keep others in the fold. 

One way Black sees manufacturers keeping their dealers loyal is through value-added programs, such as computer-cutting technology or initiatives that offer exclusive territories, an exclusive higher-performing product range, increased warranty coverage and increased marketing support. Outside of these programs there are other things manufacturers can do.

“Bekaert consistently invests in our dealers’ growth through investments in research and development to assure we are offering the best products available in the market place,” Black said. “We continually look for ways to better serve our dealers through the 20-plus company-owned distribution centers around the world and we increase the level of marketing support available to our dealers. The days of relying solely on our dealer base to grow the business are over and we are stepping up our efforts to assist our dealers in this critical area.”

Madico takes a similar approach, though it focuses on dealers who are loyal to it. 

“Customer service is paramount,” Panarisi said. “The dealer has to know that we stand behind him and are there for him. We have a great technical department and training group as well. We also have a robust product line that meets the needs of our dealers.”

Virginia Kubler, business director for Martinsville, Va.-based CPFilms Inc., takes a simpler approach.

“Regarding what it takes to gain loyalty, simply, going the extra mile everyday [helps],” Kubler said. 

While dealers who bounce from one supplier to another often cite lack of loyalty and customer service as the reason they move around, dealers who have stuck with one manufacturer, like Irvin “Blank” Blankenbaker, owner of ReflectoShield in Tucson, say they stay because of quality products.

“They’re [Madico] constantly giving me a film that, as far as I’m concerned, is top of the line,” Blankenbacker said. “They have their problems—so does everyone else—but we’ve been happy with them over the years.”

Jerry Burns, owner of the Sun King in Denver has always been a BSF dealer. His rationale? It’s the same as Blankenbacker’s.
“They have the best product available, which is proven with their market reach into government contracting,” Burns said. “They beat the pants off of anyone else who makes a similar film, according to the numbers.”

Dealers, like Hyland and LaClave, on the other hand, don’t really see a difference in the many types of film available. While a lot of lip service is given to customer service and loyalty, in the long run, quality of film ranks right up there with everything else. When a dealer thinks a film superior, he/she is not likely to change. But when he/she sees all films as similar, problems with loyalty and customer service become magnified.

Les Shaver is a contributing editor for Window Film magazine.

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