#94: How to Sell Building Materials Directly to the End User Without Creating Channel Conflict

by Smarter Building Materials Marketing

For building materials manufacturers, growth often means getting closer to the customer. But selling direct can create conflict with your channel partners. Today we’re talking to one manufacturer about how they’re managing their channel and growing customer relationships at the same time.

More About This Episode

On this week’s episode, Zach talks to Jennifer Williams, Director National Strategic Accounts at Royal Manufacturing about how they’re growing direct sales while remaining a trusted partner in the channel.

Transcript

Zach Williams:

If you're a manufacturer who's trying to find ways to sell direct, you're trying to find ways to get closer to your end customer, this is going to be a great episode for you. On today's episode of Smarter Building Materials Marketing, we bring on a manufacturer is continuing to manage relationships with the players in their channel all while still continuing to move towards that direct model. It's a really fascinating conversation on how do you manage relationships and break into new ones as well all while growing your business. Now, with that, let's get into the episode.

Voiceover:

Welcome to the Smarter Building Materials Marketing podcast, helping you find better ways to grow leads, sales, and outperform your competition. And now here are your hosts, Zach Williams and Beth PopNikolov.

Zach Williams:

All right everybody, welcome to Smarter Building Materials Marketing, where we believe your online presence should be your best salesperson. I am Zach Williams and we have a great show lined up for you today. We've got Jennifer Williams, who's the director of national strategic accounts at Royal Manufacturing on the show with us today. Welcome to the show, Jennifer.

Jennifer Williams:

Thank you, Zach, it's great to be here.

Zach Williams:

So you're down in Austin and I was actually checking out your LinkedIn account. You've got a pretty cool background in the building construction and home building space. Before we dive into what you do at Royal Manufacturing, why don't we just share with our listeners a little bit about your background, and then we'll talk about what you do now.

Jennifer Williams:

Sure, so to make a long story short, because I've been in Austin now for six years and originally from Pennsylvania, lived in Florida for five years and made my way to Texas. And it was quite a transition. I moved here without a job and found a position working with plumbers in the water restoration industry. And after that, I found a position with a company known as Southwest Sales and they are a product manufacturing rep agency for the entire state of Texas. So we repped products such as Rheem, Delta Faucets, and I was hired as their builder account manager.

Jennifer Williams:

So I started working with local divisions of big national builders and then smaller regional builders of Texas, getting them set up working with our products. And then also, obviously because our products were in the plumbing industry, working with plumbers to make sure that they were trained and supported with our products and knew how to install. And then two years ago I got an offer with Royal Manufacturing. And so that's how I got here today. So it's definitely been a growing experience, but the home building industry has treated me very well and has been very great and super intriguing to say the least.

Zach Williams:

And what do you currently do at Royal Manufacturing? Your title is director of national strategic accounts. What do you do right now?

Jennifer Williams:

So right now I head up our national accounts division. And what that means is we sell our product, acrylic bathtubs, and shower pans. And then we also run the fabrication industry to the national builders throughout Texas, Florida, and the Carolinas currently. So my job right now today is to take advantage of the relationships that we have in those three regions and eventually, and hopefully, expand upon those in regions first of all that touch the existing regions. And then eventually, hopefully, we want to become a nationally known company.

Zach Williams:

That's really cool. And the reason why I'm really excited to talk with you, Jennifer, is you all are doing something that a lot of manufacturers are considering, which is how are you selling direct to the builder? There's a lot of trade professionals who are very familiar with you all, and they are familiar with your brand and you don't want to disrupt that channel, that relationship, but you see that there's opportunity to sell directly to builders. And so we're going to talk a little bit about how you are helping foster relationship with existing plumbers, but I want to dive into understanding a little about what is selling to the top 100 builders look like? How are you actually going after them? Can you share with us a little bit about your strategy and what's working for you?

Jennifer Williams:

Yeah, of course. So for a builder to buy direct, obviously within Texas, we have two huge manufacturing and warehouse facilities. So we employ our own fleet of drivers and we will either one, ship to a job site. If a builder decides that they want to buy direct, we will ship to that address based on what that product is and drop off a tub or drop off a shower pan. If a builder wants to buy direct and they have a great relationship with their plumber, we've also seen scenarios where a plumber will warehouse a product for a builder. Now, as you mentioned, we obviously love our plumbers. We can't do our job without them. And so we fully support that that decision is made between the builder and the plumber. We don't like to get into the middle of that. And I think that's been a real strength for us because we do know that we're all in this to have a business, and we all need to make income and survive.

Jennifer Williams:

And we need someone who's going to install it, even though we are making the product. And so the way that usually ends up looking is either a plumber will partner with us and support us as far as along our direct buy market position. And that means, like I said, you'll have a builder who ends up warehousing product, and the plumber will just charge that builder for installation, obviously with their needed overhead. Or we will work with that builder and say, "Okay, your plumber really wants to continue holding onto this business. And we will work directly with the plumber and actually sell them the product directly." And they will warehouse and go to their builder with their plumbing package price in a standard situation. Now what that has done for the plumbing side of the industry is in markets where third party distribution or wholesale, depending on where you're from and you call it, which would be a Ferguson, [inaudible 00:05:58] supply something along those lines.

Jennifer Williams:

We have the ability to work closer with the plumber, where they're obviously seeing a ton of different people come to their counter and certain plumbers will have better relationships with different wholesalers. And so we're really able to cultivate the relationship directly with that plumbing shop or directly with that builder. And I really think when it comes to how we sell our product, that's where we shine, because we're basically in the trenches with both of them on either side of things of what's working, what's not working. We had across the board, we call it the tub apocalypse of last year unfortunately. One of our competitors went down and had a facility that couldn't supply certain tubs. And so we have the ability as a smaller company and the fact that we sell direct to really become a consultant at the end of the day and not so much a seller because we have to work through a lot of things that usually there's a middle man that a lot of other companies have to deal with. So we definitely have thrived in that capability.

Zach Williams:

It's fascinating because, well, if I'm hearing you correctly, it's not like one size fits all, like, "Okay, here's the builders we work with and we treat all plumbers the same." It's really interesting to hear you talk about it because clearly you don't want to disrupt your relationship with plumbers because you see the value they bring. I mean, frankly, they're the ones on the job site. Even if you're selling directly to a builder, that plumber has got to say, "Hey, okay, I'm okay with using your product." And so you don't want them advocating against Royal. So I want to talk about the channel relationship you have there because you're playing this interesting dance. But if we talk about targeting builders, you mentioned you've got 100 builders throughout the US that you're trying to target. Are you just leveraging existing relationships with those builders to say, "Hey, how can we sell direct in these other markets?" Or are there some unique sales strategies and marketing strategies you're employing to try to grow your footprint?

Jennifer Williams:

Well for my job specifically, it's absolutely imperative, especially if you're talking to top 100 builders that I have a relationship with the national purchasing manager. And so we start there at least with my position, but then as I referenced, every division across the country of a builder will handle their plumbing in a different manner. So basically I start with your national purchasing manager, the relationship there, and then after that is established, it is filtering down to their divisional purchasing managers to go in there and pinpoint their exact, one, product mix or need that they need for that division based on their location and then two, what challenges that they're dealing with based on the plumbing overall culture within that building community. Because I can tell you, Austin's completely different than Dallas. Dallas is completely different than Houston. Same with Texas versus Florida. Everybody's got their one thing that's really cool and needs to happen. And then you go a state over and they're like, "We don't care about that." So you really have to keep your ear to the ground on what specifically that region is focusing on, if that makes sense.

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Zach Williams:

Is there anything you're doing that's helping you get your foot in the door with a builder? If there's probably... There's those 100 builders that you're targeting, is there anything you do that you find that's unique to your business that allows you to get in with a builder maybe more quickly or works well for your organization that allows you to have those conversations? Is there anything you all do that's different?

Jennifer Williams:

So I would say that this is maybe not a Royal thing, but there's probably stuff that I do differently. Since we were established 50 plus years ago in Houston, we've been lucky enough to be super ingrained in the Texas culture, which has led to a lot of door openings. So we're very, very thankful for that. But personally LinkedIn stalking is a quite a coined term that sometimes I'm like, "This is what I do to find new builders and who I need to talk to."

Zach Williams:

Oh, I am the biggest advocate for that. I think that's awesome.

Jennifer Williams:

Some people are like, "Really?" I'm like, "Yes, sometimes you just need to do that." Especially because you'll find... If you're working with purchasing managers, it's a very tight knit community and that's across the country. That is one complete position that I can take that I can blanket the entire country under is that you will find purchasing managers all know each other, they all possibly came from a production builder and then went into a custom builder and then came back out and now they're working with another production builder or someone acquired somebody and so now they're working with each other. So it's funny, but I call it the purchasing manager family. So once you're in, you're kind of in, and let me tell you, I've said this to other people with other manufacturers, do not tarnish your name within that industry.

Jennifer Williams:

Huge, huge. Again, back to that old school, again, tight knit family mentality, it's super important to them. And that doesn't mean that you can't mess up. The reality of it is, is that in the construction world, be honest, if you're going to do something, do it. It's kind of those old school sales techniques that really, really work with this community. And I think it's because we've been building homes forever. As much as we are in an, "Antiquated industry," as far as how we do things, we're probably late to the technology game to a certain degree. There's still a real focus on community and making sure that people are doing the standup right thing. And so that's my biggest thing is just making sure that if I tell you I'm going to email you at 5:00 by the end of the day, I'm going to do it. Even if I don't have an answer that I possibly couldn't get my hands on or something, my word means a lot. And I've seen that absolutely thrive in this industry.

Zach Williams:

And you were brought in to do this very thing, you were brought in to help sell direct to builders. And so you really understand the value in those relationships. And I love what you're saying about not tarnishing that relationship. Warren Buffet, who talks about it, he's like, "If you lose me money, I'll forgive you. If you hurt my reputation, I'll never forgive you." I think that is so true for this space. Speaking of relationship, though, talk to me about what you guys are doing with your plumbers, because there's some really unique things that you all are doing from an education standpoint and seeing people come into the industry, but you were brought in to help grow this selling direct component of Royal. Frankly, how are you not just making the entire plumber industry just really upset at you? What are you doing to tout that line, to make sure that you're still growing your accounts with builders, you're capitalize opportunity there, but you're not losing out on the plumbers who are really the true people using your product?

Jennifer Williams:

Quite frankly, every region is different and I'm not going to lie to say that it's been an uphill battle. It's a tough thing because again, take the purchasing manager community and probably times that by 10 and you've got your family of plumbers. And I was lucky enough because when I first started in the home building industry and working directly with plumbers, unfortunately we have a stigma and we're seeing it now with the current culture of the people that are on the front lines don't necessarily get the credit that they deserve. And so when I first moved to Texas and was working directly with plumbers, the biggest thing that I took away was that if I invested in them as I would a friend outside of whatever I was trying to teach or the product that I was trying to sell, if I made it known that they were doing something impactful to my life, I used to always walk around and say, "If it wasn't for plumbers, we'd be a third world country," because it's the truth.

Jennifer Williams:

If we didn't have running water and a toilet and our plumbing systems didn't work the way that they did, we wouldn't be set up as a country and an infrastructure as we are in today's world. And so that's where I've really come into this position and said, "We're still going to be there for you." And so I do a lot of speaking engagements with plumbers themselves, and that might just be taking them breakfast tacos to their morning meeting and saying, "Hey, we really appreciate what you're doing." Or it could look like, especially in Texas, we've had a lot of HBA and trade initiatives to do grants and put money back into schools because we saw this trend of vocational schools just disappearing. And the reality of it is, is in today's world college degree are amazing. And that's nothing against... If you want to go to college, you should to college, but I don't think it's everybody's path.

Jennifer Williams:

And I don't think that there should be pressure if that's not your path in life. And there's a lot of amazing opportunities out there. I used to call my plumbers the secret millionaires, because these guys, a lot of people don't realize that they have thriving, thriving businesses and they've done very well for themselves. And yes, they might show up with tattered jeans and a white tee shirt, but they are supporting their families and supporting their community on a regular basis and living a great life on the weekends. So it's just I don't think the generation of kids that are in today's middle schools and high schools get to see that. And so we've definitely felt that on the home building side, you'll hear, "We can't get roofers this year," or, "It's really hard to find plumbers coming up," and the generation is aging out of being able to operate their business.

Jennifer Williams:

Because it is a demanding job. But I think if we are educating that more, that there is an option, you can go to a vocational school and come out and make just as much money as somebody who's like, "I want to get into the tech industry." And so we're working really, really hard on a local level to support those initiatives. And we've seen that again, your word is everything, take into effect in the plumbing industry as well too. And we've seen that play out really well in Florida, specifically where we balance this, yes, we're selling a ton of builders direct in Florida, and our plumbers are supporting us. And the reason that they support us is because we are on time for dropping off their tubs when they need it. We're not making their lives more difficult. And when we find that if we build that trust and we have that relationship with we're doing what we can to support them, then they're like, "We're good." Because we're all making money, everybody's happy.

Zach Williams:

You're not getting a lot of pushback. One of the questions I had is are you getting a lot of plumbers who are like, "Hey, what in the world are you doing?"

Jennifer Williams:

Oh, a ton.

Zach Williams:

Oh you do? So you still get that? You still get those people that like, "I don't like what you're doing."

Jennifer Williams:

Oh, all day every day.

Zach Williams:

Okay, clearly you're trying to help them still. I like what you're saying about just living by your word, doing what you say you're going to do. How do you respond to those plumbers that are like, "You need to stop doing this, it's upsetting me." For lack of better term, what are you doing to respond to them?

Jennifer Williams:

Well I won't name names, but I'll walk you through a certain situation that just came up in one of our regions is that we have a plumber that I would say outright owns that market. And I flew up there and I sat down with them and I said, "Listen, I am so impressed with what you're doing in this market. And we're not going to sell your builders direct. If that's not what you want, but we will sell you directly. And we will develop that relationship with you first." Obviously we're in the slow roll, slow game type of things. I am not there to say, "We only sell direct and you have to do this for us, and you have to support us, and you have install our product. Your builder is telling you that this is what you need to do."

Jennifer Williams:

I'm not going to do that. I think it's really, really important that, especially in my position, I realize that we are one of the only manufacturers in the plumbing industry doing this. So my job is not to bulldoze over everybody. And I think there's a lot of respect. And I understand why it's such a personal thing when you've developed a business that has a reputation and obviously is serving your community to such a high standard that if a company doesn't respect that, then I will never win with you.

Zach Williams:

I like that.

Jennifer Williams:

So I look at the fact that it's just certain markets that it happens across the country and certain markets, plumbers and certain businesses have just created that really close bond with their community. And so we as a company have to say, "Okay, we need to support you and we will sell you direct and you can use our product to sell to your builders then." So it's definitely a balance and we've definitely made our mistakes for sure, because obviously I've been with the company only for two years. And so it's definitely been just a learning process. We've been selling direct for 20 plus years. And I think the only reason we were able to do that was because we were one of the only manufacturers who was manufacturing cultured marble in Texas. So it gave us that cross-product mix where we had to have a relationship with the builder because that's a countertop product. But then we also were selling acrylic tubs and we had to have the relationship with the plumber.

Jennifer Williams:

And so it was this, we were in both worlds and then we were able to slow roll it, but obviously it's been going on for a while and we 100% are not even close to selling everybody direct. We just like to say that we have options. We're one of the only manufacturers that has options. So it's like we can go to a builder and say, "You can buy it from us direct, but great. If it doesn't work, we can also sell your plumber direct." I think a lot of manufacturers make the mistake of trying to back people into a corner to make a decision almost to a certain degree where it's just like, "Well, this is how we do business. And this is your only option." And I feel lucky enough to have at least two options to offer our clients.

Zach Williams:

That's really smart. So for the manufacturers who are listening to this show, Jennifer, what advice would you give them? If they're considering selling direct, whether it's to builders or somebody else in their channel, what advice would you share with them to say, "Hey, this is what you got to think about before you cross that chasm," if you will?

Jennifer Williams:

I think you need to approach it completely as a all options are on the table discussion. Having the conversation, yes. Because right now, I'm picturing every manufacturer, it's ears are perking up right now because I think ultimately it's like, if you can cut out an in between, then you're seeing dollar signs and money and that's just the nature of business. The biggest thing is coming to mind right now is don't jump the gun. I think a lot of people make the mistake of like, "Oh, that's a great idea." And they don't think strategically down where that path could take them. And then especially in the construction industry, if you're not thinking about that, that's the biggest way to put your foot in your mouth.

Zach Williams:

Oh for sure. Well I think it's a great response and great insight because you mentioned this just a minute ago, but you all almost started that way because of the product you were selling. I think a lot of people liked the idea of selling direct. And I was talking to somebody, I don't know if you go to the Builder's Show, for example, they want to sell direct, but they're like, "We can't cut out our dealers, they're too important to our business," and they just know what's important to their business. They understand what works for them. And I like that advice is saying, "Yes, there might be opportunity there, but don't get ahead of yourself." Look at the big picture and play that out.

Jennifer Williams:

And that's the biggest thing. So back to the word. I can't stress that enough. Your word in the construction industry is so valuable. I don't think that's the same way in other industries, quite frankly at all. And so even in my position, when I go to, let's say, think about doing business in a brand new market, there's a lot that goes in on the backend of what we're doing before we will even go schedule meetings there. And I think a lot of people unfortunately, especially in sales to a certain degree, are more eager to just get those meetings and get them scheduled and get the discussions going. And they're not doing the backend type stuff where you need to take a step back and say, "Okay, well, if this deal does go through, or this opportunity does arise, what does that look like for the company as far as product and shipping and the trades that are involved?" So there's a lot of levels that need to be thought in before you even go and talk to that purchasing manager.

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Zach Williams:

Yeah, that's great advice, Jennifer, thank you so much for coming on the show. If someone wants to connect with you, what's the best way for them to do that?

Jennifer Williams:

Right now, the best way that you can do that is was check me out on LinkedIn. Unfortunately, my name is very common, Jennifer Williams. I don't know if you could put this in the meeting notes, but feel free to link my profile there. Send me a message, I'd be happy to return anything. And then from there, I'd be happy to share my work email and work phone number.

Zach Williams:

That's excellent. Yeah, we'll definitely make sure we link to that in the show notes. Jennifer, thank you again for coming on the show. And for our listeners out there, if you want more great content like this, go to venveo.com/podcast, until next time I'm Zach Williams. Thanks everybody.

Jennifer Williams:

Thanks Zach.

Voiceover:

You've been listening to Smarter Building Materials Marketing with Zach Williams and Beth PopNikolov. To get the resources mentioned in this podcast, visit venveo.com/podcast. Thank you for listening.

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