Making it easy to do business with you is crucial, but it’s often difficult to make happen. Find out how one company is working hard to make business easy.
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The Smarter Building Materials Marketing podcast helps industry professionals find better ways to grow leads, sales and outperform the competition. It’s designed to give insight on how to create a results-driven digital marketing strategy for companies of any size.
In this episode, Zach and Beth talk to Jim Perrault from Pella of Colorado, who shares great insight into understanding every player in the channel's problems, frustrations and friction points, and how you can help make your customer experience even better.
The Only Constant is Change
Jim’s been in the window and door business for two decades. As he sees it, the changes in the industry have been fast and furious: “Certainly, the technology that's used in building products is fabulous and even for something as simple as glass.”
From low-E glass to environmentally-friendly wood treatments and expanded warranties on wood products, the offerings in the segment have innovated over and over.
The biggest change that Jim sees in the industry as a whole is consolidation, particularly from a sales standpoint, leaving the best of the best to rise to the top. “The average sales professional is far more refined and far more professional than probably when I first began,” Jim says.
There's an upside and downside to that. Jim thinks the 2008 recession weeded out a lot of salespeople who wanted to be glorified order takers, leaving those who really are dedicated to the skilled trade of being a salesperson.
As for what he sees coming, Jim says, “The building industry has always been a relationship game. But what I see now is that the builders and contractors, they don't want just a supplier anymore. They need much more of a turnkey solution.”
Customers don’t just want someone who can sell them a product: They want it installed and for the same player to manage post-install services right down to installing hardware and screens and cleaning glass.
A Good Partner is an Easy One
Zach has seen this in more than just windows and doors. “We talk a lot about that, Jim, especially from a digital standpoint. How can we reduce friction for our audience in the research or selection process? The term we use is friction or ease of use.”
Finding opportunities to reduce this friction is a great differentiator, especially as builders scale up and look for ways to manage overhead. As Jim puts it, “The more that can be taken off their plate by their suppliers and vendors, the more streamlined it is for them. You have to be easy to do business with and there's a lot to that.”
Being an easy business partner isn’t just about having friendly sales staff or reliable distribution networks. It comes down to the minutiae of processes like how your company accepts payment. The era of sending an invoice and waiting for the check to come in the mail is over.
“That's not ‘easy to do’ business. Customers need to be able to receive an email with a nice link on there that they can click. It takes them right to a paysite, and they can do it with PayPal or right from their debit card,” Jim says.
While many businesses might think stepping up their game means improving layout, improving inventory or decreasing lead times, if those aren’t coupled with easy steps through the whole transaction, they’ll lose out. As Jim puts it, “I'd rather deal with someone with a crappy store and an easy payment link.”
The Easiest Way to be Easy
Don’t know how to be that trusted partner? Jim has one easy tip: ask.
“I encourage my sales reps, when they’re after a prospect, to ask the question, ‘Why do you do business with this person?’ Is it just a relationship or did they do something different?”
And building that understanding goes beyond which products they might want to buy. He recommends going as far into the business’s operations as you can, including asking questions about things like cashflow.
“If you sit down and say, ‘Hey, help me understand your cashflow. Is there a day of the month that works for you?’” A small business owner can have their payment set so that it doesn't come on the same day as their mortgage and car payment and other credit cards. Questions like that make a relationship that much deeper.
Customers want to work with partners who care about their business. As Zach says, “People don't care about you. They really don't. They don't lose sleep about your product. They lose sleep about their cashflow. The contractor wants to know where's this next job coming from?”
In order for you to stay ahead and to survive and continue to win in building products, manufacturers really need to understand the drivers for the people on the front lines who actually do the work. Once you do, you can deliver value and provide ease in those scenarios.
Navigating Marketing and Growth
Beth wants to know, as Jim and Pella of Colorado are working to make things easy for their clients, if there’s anything that’s working well for them from a marketing standpoint?
Jim admits they haven’t been great at marketing to the trades. “We've dabbled in some of the obvious ones of LinkedIn and Facebook and Instagram, and those are important and they really do work. But what we're heading towards now is a real rebuild of all of our websites so that we have bios and project examples and customer testimonials.”
He says their current strategies involve a lot of focus on digital marketing, and moving away from more traditional channels like print. Modern customers want information provided upfront so they can do their own research and often make their own decisions before they ever speak to a live person.
He says this is especially important as the market continues to consolidate and companies grow through acquisition.
“Consolidating is a great move, no doubt about it, but I don't think they always have their channel figured out really thoroughly. Just because XYZ manufacturer sold through this national lumber company for the past 10, 15, 20 years doesn't particularly mean it's the right thing for you to be doing.”
Consolidation insulates businesses from changes in the market and the economy. If one thing drops off, another can pick up. “So it’s a wise business decision, especially if you can get these companies that are currently struggling because they haven't made good channel decisions.”
But Jim adds that trying to figure out a channel strategy after the acquisition is finished, rather than before, is often a big mistake.
He cites companies who are selling directly into the home as doing a great job with their channel strategies: “The Window Worlds, the Renewal by Anderson, the Pella retail segment, they all do a really good job with those segments.”
Not to say they’re all going about it the same way. “The way that they generate their leads, the way that they handle their marketing, they all do it quite differently. Some of them look at the top of funnel leads. Some of them look at the bottom of funnel leads.” So while each one approaches marketing differently, by having a strong channel strategy in place, they’re finding success.
Facing Current Labor Challenges
Jim’s got a lot of great industry insight, but Zach wants some personal insight as well.
“Jim, if I could ask you a pointed question here, you're a general manager, you run a P and L. You have a very close pulse on cash flow and sales. What keeps you up at night? What are the things that concern you?”
Perhaps surprisingly, the answer isn’t product or cashflow.
“Really the one thing that probably has me up the most is hiring and retaining talent. It's really, really tough for everyone right now and it can be a very expensive problem,” says Jim.
The building materials industry has a very high onboarding cost. Jim says, “When I bring someone on, I know that it’s going to be a couple to three years on average before they're really producing well and really helping the company's bottom line.”
In Colorado, with unemployment in the mid 2% range, and the cost of living being very high, companies like Pella are taking on people that, perhaps in the past, they wouldn't have considered — often new graduates with no prior work experience.
Jim doesn’t see this as a detriment though: “Actually, those are my favorite because you can bring them in and teach them your way and your processes. I really love them, but what we're having to pay to bring those people in the door is a lot more than I made when I first broke into this industry.”
He says the trick is to set expectations and support upfront. “I've gotten much better at setting very realistic expectations and giving actual examples of how other people have progressed. Some people just come in and they're rock stars in their first year, but we all know that that is the rare thing. Otherwise, you have to understand there's going to be this ramp-up period.”
Clarity around income and bonuses is key in attracting talent and retaining it. Buy-in to a career only works if both sides—both the employer and employee—are on board.
Beth wants to know about those all-important millennial players in the industry. “Millennials are getting ready to flood the market and be in much stronger decision making positions as the Baby Boomers age out. And typically millennials who are in this industry have inherited it from their family.”
With companies like Pella hiring people straight out of college, it's not necessarily in their family.
“What are you seeing that they're bringing to the table? Where are they shaking things up and where are they just like wanting to pull their hair out?” Beth asks.
Jim sees the good first. “We are getting a higher caliber of sales personalities,” he says. “You're getting people with marketing degrees and business degrees and that sort of thing. When I first started selling in the industry in 1997 there weren't a lot of people with degrees.”
Instead of learning on the go, these college graduates bring a solid understanding of business and marketing. “They present themselves in a very professional way so that really all that we need to do is get them on board with what the conversations are that they need to have.”
He also likes how tech-savvy the current generation is. “When you go ahead and say, put this on your calendar, check the scheduling assistant, make sure that you're not overlapping, they don't blink.”
Advancing Customer Relationships With Technology
Beth asks, “Is there a way that you've seen technology also invade your customer relationships? Obviously CRMs are important, but is there an expectation from your customer for a technology that didn't use to be there?”
More and more customers are expecting technology integrated into their buying experience. Jim says, “Pella just released their ProConnect app. Customers put it on their own cell phone and, at any point in time, they can go on and look at, ‘Hey, when is this prop coming into our warehouse? Is it scheduled to be delivered to them?’”
He continues, “In this day and age, that seems like a no brainer. You know, why wouldn't you have something where they could just pop onto their phone and check that rather than have to call their rep or call into our logistics department and get that information?”
With e-commerce giants like Amazon giving nearly real-time delivery and tracking data, right down to where an order has been delivered on a homeowner’s front porch, building materials companies need to keep up with evolving customer expectations.
Got a Question?
Get in touch with Jim on LinkedIn.
If you have questions about how to make your company easier to do business with, let us know! Shoot us an email at [email protected] with all of your questions.
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