Volume 12, Issue 2 - March 2011


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.

"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."

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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