30 INDUSTRIAL DISTRIBUTION / November/December 2014 www.inddist.com
At Your Service
Learn the evolving state of customer service for independent distributors and how they are adapting
BY MIKE HOCKETT
In his 36 years working for industrial suppliers, David Barcomb has seen both ends of the distribution spectrum. He spent the first 25 years at Applied Industrial Technologies,
working his way from warehouse/driver in 1978 up to regional
manager by the time he left the company in 2003. Since then he’s
been the general manager of Troy Industrial Solutions (formerly
Troy Belting) in Watervliet, NY.
Troy has a client base of 3,000 and made $18 million in revenue
this past fiscal year, while Applied has more than 500 locations
and earned $2.5 billion last year, coming in at No. 13 on Industrial
Distribution’s 2014 Big 50 list.
Comparing customer service between two such companies, the
term itself doesn’t appear to be uniform along the scale from
large companies to small.
“I’ve sat on both sides. The definition of customer service – how
big box service is versus that of independents – I think it’s a lot
different,” said Barcomb, a board member of IDC-USA and CEN
Manufacturing. “For many independents, a lot of us are doing the
actual install and work on-site. We’ve evolved into maintenance
support, and physical labor services to help with profitability. The
Importance for Independents
Customer service is unquestionably a high priority for any supplier,
regardless of size. Due to independents’ hands-on, face-to-face
nature, it’s an especially crucial element for them.
Jeff Haggard is the Vice President of Haggard & Stocking, which
has six locations and is the largest privately held industrial distributor in Indiana. Servicing the aerospace, automotive, foundry,
transportation, machine tool, and fabrication markets, the company maintains an inventory of approximately 20,000 items. Haggard
insists customer service is what differentiates independents from
each other, and their larger competitors.
“It’s what we build our reputation on,” Haggard says. “At the
end of the day, our customer can get what they want from any-
one, so we have to set ourselves apart. When you get to the larger
competitors, there’s a little bit of disconnect from the shop floor
to the distribution center. I tell my guys, we have to make sure we
know the product and how it works.”
That hands-on approach also is evident at Florence, AL-based
Martin Industrial Supply. According to vice president of sales
and marketing Bill Redding, Martin has recently ramped up the
amount of actual face-to-face time between customer service
personnel and customers.
“We spend time each week sending representatives out inter-
acting with customers,” he says. “It builds that relationship. That
differentiates us a little more from everyone else in that we invest
the time to send them out. When I got here, one of the issues was
that we spent so much time on the phone.”
The advantage for the independent supplier when it comes to
customer service is flexibility. In an age where market data is now
immediately available, smaller distributors are often more adept
at making necessary changes to their product lines, or just the way
business is done, with less hassle than those with 100+ locations.
“Overall, I think customer service is just as important to the
large distributors. The small ones need to be able to compete with
them,” says Bob Linderman, director of strategic accounts for Industrial Buyers Consortium (IBC), a buying group comprised of independent distributors and their suppliers. “They have to be nimble,
adapt to changes. The advantage to the small companies is they can
have that nimbleness and not have to go through a lot of red tape.
“It’s really about being flexible, especially when it comes to
invoicing. The larger ones are outsourcing it to third parties. You
need to have the reporting and capabilities to react to that. That’s
key for small independents.”
Websites & Technology
Today, customer service often starts with the company website.
Industrial customers aren’t satisfied with just any basic website
anymore; they’re looking for a sharp, user-friendly one that connects them with what they need.
For Troy Industrial Supply’s website, it’s all about the personal
connection. Troy includes a link to the entire company directory,
including phone extensions and emails. Barcomb said it’s the most
visited page of the website. Additionally, Troy’s resources tab
includes links to training sessions, tech tips, and video.
“I think we’ve certainly made an effort to invest marketing into
technology,” Barcomb said. “Our website has been refreshed a
couple times. We don’t thump our chest about how great we are.
It’s not about Troy, it’s about the customer. I think we’ve geared
the website to helping.”
An interesting feature of Haggard & Stocking’s website is
its blog section, where department heads share best practices,
company news and awards, and personal motivational stories.
The company started blogging at the beginning of 2009 and have
been posting regularly since.
“We’ve had very positive feedback,” Haggard says. “I like the
personal touch stories about how we’re all a part of providing