If every HVACR wholesale distributor says their service sets them apart, then are they really that different from one another? It's a fair question to ask, and the management team at Boles Supply spent a good deal of time last year trying to come up with an answer.

They realized that words are easy. What's difficult is the doing. So Boles Supply decided to take service and everything associated with it to a new level. To be sure, Boles Supply has always stood by their service — in fact, it's what has driven their growth in North Carolina during the past three decades. But now they are bringing something different to the business to ensure its customers that they will be there for them before, during and after the transaction.

“We've come up with some pretty interesting things to make our service different from anybody else,” says Dan Copeland, Boles Supply vice president of operations. He and two members of the Boles Supply management locked themselves in a room to develop a new and different way they could truly set themselves apart. “We said let's look at this and bring a unique and different view to how a supply house is run. Let's think about what we do best and let's look at how our customers would want us to run our business.”

For Boles Supply, this strategy begins with having all of the products that a customer wants in stock and sold at a fair price. “Most of the time, our customers are not overly price sensitive, but they want a fair price — a price that they consider a fair market value for what we sell,” Copeland says.

Then, they want to ensure that customers have their questions answered — whether they come into one of the four Boles Supply locations or they get a delivery. That meant transforming their counter people and delivery drivers into extensions of their outside sales team. “We've fine-tuned these interactions to build relationships between them and our customer base,” Copeland says. “These are some pretty unique things on service that separate ourselves from the competition, so our customers see a difference instead of hearing us just say it.”

The final piece is what happens after the sale. Copeland says this is a critical, yet often forgotten, part of the relationship. Too many customers feel abandoned after the sale — a feeling that they've bought it and now they're on their own. With Boles Supply, customers now have the freedom to bring back any products at the full value for a limited time if they or their end-user customer is not 100 percent satisfied. It doesn't matter if the product works perfectly well. If the customer is not satisfied, Boles Supply will take it back.

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This approach builds loyalty by providing customers with the right information at the right time. But it's also a way to hear directly from their customers about what they're seeing and experiencing in their day-to-day jobs. “We'll take that information and start talking about it,” Reilly says. “A lot of our market research comes from this.”

Reilly says EWC Controls is committed to the two-step distribution process. It directs all of its marketing efforts to wholesalers and contractors. The company plays an active role at regional industry meetings as a way to stay in touch with its customers and hear the issues that are on their minds.

Like all manufacturers, EWC Controls wants to make sure that its wholesaler customers are stocking enough product and that they are doing a thorough job educating their distributors and contractors on its products. As a small manufacturer, however, EWC Controls has the ability to work more closely with its customers to address the wholesalers' issues. For example, EWC Controls offers a number of programs for wholesalers so that there's little risk in placing orders. These include programs like rebalancing, guaranteed sales and buybacks. “We try to make it as easy as possible to do business with us,” Reilly says. “It's easy and risk free.”

Reilly understands the pressures that wholesale distributors face as margins continue to shrink. One trend that he says could catch on among wholesalers is providing more front office services to their contractor customers. Not only does this provide a value-add to the customer, but it creates stronger ties with one another. These would include such services as invoicing, marketing and perhaps even collections. “The wholesalers are going to need to start providing more services to their customers, and it's not just product services,” he says. “I think if the wholesaler can provide that for the contractors, the contractors will get locked in because of that service.”

Producing its products at its New Jersey facility and sourcing as many of its supplies as possible from the local area helps to ensure that products are high quality and are shipped by the following day. Reilly says EWC Controls has firsthand experience about products they produced overseas. Its power transmission business once operated plants in Haiti, Mexico and Taiwan so production would be cheaper and reach locations faster. They shut down the operations because of quality issues and brought the work back stateside, Reilly says.

Producing its goods at home is more in keeping with the company's overall philosophy and ensures that customers will be satisfied with every aspect of EWC Controls. “We want to make sure that we do everything we possibly can to not lose a customer,” Reilly says. “We want to give them a product that they can go out and sell and provide them with the best customer and technical service. We have the ability to react quickly and do things that some of the bigger guys can't do.”


Michael Maynard is a business writer based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at michael.maynard@lycos.com.