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New remote working conditions and an inability to meet with clients face-to-face during the pandemic force distributor sales personnel to get creative

Dan Korthauer vice president, sales & marketing, Gordon Electric Supply
Rocky Kuchenmeister general manager, K/E Electric Supply
Brandi Seich director of marketing, Loeb Electric
Wes Smith president, Mayer
Kevin Sweeney vice president of sales, Kovalsky-Carr Electric Supply
Todd Woodlief vice president, sales & business development, Womack Electric Supply

IMARK Electrical Now: What was the biggest challenge your company’s sales personnel faced during the public health crisis and business upheaval? Were there any big surprises?

Todd Woodlief, Womack Electric Supply (Danville, Virginia): The main challenge our sales personnel faced was adapting to a different type of sales call. While our sales team was accustomed to interacting with our customers in person, our account managers now heavily rely upon telephone and email connections as well as virtual meeting services such as Zoom, Webex and Skype. Presenting proposals, product options and service offerings in this manner requires a very structured and welldefined sales process that effectively showcases the features, benefits and value of a particular solution. We have been pleasantly surprised to see how quickly our account managers melded virtual sales processes with personalized customer care. Within a very short time, our account managers made the necessary adjustments to work and stay virtually engaged with customers while still providing the personalized service that our customers expect and deserve.

Brandi Seich, Loeb Electric (Columbus, Ohio): The biggest challenge faced by our sales team has been the inability to engage face-to-face, meet with others who are onsite at the same time and build rapport across the team while discussing any new opportunities or challenges they have (which we can help to rectify). Even though technology has enabled our teams to have virtual face-to-face meetings, most of our customers have preferred phone and email over the use of that technology. The biggest surprise has been how well our team has transitioned to working from home. They had the tools to continue to be successful and have adapted quite well given the challenges we all face.

Dan Korthauer, Gordon Electric Supply (Kankakee, Illinois): I feel that our salespeople have been challenged by the loss of personal contact with their customers. The shelter-in-place orders restricted their ability to visit current accounts and, more importantly, prospect new accounts.

Rocky Kuchenmeister, K/E Electric Supply (Mt. Clemens, Michigan): Our sales team has changed the most out of all of our departments at K/E Electric. They have adapted at an accelerated rate and took leaps in the evolution of the sales process. Our industry is very traditional in how we approach sales, so a positive outcome from this challenge has been updating how we approach our customers and our relationship to them.

Wes Smith, Mayer (Birmingham, Alabama): Among the multiple challenges we have faced included pivoting to remote working, bidding and communicating. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, GoToMeeting and other digital mediums have worked well for us. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was initially difficult to obtain and implement consistently; going from nothing to face masks and face shields for all customer interactions was initially culturally difficult. However, probably the biggest challenge has been prospecting or finding new customers. We have used our digital marketing tools here versus cold visits, with marginal results at best. When you’re asking someone to take a chance on you and try you out, it’s usually a personal endeavor. Digital mediums are good for existing business, but more difficult in a B2B conversion opportunity.

Kevin Sweeney, Kovalsky-Carr Electric Supply (Rochester, New York): Most of our customers are contractors that we’ve been dealing with for many years and our salesmen would rarely go a week without seeing them, so it’s forced us to get creative to maintain daily contact. The biggest surprise has been how slowly the re-start has been in New York State and it appears that we are still a long way from returning to our prior ways of doing business.

IMARK Electrical Now: Please share an example of new customer behaviors or demands arising from the crisis as well as an adjustment your company has made that may evolve into a standard sales/service offering.

Seich: Our sales teams found that the expectation for a reply right away escalated even more during the pandemic. This has led to an even higher level of communication with our manufacturer partners to ensure that there are no delays in the supply chain that could negatively impact our customers’ projects. We also have several jobsites and customer offices which are still inaccessible, including some high-profile jobs. Those that have opened back up are requiring a detailed sign-in process, including waiver completion and temperature-taking and many are requiring modified delivery procedures. To provide the safest in-store experience for our customers and associates, we launched curbside pick-up a few months ago. This was something that had been on our to-do list for quite some time but had not been prioritized until this pandemic. We quickly put our plan in place and communicated out to customers; they were very appreciative of the service, which we now plan to continue offering them as an option.

Woodlief: Overall, we have seen customers now examining how effectively their time is being spent and more of our larger customers changing the way they’re engaging with electrical distributors’ sales associates. Specifically, they are requiring distributor sales associates to schedule appointments with their personnel and have a mutually beneficial purpose for wanting to meet. They also expect our reps to refrain from going office to office to see others after their meeting. As part of our response to COVID-19, we enacted a curbside pick-up service to complement our existing online ordering service. The small and medium-sized contractors that utilized our branches for their daily purchases immediately saw the value this new service brought to their company. Based on positive customer feedback, we’ll continue to offer this curbside service and expand upon it to offer other value-added services.

"The biggest lesson [learned from the pandemic] is how the nature of work will change. We’re reimaging inside and outside sales, counter, corporate office and service staff/support functions and will require less real estate in the future."

Wes Smith, president, Mayer

Kuchenmeister: Before the pandemic, we were updating our technology for our inside and outside sales staff. Thankfully, we were prepared from a technological perspective. We quickly implemented a remote-work policy to keep the staff that could work from home integrated in the daily company routine, which also meant keeping our customers connected to the sales staff working from home. For nearly two months, we offered curbside and delivery service only. This was a huge change to the dynamics of our customer interactions. Many of our customers liked the service and plan to continue using it long after the pandemic. Lastly, online ordering accelerated during that time. Those already buying from us before the stay-at-home order purchased more often from our website, while some customers tried our website for the first time this spring.

Korthauer: We are finding that curbside pick-up has been very well received by many of our contractors and that most owners prefer this method of service.

Smith: We have found remote digital conferencing to be a more-than-effective medium without all of the necessary travel and are now reimagining the business around the things that actually require physical presence. Our historic mindset was that we must see people to be effective, but the fact is that many things don’t require physical presence. I’ve personally participated in hundreds of digital interactions. In most cases, the outcomes were as good, if not better, than in-person interactions and we can save time and money involved in preparing to travel, traveling, staying in a hotel, dining, etc. As a result, I think that digital interactions will accelerate. In addition, call-ahead curbside service will continue well after the pandemic because it is convenient to order ahead and “roll by” for pick-up.

Sweeney: Most of our customers have gone to Zoom or Skype for all project meetings and we’ve found this medium to be more effective in many cases. The meetings tend to start and end on schedule and most participants are better prepared. It also allows us to bring together more participants and usually results in decisions being made while on the call. We also find it easier to document the results of the meeting since most participants are at their desks and have access to project information. We plan to continue with this type of communication for most of our project meetings in the future.

"While most of our sales staff is now back in the office, we have incorporated many new and more efficient ways to communicate with our vendors, customers and each other."

Kevin Sweeney, vice president of sales, Kovalsky-Carr Electric Supply

IMARK Electrical Now: What’s the biggest lesson that you, your company and/or the electrical distribution industry learned during the COVID-19 crisis?

Sweeney: The lesson I learned is that we are better prepared to do business remotely than expected. The steps we have taken over the past 10 years to improve our procedures and technology have allowed us to quickly adjust to an unexpected situation. Our people have made the difference by sharing their skills with others on their team and allowing us to move most of our office staff to work from home in a matter of a few days. While most of our sales staff is now back in the office, we have incorporated many new and more efficient ways to communicate with our vendors, customers and each other.

Korthauer: The biggest lessons we took away involved preparedness around having our staff work offsite and establishing safe social distancing throughout our workplace to prevent illness.

Seich: This pandemic reminded all of us that we are not in control of everything and no matter how much we plan, a crisis could hit at any moment, requiring us to be prepared to adjust accordingly. It was incredible to watch the collaboration across our business functions, the efficient and effective deployment of technology and equipment to team members, the safety precautions implemented and the compassion and empathy that was demonstrated for our associates and customers. We all remained focused on our mission to be “essential in their success.”

Kuchenmeister: What we took away is that our company, our industry and our country are extremely resilient. As divided a nation as we are, in a crisis we will pull together for the sake of our families and community.

Woodlief: One of the biggest lessons that we have taken away from this crisis is that we must be able to quickly adapt to change. We often get complacent with what we do and how we do it. The pandemic has taught us that waiting too long to change can have a major impact on business. As a firm that provides services to customers who are essential businesses, we owe it to them to have well thought-out, updated, strategic emergency business plans in place to seamlessly provide them with continuity of service during uncertain times.

Smith: The biggest lesson is how the nature of work will change. We are reimaging inside and outside sales, counter, corporate office and service staff/support functions and will require less real estate in the future. The implications for the commercial part of the business will be significant as well. For example, if there is less need for office space and office space construction is a significant portion of your business, you need to replace that with other business, which may require a retraining and redeployment of your resources.