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Making the Most of Distributor Relations (Conclusion)

Businesses adapt to meet customers where they are

CHICAGO — To quote retired American Coin-Op columnist Howard Scott, the business relationship that a self-service laundry owner has with his or her main laundry distributor is vital to their success. Besides the obvious benefit of being a reliable source for equipment and parts, full-service distributors may counsel owners on matters such as store site selection, demographics, lease negotiations, financing and much more.

Of course, it’s up to the laundry business owner to decide how deeply they want this relationship to go. They can limit the connection to just the “nuts and bolts,” using the distributor only when they need to buy parts or supplies. Or, they can forge a more personal bond, even acquainting the distributor with aspects of their business plan and overall vision.

ADAPTING IN A COVID WORLD

When the coronavirus pandemic was declared in early 2020, how many of us would have suspected that nearly a year later, we’d still be asked to wear masks indoors and stay at least 6 feet away from others to prevent spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.

And so, commercial laundry distributors have adapted.

“It has caused every business to adapt their operations,” says Melissa Roberts, who works in sales for Southern Automatic Machinery Co. (SAMCO), based in Georgia. “We are asking customers to call in parts orders and pick them up at our dock to minimize people in the building. Our crews are wearing masks and keeping their distance as best as possible.”

“Yankee has worked very hard to make sure we do not dilute the experiences we give to customers when they are asking for our service, support or advice,” says Brendan Ristaino, sales manager for Yankee Equipment, based in New Hampshire. “We still want to meet with them in a safe manner. Not only do we follow all proper safety protocols, we strive to help store owners implement best practices in their Laundromats to make it a safer place for patrons.”

“Not only are we not visiting customers and potential customers without an appointment these days, we have had to make some operational changes,” says Steve Michalec, sales manager for vended laundry, The M&L Equipment Co., based in Ohio.

This includes allowing employees to work remotely, staggering remote and in-office shifts to limit interactions and space-sharing with co-workers, and upgrading all non-sales employees from desktops to laptops with VOIP phones so they have what they need when working remotely, he adds.

“Other than the obvious mask wearing and social distancing, it has been business as usual,” says Mike Enz, an account manager for Ohio-based distributor Laundry One. “When the pandemic first started, we found our business slow due to the fact no one was leaving their homes, but once things started to open back up, business rebounded. We have had to be flexible with our installation and service schedule due to customer and employee quarantines.”

“We adapted by doing the virtual seminars, more direct marketing,” says Craig Dakauskas, president/CEO of Florida-based CLEC. “Zoom and GoToMeetings took place more frequently. We also shifted to offering virtual service calls to assist with diagnosing service issues and, obviously, adopted all CDC recommendations for face coverings, etc., on calls and service visits.”

EVENT PLANNING TAKES A TURN

Distributors frequently plan and present annual or semiannual events like open houses, service schools or special sales to draw customers and prospects. Because of the pandemic, some companies postponed or discontinued in-person events while others made accommodations so they could continue in a safe fashion.

“We plan to get back to our open house in October 2021, assuming everyone is comfortable in traveling and gathering at that point,” says SAMCO’s Roberts. “We invite as many customers as possible and offer a catered lunch. We like to have fun and learn while we are doing it. There should be some exciting new things on the market by October.”

Gold Coin Laundry Equipment continued to host its annual open house last October but with some changes, explains Douglas Pratt, president of the Queen, N.Y.-based distributor: “We offered great discounts in parts and equipment but it was by appointment only. Walk-ins were permitted if social distancing space allowed and appointment slots were open at that time. 2020 was a five-day event; we are planning on this year’s show being three days in late September or mid-October.”

“We will be offering a bunch of webinars that will include service schools and other topics helpful for Laundromat owners,” says Brad Steinberg, co-president of California-based PWS – The Laundry Co.

“We do not think it is prudent to (host an in-person event) during the pandemic,” Michalec says. “We haven’t conducted an open house or service school in a few years as we find physical visits to coin laundries as a better way to directly connect with store owners.”

IN CLOSING

Like any relationship, there is risk involved. Extend yourself too much and you may get burned. Play things too close to the chest and you may miss profitable opportunities.

“There are dealers out there that pretend to be distributors, but they don’t offer the same services in the long run,” Dakauskas warns, “so understanding the difference is one of the first decisions that has to be made.”

“The biggest mistake prospective Laundromat owners make is trying to do too much of the work themselves,” believes Karl Hinrichs, president of New York-based HK Laundry Equipment. “In this case, the ‘jack of all trades’ is his own worst enemy. It is much better to know nothing and rely on the professionals than to try to build the store yourself.”

“A good distributor is worth their weight in gold,” says SAMCO’s Roberts. “The distributor-owner relationship is one that will last a long time if nurtured and maintained.”

“In this day of distancing, box stores and avatars, our customers state it’s nice to put a name and face with the people you are doing business with,” says Andy Wray, sales manager for California-based ACE Commercial Laundry Equipment.

“It is very important to research and select a distributor that has experience in the industry, but I think the most important role of the distributor is to be your friend and adviser,” M&L’s Michalec says. “You need someone looking out for your best interests who is not afraid to tell you your idea isn’t a good one.”

“It is important that your customer understands that it is not just a single sale,” says Laundry One’s Enz. “Your relationship with a customer is a journey that continues to grow in both friendship and trust.”

Miss Part 1? You can read it HERE.