Distributor Viewpoint

During a recent conversation with an industry friend, he mentioned that locksmiths were going to Home Depot early in the morning to pick up supplies for jobs. He began to question what the role of the locksmith distributor in the future would be. I can’t imagine the locksmith community surviving without the help of distributors. Can you?

This is important to me since I’m employed as an outside sales person for IDN Hardware Sales. I’ve worked for lock distributors since 1993 and personally have never felt threatened by the possibility that we wouldn’t be needed during my lifetime. Once in a while we hear rumors that certain manufacturers are looking to go direct to the security professional and maybe even to the end user but this doesn’t make sense to me. I say this because locksmiths have very close and personal relationships with their suppliers. We speak with our customers on a regular basis, sometimes as often as five or six times per day! We are dependant on each other and this dependence goes both ways. Without the locksmith, the supplier has no customer base and without the supplier, the locksmith has a tough time getting what he needs.

When you’re the supplier, it’s not as simple as taking an order on the phone or over the counter. Not all callers know what they want; sometimes they do but have no part number. It’s typically our job to translate what’s being asked for into a part number that results in them getting what they need. I’ve had people who call themselves locksmiths ask for a knife when they mean a cutter for a key machine. I don’t want to list every item that has been described inaccurately by customers; my point here is that communication is the key, no pun intended, and we as suppliers are responsible for making sure we understand what’s needed by our customers.

As a salesperson I’d love to have everything on our shelves and of course I realize that’s neither possible nor a good idea. I hate saying, “we don’t have it” to a customer and will always try to get it elsewhere if it’s not in our inventory. But there are times we have to say, “Sorry, we can’t help with this item.”

So why does the locksmith call the supplier he calls? For the most part I believe it’s out of habit. We are creatures of habit and tend to take the path of least resistance whenever possible. Locksmiths are busy people and need to spend as little time as possible explaining what they need along with negotiating the time it will take and the price they will pay to get their supplies. There’s always a list of speed dial numbers visible by one of the phones in a lock shop and the distributor who’s called is the one that will provide that path of least resistance. When that choice doesn’t have what they need, then they move down the list. Some of the suppliers on these lists have been doing business with the locksmith for many years and in some cases, two or three generations. That’s quite a habit to break!

If you’re the sales person trying to do business with a locksmith who hasn’t used you yet, it could be quite an uphill battle. Showing up once in a while and hoping for an order could feel like playing the lottery and it’s not fun. Hopefully you have something to offer that others don’t. Some suppliers handle a niche or proprietary product that can only be gotten from them and that tends to increase the chances of a prospect giving you a call when the need for this product comes up. In this case it’s a solution to a problem that results in them taking a chance with you. That’s what it is, a chance! I say this because until the first order, there’s no trust built up yet. If the first order works out then you have a shot at the next one. If it gets botched somehow, the climb gets steeper as far as any future business happening between you is concerned.

Then there’s the usual battle between suppliers vying for your business. Cost of the product is important but is usually meaningless if you don’t have what the locksmith needs. There are some standard discounts that are applied and in many cases room for negotiation does exist, especially if there’s a larger than normal quantity involved. All suppliers have customers who will ask for a better price regardless of how many times he’s bought it from you and how good the price is. On the other end of the spectrum we have people who trust 100 percent that they are getting a fair price and don’t try for anything better, ever. I’ve even had locksmith customers tell me he can pay more than what I’m asking them for! Now that’s a preferred customer! This is usually a businessperson who understands there is a limit to what we can do with price and doesn’t want us to run whenever we seem him coming. He is extremely rare.

So what would our perfect customer be like? He would be someone who knew exactly what he wanted when he called in an order. He has the exact part number and is okay if it takes two or three days to receive it. He doesn’t need to ask how much the item is and if he does, he’s okay with the cost without asking if we could do any better. If we’re too busy to take a lengthy order, he’s fine with us calling him back sometime that day. To top it all off, he pays for his order in time so our credit department doesn’t have to chase him for payment. This customer is rare.

Many distributors come up with an attempt at “value added services.” These services can come in the form of educational classes, marketing help, computer ordering websites, etc. While some locksmiths appreciate and take advantage of these services, most simply want to be able to order supplies and get them in a timely manner.

In the old days it was pretty standard to hear four to six weeks when something had to be ordered from the factory because nobody had it in stock. Now it’s different; everyone has items they can ship within a few days and nothing should take more than a few weeks unless it’s coming on a slow boat from overseas. I’ve gotten very good at locating and getting items quickly for my customers and aside from my warped sense of humor, that’s one of the reasons my phone rings as much as it does each day. If someone asks me for something I don’t have in stock, I make sure I’ve exhausted all options before I call him back with an answer.

At our Philadelphia IDN Hardware branch, I work with two gentlemen who spend the day answering calls from locksmiths who only want to speak with that person. Robert came to us after an 11-year stint with another supplier and brought along with him a bunch of locksmiths who now call us. This goes a long way in explaining how we choose which supplier we use. It’s all about the relationship between individuals, not companies. Value added programs are nice but will never replace the importance of the one on one between people. The manager of our branch, Brian, gets calls all day from folks who ask to speak with him as well. This happens because Brian has been helping his customers for years and is trusted. His sense of humor doesn’t show up in the sales numbers but without it the numbers wouldn’t be the same.

I’ve said this in past articles but I think it’s worth repeating. “If people like you, they will find a reason to do business with you. If they don’t like you, they will find a reason not to.” I’m not saying we need to be everyone’s best friend but it sure helps to be pleasant and sincerely care about the needs of the person you’re doing business with. Don’t lie to customers or fudge the truth because it will come back to haunt you in some shape or form. Call people back if you say you will. Be the best that you could be without worrying too much about what your competition is doing. These are very fundamentally basic ideas but you’d be amazed at how often they are violated by folks who wonder why they aren’t doing better.

So does the locksmith need distributors dedicated to serving him? Does it help to speak with a salesperson who knows the business who knows what you’re talking about and can help you make the right decision with your purchase?

Hopefully we will all be doing business with each other for a long time to come. There’s enough to go around for us all without having to put others out of business or stab each other in the back. Let’s continue to do take pride in what we do, promote the locksmith industry as a whole and celebrate success together.

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