A Family Approach to Customer Service for 80 Years
Family-owned general line distributor Richards Supply was established in 1937 and has its headquarters in Waco, Texas. The company has three other locations in Texas including one in Temple and two in Fort Worth with an experienced total staff of fifty. As a representative to over five hundred manufacturers, distributing over 500,000 industrial, commercial and contractor products and equipment, the company takes its role seriously.
For Richards customers, effective supply chain management plays a pivotal role in driving success. A manufacturing company’s inventory is its greatest asset, and the ability to manage that inventory effectively is a good indication of a company’s overall health.
The value of distributors to supply chain management becomes obvious when assessing the efficiency of service and customer satisfaction. As a manufacturer’s channel partner, reputable distributors have a crucial role to play in ensuring products reach the end-user in the most reliable, innovative and trusted manner possible. Such distributors know the value of well-established relationships with both suppliers and customers. “Our suppliers have to know that we have their best interest in mind, and we’re representing their products and brand in a professional way.”
Eric Wessinger, Richards Supply’s President, explains that there are some distributors that are focused on specific products, categories or industries, but as a general line distributor, “We cover a wide variety of products in different product categories. We currently cover seventeen or eighteen product categories.” Some of the sectors served for product lines include contracting, industrial, institutional, healthcare, manufacturing and pharmaceutical.
“As a general line house, we do a little bit of everything. Our customers are more [business to business] focused,” Eric says. “Manufacturing and Industrial, as well as Constuction customers are our primary base … [they are] the people using the product every day.”
Richards Supply also serves the government sector under its General Services Administration (GSA) contract or Federal Supply Schedule, under the Multiple Award Schedule (MSA), which enables federal buyers to purchase products and services. Having a GSA contract confirms Richards Supply as a trusted distributor. It allows the company to, “sell to the government and government contractors. We’re supporting a lot of the business down at Fort Hood and the Killeen area,” says Eric. “It’s a great relationship for us.” Fort Hood is the U.S. Army base located in Killeen, TX.
Having the resource of a capable distributor is essential to a manufacturer that relies heavily on efficiency, timeliness, problem resolution and exceptional customer service. “We like to consider ourselves to be problem solvers [and] solution providers,” says Eric.
The company’s purpose in helping customers is achieved in a number of ways, explains Eric. The foremost is through its inventory control and management and offsite warehousing. “We want to make sure that our customers always have the products and tools that they need to do their job and be productive … If a customer doesn’t want to carry a lot of inventory at their warehouse or have enough room in their tool maintenance department, then we’ll do offsite warehousing for them where we keep the product on hand at our local warehouse and then deliver to them as needed.”
By controlling these operations, Richards Supply helps its customers, “manage their expenses, manage their inventory costs, and consolidate invoices. This will help them with the financial management of their production systems.”
Richards Supply has, “a great omnichannel resource for our customers.” Customer can interact with the Richards sales team in a variety of ways. There are outside Account Managers available who specialize in onsite support to evaluate customers’ processes and their inventory situation. “We can do weekly management of that inventory or make suggestions and recommendations on how they can improve their processes.” Customer support is also provided by the company’s inside sales team over the phone or face-to-face at the sales counter in each store.
The company made a substantial investment in the last twelve months in its website, richardssupply.com. The site is an online resource where an order may be placed during non-business hours and will be processed the next business day. “It’s a valuable tool for our customers,” says Eric.
Each of the company’s locations has displays and showrooms where staff can provide answers to questions about products and services. “We offer a little bit of everything to the customer.”
A knowledgeable staff can make a substantial difference between helping a customer with a question on a product or have them leaving in frustration. Incorporating a knowledge management system translates into better and more informed support.
Richards Supply provides a substantial amount of training for its staff members which is, “another area where we separate ourselves from our competition,” says Eric. Many of the staff members have been with the company for decades and have a wealth of knowledge to pass on to their customers. The average length of employment is over twenty years at the company. “We have a lot of people that have been with us for a very long time.”
All new employees to Richards Supply, “go through a long process of training and cross-training; making sure that people are skilled and knowledgeable about the different departments within the company from a sales and support standpoint,” adds Eric.
There are monthly training sessions for the sales team in which manufacturers conduct onsite sales training on such topics such as how to sell and use the products. “Knowledge is one of our guiding principles. We’re constantly trying to learn,” affirms Eric. “We know a lot, but we don’t know everything. So listening is really the way we differentiate ourselves … We let our customers teach us.”
Establishing and, more importantly, retaining relationships within the distribution industry is a mutually beneficial scenario for all, in terms of both profitability and in laying the foundation of trust, respect and responsibility. “It’s all built on trust and responsibility,” says Eric. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, our customers have to know that when they call us or they ask us for help, that we’re going to be there for them, and we’re going to stand behind those expectations.”
In fact, responsibility is one of Richards Supply’s guiding principles. “We really take ownership of the opportunities that our customers give us.” This means following through on commitments and, more importantly, communication. This also holds true for when customers place an order or when Richards Supply sales personnel go to customer manufacturing facilities. “We work very hard to live up to expectations and to exceed them whenever possible.”
Like most industries, distribution houses experience the many challenges that come with the ever-changing shifts in technology, emerging trends and customer preferences. “You’ve got to be on your toes,” explains Eric, noting that, “there’s a lot of internal communication between the teams.” The company has monthly sales calls where the sales team discusses some of the challenging issues in different customer environments. Oftentimes, Richards Supply will rely on the manufacturers for technical support if there is a problem with a product for the end user that Richards Supply itself cannot figure out internally.
There are several associations in which the company has a close affiliation: The Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America, the National Safety Council, Industrial Supply Association (ISA), Specialty Tools and Fasteners Distributors Association (STAFDA), and Affiliated Distributors (AD).
Membership with all of these associations has proved instrumental in Richards Supply’s leveraging power. Eric notes that Affiliated Distributors has been a great resource for the company. “There are some competitive advantages that it gives us from a buying perspective and from a relationship perspective.”
He notes that the industrial division of Affiliated Distributors is comprised of approximately 250 independent, family-owned companies across the country. Some of the leading manufacturers in the world, such as Honeywell and Stanley Black and Decker are part of Affiliated Distributors and partner with Richards Supply. Its membership allows Richards to, “combine our buying power and strength … It’s really enabled us to be on a level playing field with our national competition.”
Additionally, being a member of Affiliated Distributors makes a difference, “internally and operationally. It gives us an opportunity to have networking events and to have open communication with a lot of distributors that are our size or a little bit bigger.”
Richards Supply offers a safety training program as part of its services. “Safety has always been a big product category for us,” says Eric. When Richards Supply started talking to its customers about safety, it realized that there was a need for knowledge of regulations, rules and training. For many of its customers, the safety person also doubles as the Maintenance Manager or the Human Resources Manager, for example. “These are responsibilities that have been put on these peoples’ shoulders that they don’t necessarily have the in-house expertise for.”
As a result, Richards Supply hired a full-time Safety Specialist about a year ago, whose responsibility is to be a resource to its customers for everything safety related. This specialist communicates with customers to derive a sense of their safety programs and any challenges from a training or knowledge standpoint.
“We’ve really been able to offer an extended service to our customers from the safety side of it,” says Eric. “So far, the feedback has been great. It’s allowed us to really expand our offering and do more for our customers than just be the place they can buy their [products] from.”
The distribution industry has experienced significant changes in the past several years – growing e-commerce demands, mobile devices to resolve issues in real time and increased traceability of products that aid in assessing customer trends – are just some of the changes being experienced.
Also driving the change is, “consolidation, mergers and acquisitions within our customer base,” adds Eric, explaining that customers that are family-owned or independently-owned businesses are being acquired by national equity firms or corporations.
What Richards Supply has learned is that, as a result, “we have to be more than just the [products] we sell. We have to be able to be a resource for our customer beyond product that they can buy anywhere.”
A significant investment in its market-leading website and the hiring of an e-commerce manager to monitor and facilitate the website are just two ways in which the company is aligning itself with market changes. “These changes in the market have really pushed us to bring different channels [and] bring different resources to our customers to where we can be an information and support resource,” says Eric.
He says that he is always open to new opportunities and plans for expansion in the future of Richards Supply, although the focus is on current markets at this time. “We’re really focused right now on being the best supplier we can be to the central and north Texas markets … we’re excited about the future. We [have] a lot of growth on the table … We’re doing some new exciting things.”