How to Make Sure Your Customers Stay Your Customers

“You don’t keep donkeys in the same barn as thoroughbreds,” said Craig Fletcher during a powerful presentation for attendees of the Resellers & Distributors Luncheon at the 2014 Concrete Decor Show in Fort Worth, Texas.

Fletcher — sales and marketing manager for Merit Trade Source, a division of Lancaster, a company that specializes in paint-related products for many trades — focused on enhancing sales growth to resellers. He emphasized that the more successful his resellers are, the more successful Lancaster is. He went into the luncheon well-armed with anecdotes and information to enhance successful relationships between suppliers and distributors.

The statement about the donkey and thoroughbred is actually about passion. “Are we on the same page? Are we interested in the same things?” he asked. “You get a whole bunch of vendors coming to the party but you’re only going to dance with a few.”

Channel your energy wisely

Fletcher urged attendees to put their energy where it’s going to pay off the most. “How much interest does a vendor have in your future? If you start figuring out which vendors have the most interest in your future, you start finding ways to support the guys who desire to make you successful. If you get more involved for their growth, then they will in turn get more involved in you.”

Fletcher kicked off his talk with a “Do you know what you do not know?” way of looking at relationships. Distributors know what a customer purchases from them, but they don’t know what the customer purchases from other stores. Distributors know what customers pay at their shop, but not what customers pay at other stores. Distributors don’t know if customers will come back or not. If they don’t come back, distributors don’t know if that’s because of supply issues, price issues or some other reason.

Fletcher told a story about a paint store in Arkansas whose owner was complaining about a continuous loss of business over a three-year period. The proprietor said he was “just not getting the business.” Fletcher noticed he did not sell 5-gallon buckets of lacquer thinner and asked him if he had any idea where his customers were purchasing the thinner they weren’t buying from him. He didn’t have an answer.

“I challenged him,” said Fletcher, to find out not only who they were buying from but also the quantity and price. For the next 30 days, he told the store owner, he would pay $5 each time the owner got contractors to reveal the answers to these simple questions.

Seventy percent of the people approached filled out the survey. The No. 1 place they were shopping was a big-box store. As it turned out, most of the contractors were paying a price that the store owner could at least match if not beat. “He simply did not know what he did not know,” said Fletcher.

Keep your customers happy

Since customers are already coming to your store for some items, try to stock other products they want so you don’t have to constantly send them elsewhere. If customers come in and ask for xylene, which you don’t carry, you may refer them to the big-box store down the street. But if you do this too many times, they might not come back to you, because that big-box store not only has xylene but lots of other things they want, too.

“We don’t want to send that contractor anywhere else,” said Fletcher. “Why do they go elsewhere? They go elsewhere because you don’t have the products. Then that becomes a systemic issue.”

If you keep sending customers to another store, they may no longer remain your customer. “The ‘big-box’ wants your customer,” said Fletcher, and may enter into your field of expertise because you helped it gain business.

You can take action by asking your customers where they go to make purchases of things you don’t carry. Then, said Fletcher, the next question should be, “Wouldn’t you rather buy these items here, where you buy your coatings, where you buy your powders, your overlays, your stamping stuff and all your other equipment? And wouldn’t you rather buy these from someone who actually knows the products and cares about your success?” Without a doubt, said Fletcher, customers will say yes to this.

Take action

One luncheon attendee said he keeps a notebook by his register to jot down requests for items. If he got 10 requests for an item then he considered ordering it.

Another attendee said he carries purchased items out to his customers’ trucks, sees what else is in there and asks them where they got their materials. It costs nothing to do this, it builds relationships and it can give you useful information.

“If you keep attracting and nurturing these contractors, you will become more attractive to them by having the products they need and having the right price,” Fletcher said. “If you keep nurturing them it becomes very difficult for them to keep that business from you because you know more than any of the other guys.”

Form alliances

Fletcher gave an example of how he and some colleagues observed the paint industry changing many years ago. “We saw the emergence of big-box stores wanting to take business from our industry,” he said.

“There were eight of us and we accounted for a quarter billion dollars to the industry. We had associations but we were never solid, never together. We all flew out to San Francisco and got together and talked about our issues. It wasn’t (about) competitive issues between us; it was about an industry that is going to get all screwed up if we don’t do something.”

When Fletcher and his fellow businessmen got together, they found out what they did best was get closer to their customers than anyone else could or would. “We formed an alliance for the benefit of our customers,” he said. “Find ways to find solidarity and build community within a trade. We can do a whole lot more as a bunch than we can as individuals.”

Craig Fletcher is sales and marketing manager for Merit Trade Source, a division of Lancaster. He can be reached at

Do you know what
you do not know?

Find out what your contractors are not buying from you. Convince them you know the products better than anyone. Show them you can be their one-stop shop with selection, competitive pricing and a relationship built on genuine interest in their success.

Find out why your customers shop elsewhere. Do what you can so that they don’t need to shop elsewhere.

Find out who your competitors are. Who else is buying in volume? Attract and nurture your tradespeople. Perhaps offer them a reward for shopping with you, and then show them you’re motivated to keep them.

Develop industry partnerships and solidarity. You can accomplish more as a group than you can as an individual.