Amerhart Cares for Customers, Courts Youngsters

CraigBeyond The Order. The slogan is everywhere at Amerhart, Ltd.: emblazoned on catalogs, attached to company emails, featured in marketing materials. It's practically law at the Midwest distribution giant, whose 76-year history and considerable clout in the market speak to its commitment and care for the customer even after closing the sale. “It doesn't end there,” confirms Craig Goodman, who manages the firm's Milwaukee branch. “You know what your customers do for you, you call them up at times and thank them for the order, you remind them how you appreciate their business, and you constantly think about what you can do to make somebody's day a little better in terms of service.” The concept is deeply ingrained at all levels of corporate culture at Amerhart—largely, Goodman notes, because it is easily digested and embraced by both the distributor's seasoned employees as well as its young newcomers.

Amerhart is very proud of that blended workforce, which includes a good mix of women and men as well as a range of generational groups. Diversity in hiring has become easier in recent years within the building products sector, according to Goodman, who notes that many talented, tenured women are part of the firm's inside sales organization. Some of that dynamic is attributed to the family-owned structure at Amerhart, which also has positioned it to employ two and sometimes even three generations of relatives at once. Aside from internal recruitment, the distributor also woos fresh new talent from the outside. Goodman admits that young people may not consider building materials as “glitzy” as computer-oriented job opportunities but finds they usually are receptive to his firm after observing how well existing personnel enjoy working there. The “Team Amerhart” incentive plan, which rewards employees across the organization with quarterly bonuses if key performance markers are achieved, doesn't hurt either—especially for workers in entry-level positions.

Although the glitz factor at Amerhart may not be high, Goodman assures that “we certainly have enough exciting things here to do.” The company has kicked its technology up a notch in the past few years, which also has made it more attractive to young prospective hires. The warehousing division, for example, is shifting to exclusive use of barcoding systems. The switchover not only boosts efficiencies and productivity, it also appeals to young workers. “You hand them a scanner and they say, 'Oh, this is cool!'” Goodman reports. “They get involved. They're still picking the same items from inventory, but we've eliminated the piece of paper that they're picking it off of.”

Warehousing isn't the only area that has benefitted from new technology investments. A few years ago, members of the outside sales team were equipped with automated presentation software to help serve them in the field. For an associate who wants to demonstrate how a particular type of building product works, for instance, a tablet then becomes a video or, as Goodman phrases it, “a visual piece of literature.” The software also tracks customer trends and progress on sales campaigns, allowing salespeople to see where they are succeeding and identify areas that need more attention. The technology has had a “tremendous” impact, he adds, pointing to onboard computers in Amerhart trucks, social networking, and the company intranet as other smart technology moves the distributor has made.

While technology upgrades lend some of the “glitz” that Goodman admits may elude many distributor staffers, they also go a long way toward reaching younger customers. “Some of the younger buyers want to purchase online versus the old-fashioned way of faxing or calling on the phone,” he says. “They also want more information via the Internet, and we have capabilities to accommodate that, too.” Partly in acknowledgement that a one-size-fits-all model is no longer viable, Amerhart has spent the last two to seven years incorporating some Internet sales methods. In addition to catalog distribution and standard outside-inside sales production, registered customers now may enjoy Internet product listings as well as a limited amount of online ordering.

Other distributors may decide not to go that route, but Goodman insists that all companies in the distribution business must at the very least stay conscious of Internet sales and marketing on some level—particularly as certain key vendors opt out of distribution sales. These companies have developed internal website selling strategies, which he says have the potential to clash with distribution. However, distributors that have a solid rapport with their vendors will sit down to discuss these methods and iron out any conflicts prior to going to market, Goodman says. The resulting arrangements can be mutually worthwhile, he suggests.

As an example, Trex decking—a product that Amerhart sells—has its own websites. Those websites can be tied to a group of customers that have a relationship with Amerhart, which leaves the sales effort to Trex but then acts in a logistical capacity to complete the transaction. “So there's an example of a vendor using its resources to build the business and then running the business through its existing distribution,” Goodman says. “Working with the vendor through its capabilities and digital marketing allows both Amerhart and the vendor to gain opportunities and the end-users to get the most current and relevant information.” Distributors will see long-term benefits, he believes, as their customer bases become more digitally advanced and efficient. “It's a good way to keep up on rising demand,” Goodman notes, “a good way to get information.”

There are many other advantages to building strong distributor-vendor relationships, he adds, including the part they play in minimizing bad debt losses. Additionally, he stresses that distributors and vendors that are tuned in to end users--or fabricators--and that pay attention to their customers' needs and work together can become “solution salespeople.” Moreover, he predicts good fortunes for distributors that pay close attention to their transportation and delivery costs. “No customer wants to pay for [those services],” he concedes, “but all customers are willing to help keep delivery costs down. The trend here is a partnership between vendors, distributors, and customers to keep reducing delivery costs whenever they can.”

And because Amerhart knows the value of membership in the NBMDA as a tool for cultivating these kinds of partnerships, it strongly encourages its own vendors to join it within the organization. “Together, we can solve problems,” Goodman maintains. Amerhart also nudges new or young distributorships to sign up, even if they may become competitors. “That way,” he explains, “they're getting the same information, the same knowledge; and it treats the business as a profession.” Distributors that affiliate with the group, he believes, get an early look at cutting-edge developments—whether related to logistics, sales skills, new product information, or other areas. Distributors that don't belong to the organization, on the other hand, miss out fast information-gathering, selling solutions, and strategies for selling more items at profit.

As the new chairman of NBMDA's Steering Committee, Goodman hopes to help drive recruitment—both on the distribution side and the vendor side. And as a huge proponent of education, he also is looking forward to the opportunity, using his 35-40 years of experience in the industry, to help shape some of the guidelines on that side of the business.

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