By Sally Koepke

Slow. Sluggish. Flat as a pancake. When economic indicators are down, you may want to consider new ways to make customers sit up and take notice. Here are a few tips on how to do just that from companies large and small.

Tip No. 1
Take your show on the road—If customers aren’t coming to you, consider going to them. That’s what Pentair Water Treatment in Brookfield, Wis., is doing. The company is focusing on customer service and education as a way to stimulate sales and build long-term relationships. With a recently completed mobile showroom scheduled to visit OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and dealers from Chicago to California this year, Pentair’s Tom Horel, vice president of sales and customer service, believes the water treatment company is meeting a real market need (see Newsreel this issue).

“OEMs and dealers are busy keeping their businesses on track,” Horel said. “They don’t have time to keep abreast of what’s new, much less train their service team on installation tips and tricks for existing products. Our mobile showroom gives us the ability to meet those needs by sharing our technical expertise and introducing dealers to new technology on their turf. They don’t have to pay to come to us; we’re going to them.”

Pentair’s mobile showroom comes equipped with a working model of a softener to demonstrate the advantages of the company’s technology. In addition, the showroom is used for the following:

  • Shorten new product introductions,
  • Training on softener control valve installation and programming,
  • System troubleshooting, and
  • Market trend analysis.

“So far, we’ve found our mobile showroom to be a great way to stay in touch with our customers,” commented Horel. “We’ve improved communication and already learned things we didn’t know. Whether our mobile showroom stimulates sales or not, it’s certainly stimulated our thinking.”

Tip No. 2
Get technical—Let’s face it. Bigger companies have more technical firepower than smaller companies. And when that firepower is shared, it can mean big advantages for all concerned. Take the Parflex Division of Parker Hannifin Corp. in Cleveland. Over the past five years the division has invested heavily in its technical equipment and processes, and is willing to share the wealth with its customers.

“Thanks to our investments, we can now help our customers with such critical tasks as 3D modeling, stereo lithography, and rapid prototype development,” said Steve Powell, Parflex’s Plastics Business Unit manager. “By offering these services, we provide our customers with valuable time and labor savings,” he said. “And hopefully, we become partners rather than vendors.”

Powell went on to cite a case in point. Parker Parflex had recently worked with a major Midwest OEM/dealer to develop a solution for connecting multiple products together quickly. “Using our technical engineering support, manufacturing and mold-making capabilities, we were able to design, prototype and test a new, 1½-inch quick-connect fitting within two months. This new fitting should save significant time, labor and materials,” he added.
Getting technical with its customers isn’t new to Parflex, or to Parker Hannifin. Over the past several years, the company and its parent have worked hard to position themselves as a value-added, idea-support service as well as a component supplier. Powell sees the benefits to his customers this way: “Because we have a technical edge, our customers have access to more applications, and better ways of doing things. In fact, our technical services and engineering leadership allow customers to tap into customized applications that can create meaningful competitive advantage for them. And hopefully, new business for us.”

Tip No. 3
Protect your customers’ assets—According to Janice Despotakis, marketing specialist for the Food Service Division of CUNO Inc., of Meriden, Conn., a slow economy means a higher than normal level of anxiety about the life of capital equipment.

“In times of economic downturn, we’ve found that food service operators are much more conscious of preserving their existing equipment, rather than outlaying capital,” she commented. “Our Quality Assurance (QA) and Quality Control (QC) programs have always been among the best. But now we’re educating our customers to that fact.”
Despotakis explained that in the foodservice universe, equipment that uses water as part of its functionality—or to produce a product—is prone to service calls beyond scheduled maintenance. “Scale build-up, dirt, chlorine, ferric iron… these can all cause service problems that can potentially shorten the life of expensive equipment,” she noted.

As a result, CUNO now trains its distributors and customers on the science behind water treatment. Despotakis believes this gives consumers confidence that what they purchase and maintain significantly contributes to the life of their equipment.

“Our cartridges and systems are designed, developed and tested for performance, structural integrity, seal, fit and reproducibility in accordance with applicable NSF test protocols,” Despotakis said. “We’ve made our customers aware of all we do to set and maintain the highest possible QA/QC programs. Our ISO 9001 certification and NSF accreditation further corroborate that what we tell them is true,” she said.
And the result? “Customer relationships that last,” Despotakis says, smiling, “through the good times as well as the bad.”

Tip No. 4
Do what’s new—There’s a reason “new” is the most powerful word in the English language. According to Gary Martin, vice president of residential and commercial sales at Kinetico Incorporated in Newbury, Ohio, it’s an automatic draw for customers and business alike.

“While the economy has been soft, Kinetico has enjoyed double-digit growth,” commented Martin. “We believe this is due in large measure to our strategy of providing dealers with a steady stream of new and improved products that offer real value. During a sluggish economy, consumers do their homework. They research before they spend, so they can be sure their money is going to something meaningful that represents a good value. Provide them with that ‘something meaningful,’ and your sales will grow.”

Martin went on to cite specifics. “For example,” he said, “we recently provided our dealers with an improved RO unit that features our new QuickFlo™ tank, which offers a real advantage over the competition. The new tank features both a space-saving 1-gallon and a 3-gallon large capacity design. It features a constant high flow rate that differs from conventional air-charged tanks, which provide ever decreasing flow rates as the water in the tank is depleted. The tank also makes water significantly faster than other units because it eliminates back pressure on the membrane. That’s because it uses household water pressure to drive water to the faucet rather than an air charge in the tank. Customers love it; the proof is in the sales. The positive response makes us, and our dealers, very happy.”

Tip No. 5
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—Of course, not every company is slow in a slow economy. Nelsen Corp., a water treatment distributor out of Norton, Ohio, is one of them. For the past 15 years, the company has enjoyed steady growth. According to Dave Nelsen, the company’s success stems from its consummate customer service. “We carry over 4,000 products so we can give the customer exactly what they want. Better still, we’ve made it our trademark to ship orders the same day they are placed,” said Nelsen.

These practices have stood the company in good stead. “At Nelsen, we don’t market for the short term, but the long. As a result, we rarely adjust what we’re doing in response to the economy,” he said. “We set a plan at the beginning of every year, and we stick to it. Our marketing strategy embraces a number of components that range from the traditional advertising, to performance incentives for our employees. Everything we do works together to encourage growth and build relationships with our customers. Do we try new things? Of course we do. But we don’t let the morning’s headlines influence our approach to our customers.”

Clearly there’s no right way to respond to an economic slowdown. Now more than ever, companies need to understand why customers come to them, and build on those strengths. Whether it’s technical advice, enhanced reliability, new products, outreach programs or the “same old, same old,” every company must find its own way to build business by nurturing customer relationships that will last through the good and bad times.

About the author
Sally Koepke is a principal partner with McHale & Koepke Communications, a Beachwood, Ohio, advertising/communications firm that works closely with a number of water treatment equipment companies. She can be reached at (216) 831-9716, (216) 831-4342 (fax) or email: [email protected]


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