When it comes to the distributor/integrator relationship, it's pretty much a two-way street, one with a few twists and turns along the way, and hopefully, fewer dead ends.
The highway to success is a busy one, populated with distributor services offered to integrators, and by integrators searching for the right fit in the partnership. With more and more distributors dotting the map, how do you choose which one is the right match for you?
"We choose distributors that provide top-tier products, provide competitive pricing, are responsive to pricing and product info requests, and have technical expertise," said Chris Gamst, vice president of CCS New England.
As a large integrator, Verrex has the luxury of being able to buy direct from many of the large manufacturers, noted Keith Miller, director of purchasing. "However, there are many instances where the manufacturer simply can't meet our increasingly high demand for product."
This is where the distributor plays a major role. "The distributor I choose to work with has to have the logistic capability to ship us product very late in the day and from various locations," he said. "Another major factor in choosing a distributor is their purchasing power with a given manufacturer. Not only will their increase in buying result in a higher selection of inventory for us to access, but in a final cost savings that we can realize because of the sheer volume the distributor does."
A solid, mutually beneficial partnership with distributors is what Data Projections looks for, said president/COO Billy Zaleski. "The more tangible aspects of the partnerships we seek include having sufficient stock available that we can provide to our customers, and offering competitive pricing and extended warranty terms as well as added benefits such as marketing and lead generation programs and training for installation technicians and sales teams."
Among new services distributors are offering to attract the attention of dealers are InfoComm CTS (Certified Technology Specialist) training and CEUs (Continuous Education Units), education pricing, project purchasing, and placing all products on one purchase order to streamline shipping and billing, Zaleski listed.
"And they're carrying products from multiple manufacturers," he added. "They want to be one-stop shops."
That age-old concept of customer service is once again at the forefront, Miller observed. "I am finding more and more that I need information at a quicker pace. The distributors I deal with have a dedicated salesperson, if not a whole team, who can give me solutions when I need them. The general 800 number to customer service hyperspace doesn't cut it anymore."
And, said Gamst, several distributors have factory trained technical support staff to help troubleshoot problems. "Some distributors offer both integrator and end-user training. One of our distributors even offers installation services to help integrators complete high-end telepresence projects."
It Works Both Ways
Integrators are finding that they also must provide new services to customers. And distributors are in ideal positions to help them staff up in order to make this possible.
"Distributors with specialized installation services do help us staff up, since we can rely on their expertise in certain areas," Gamst said.
As customers are requiring constant updates on the status of their projects, and thus the material, distributors increasingly are opening "partner portals" wherein customers can log onto a site and receive real-time updates on pricing, lead times, and tracking of purchase orders already placed, Miller said. "Distributors can throw around phrases like 'value add' all they want. Accurate and current information is what I need."
Integrators must provide a quick turnaround of any repair, Zaleski said. "Customers want to avoid lengthy a RMA (Return Material Authorization) process. Our clients depend on their technology solutions running properly, and do not want the inconvenience of their systems being down."
When a return or repair is needed, he said, Data Projections depends on its distributors to make that process as smooth as possible for its customers. "The most important thing is that distributors educate their team members so they become experts on the products and programs they offer on behalf of various manufacturers. We want to work with a distributor that is as knowledgeable as the direct manufacturer, one who can best assist us in creating the customized solutions we offer to our customers."
How Has Your Business with Distributors Changed Over the Past Five Years?
With the landscape of the integrator/distributor pattern in a constantly shifting mode, the last five years have seen changes in the percentages of sales going to distributors.
"From a dollar volume standpoint, our top ten vendors have gone from a seven manufacturer/ three distributor split to just the opposite, where it currently remains," observed Verrex's Keith Miller.
CCS purchased nearly 99 percent of its products direct until the last few years, said Chris Gamst of CCS New England. "When display manufacturers decided to move all of their products through distribution, our business with distribution increased to about 10 percent of our total purchases."
Data Projection also has seen a significant increase in the amount of business it conducts with distributors. "This is mainly a result from the push by our manufacturer partners,” said president and COO Billy Zaleski. “We value those relationships as they help us to provide the best solutions and increase our clients' satisfaction."
Karen Mitchell is a freelance writer based in Boulder, CO.