With lighting and communications technology evolving rapidly, lighting manufacturers are under pressure to determine how to best reach out to and train busy electrical contractors (ECs) on new and existing products. Three lighting specialists—LED manufacturer RAB Lighting, national electrical distributor Facility Solutions Group, and electrical contractor Miller-Eads Co. Inc., Indianapolis—offer tips to help enhance the training process for ECs; ensure stronger specs with fewer callbacks; and make installations safer, easier and more profitable for all parties involved.
A view from the top
RAB Lighting has long appreciated the important role that ECs play in their corporate hierarchy and in the marketplace.
“Contractors are a tremendous audience for us and are critical players within the entire industry because they own a lot of the relationships with end-users,” said Ross Barna, president and CEO. “They represent valuable legs on the street, and as a result, we always want our new products in the hands of contractors so that they can both sell and install them.”
He said that ECs can create lucrative opportunities for themselves with today’s new lighting products but conceded that, “they can only do this if they understand the nuances of the product and why the product matters to end-users.” Therefore, effective training is imperative.
Eric Erickson, division manager for the New Jersey-based lighting arm of Facility Solutions Group, agreed that knowledge is power.
“Education is currency, and there are varying degrees of willingness to embrace it in the market,” he said. “The bottom line is that contractors can’t afford to be uninformed and will be much more successful if they can master a deeper understanding of what’s relevant to the market. On one hand, it’s about avoiding the costs of mistakes and misapplication, while on the other hand, it’s about taking advantage of opportunities they could otherwise miss, such as utility subsidies that might make an upgrade opportunity more economically viable for an end-user.”
Chris Chastain, president of Miller-Eads Co. Inc., which serves the industrial, healthcare, educational, commercial and utility markets throughout central Indiana, said lighting upgrade opportunities for contractors are sizable and that communication is key.
“Manufacturers and distributors should definitely pursue the end installer when it comes to promoting new and existing products. The guys out in the field are the best salesmen you can have,” he said.
Barna, Erickson and Chastain offer tips on how lighting manufacturers, distributors and contractors can best work together to optimize the product training, education and communication process for the mutual benefit of all parties involved.
Life in the digital age
“Though on-site training used to be more standard in the industry, it tends to be a big-time commitment and can be a sizable investment, too,” Barna said. “Based on today’s heightened level of connectivity, email is definitely easiest and has become the most effective use of everybody’s time. Though we’ve found that contractors don’t tend to read email as much as distributors and other channel members because they’re out in the field, we view that as a short-term way of thinking because they could be out in the field promoting new marketing opportunities and high--efficiency products.”
Because it can reach so many contractors so quickly, Barna said, emails to contractors have become a critical component of every new product launch at RAB, providing both key specs on products and directing recipients to the company’s website, which contains more updated information on RAB’s products and installation procedures than static printed materials, such as catalogs, ever could.
Admitting that “we hardly ever see someone from a company,” Miller-Eads’ Chastain agreed that an electronic approach is the best way for manufacturers to stay in touch with channel members in today’s fast-paced business environment.
“We live in an Internet-based, email world, and that’s how I would communicate with contractors,” he said.
Along those electronic lines, mobile apps are cutting-edge tools for manufacturers. For example, a lighting app could quickly and easily show a contractor what a new lighting product would cost and how much it could save a customer.
“It’s sometimes hard to access website information from a mobile device. It would be much easier to do this via an app on a phone,” he said. “Such a tool could really help our service guys. In addition, social media is the way, and companies should also consider using YouTube for training videos.”
“At RAB, we like to give away a lot of samples so that our channel members can understand the product better and experience it for themselves in the dark,” Barna said of the estimated 100,000 free product samples that the company ships out each year. “No credible opportunity goes without a sample, and we’ve found it to be a very effective sales tool. Contractors and distributors simply have to call us or fill out a form online, and we’ll send them a sample. It’s an important part of our new product launch process, and we encourage channel members to take advantage of it,” he said, adding that this is particularly true when they are evaluating the performance of a light-emitting diode (LED).
“Electrical contractors who are installing non-LED products are really missing a prime opportunity to make a lucrative and beneficial sale,” he said. “When you bring value-added, energy-saving LED opportunities and samples to a customer, they become loyal to you as a contractor and think about you for other opportunities. It’s an important concept for contractors to understand.”
When RAB launches a new product, which occurs monthly, the company sends out emails that contain links to product information and a short training video so that channel members can get a visual overview of the product’s features, functions and benefits. “Along with any samples we send,” Barna said. “We also provide printed material with detailed specs and even a luggage tag on the product so that it’s clearly marked for the contractor’s convenience.”
Leverage the distributor
“We love to interact with our contractors, but there’s so many of them out there that it can be hard to qualify them all. So, we rely on our distributors to assess their quality and tell us who’s who,” Barna said. “The whole supply chain needs to work together to help bridge those relationships, but distributors add a lot of value by vetting contractors for the manufacturing community and identifying which have credibility and expertise.”
Erickson agreed that their personal relationships with ECs and in-depth understanding of products can be some of the key strengths that an accredited distributor brings to the table.
“A major disconnect today relates to product information—where to find it and how to use it; no one wants to make the wrong specification decision or miss a revenue opportunity,” Erickson said. “The right distributor can clear the path and help a contractor sort through all of the manufacturer’s information to get to what he needs. It’s daunting but doable with the right partnership, and the distributor can be key in making the path to understanding safer and easier for the contractor. An educated distributor who understands the contractor’s goals and the value in partnering can craft an effective learning solution.”
Based on the distributor’s proximity to contractors and their position as an industry conduit helping to seed new technology, RAB also favors partnering with distributors on training events, such as “lunch-and-learn” activities and “counter days.”
“We especially like lunch-and-learn events because they’ve proven to be a good way for RAB salespeople to review product details directly with contractors over lunch in a time-effective way,” Barna said. “In addition, we’re seeing more lighting reps adding contractor sales specialists to their staff. This is a new trend, which helps us further drill down to the large audience of contractors and provides us with targeted partners for joint sales calls.”
While Miller-Eads currently relies on three main distributors in its area for new product information, Chastain advises all distributors to be aggressive about helping contractor partners learn about new products.
“If distributors are doing their job, they should be introducing new products weekly, either by bringing in the products or the vendor. They should avoid just being order-takers,” he said.
RAB’s team of customer support and technical specialists reflects part of the company’s commitment to its contractors.
“You have to be available to answer calls personally as they come in,” Barna said. RAB has a “no voicemail” policy. “Contractors call us for different reasons—with technical questions before and after an installation, or sometimes from the ladder itself—and we encourage that. We’re here to help, and we want them to come to us.”
Chastain agreed that ECs will be closer to companies who listen well, solicit their input and act on their suggestions.
“We’ve participated in manufacturer-run contractor forums with our veteran electrician, and both we and the manufacturers really appreciate the face-to-face dialog and exchange of ideas that ensues,” he said. “We’ve also been impressed by manufacturers who have taken the time to bring us to their facility or who travel to ours to show us all of their new products or prototypes and ask for our thoughts. If I were a manufacturer, I would want to be out there with the front-line electricians and end installers trying to get all the ideas I could.”
In that capacity, he said that RAB stands out in terms of its commitment to the contractor community. “RAB shows a lot of interest in contractors and takes the time to discuss product design ideas with us and incorporate our input into its new products,” Chastain said.
Overall, Barna said it’s a unique time in today’s LED-driven lighting market.
“Based on their high efficiency, long life and minimal maintenance requirements, LEDs are very valuable to end-users, and electrical contractors, in turn, are very close to those end- user customers. We see electrical contractors as a big, hidden sales force in the lighting industry, and by having more in-depth relationships and partnering with them, we can all turn opportunities into orders.”
BLOOM is a 20-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at email@example.com.