In these trying economic times, electrical contractors obviously need all the help they can get. But it’s possible they just aren’t asking in the right places.

Recessions don’t play favorites, and virtually everybody’s business is off, including that of the manufacturers and distributors who supply the contractor. In order to keep their contractor customers alive and profitable and their own sales levels satisfactory, for purposes of enlightened self-interest, many of these manufacturers and distributors are currently offering more support and assistance to their contractor customers than ever before.

The question is, “Are you taking advantage of what they have to offer?”

In this two-part series, ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR profiles some of the support services available from manufacturers and distributors of which contractors may not be aware. This month, the focus is on manufacturer programs.

Playing to the end-user customer

Chris Bowler, marketing manager at GE Consumer & Industrial, Lighting and Electrical Distribution division, Plainville, Conn., said contractors still are looking for the traditional and indispensable types of support from their manufacturers. They want prompt quotes to meet their deadlines, accurate drawings for connectivity on-site, and 24/7 post-sales backup so that they can call for assistance to resolve troublesome issues should anything go wrong on the job. But, increasingly, they want and need to find new ways to appeal to the end-user customer.

Prospects are where you find them, and since end-user customers are currently so focused on energy efficiency, Bowler advises contractors to ask their manufacturers about the latest developments in this area. For example, a contractor can offer submetering, which provides a building owner with detailed data regarding energy use of individual circuits, thereby allowing the owner to charge out electricity usage more accurately than simply dividing it by the number of tenants in the complex.

In addition, there are remote-controlled circuit breakers for lighting control that allow for setting up demand profiles to determine what times of day to turn lights on or off. When linked to a ballast system for linear fluorescents, the contractor can provide a total system approach to significantly curtail the customer’s energy use.

“These are tough times, and budgets are under pressure,” Bowler said. “Instead of just placing an order, the contractor should pick up the phone and talk to his manufacturer or distributor about how to value-engineer a given job. The opportunities are there if they just ask.”

Technological tools

Another way to value-engineer a job—and get the end-user’s attention in the process—is to make use of some of the latest testing technology available.

“Thermal imaging and power logging are two of the most useful technologies to come along in years for the contractor,” said Larry Wilson, public relations manager at Fluke Corp., Everett, Wash. “Previously, these imagers and loggers were extremely expensive and highly complex, but prices have dropped dramatically, making them affordable to most contractors.”

For many businesses, reducing energy consumption without curtailing operations has become a driving initiative in this economy, and this is where a contractor with the right testing tools has a new opportunity.

“A contractor with a thermal imager and power logger can go into the customer’s facility and conduct an energy audit,” Wilson said. “He can quickly scan the entire operation without having to make contact with a live electrical circuit, detect where potential problems are, and save the customer money.

“This gives the contractor a more sophisticated role as a diagnostician, not simply an installer, and opens the way for securing lucrative maintenance contracts. The industry rule of thumb is that for every $1 a contractor makes on installation, he can make $5 on a contract to maintain it.

“The practical value of these imaging and logging technologies is that they record data that is verifiable and can demonstrate how much money the customer saves by running the tests before and after the contractor has done the necessary installation or renovation work. This is a key change,” he said

Fluke currently is ramping up the number of training courses it offers on how to use these technologies because of contractor demand.

“Contractors realize that, if they’re going to spend money on these tools, they better make sure their people are trained on how to use them,” Wilson said. “This is all part of our role in assisting the contractor to understand what the latest market trends are and how they can better develop their businesses.”

Business development

A number of manufacturers have recognized contractors’ requirements for training, not only in what to specify and how to install it, but also in how to improve the way they conduct their businesses day-to-day.

“Contractors obviously need information on new products and applications, but many could also use guidance on what market opportunities they might want to look into, how to diversify, and how to adopt new technologies,” said Melissa Golden, segment market manager at Schneider Electric, Palatine, Ill.

Both the company’s hands-on and online training offerings include a suite of courses devoted strictly to the major disciplines of business development. Subjects covered include business law, marketing, finance and budgeting, human resources, internal and external communications, and project management.

“Sometimes contractors don’t know what to ask and what information on competitive strategies is available from their suppliers,” Golden said. “Finding new customers in this economic environment is critical, and manufacturers can help them develop new business. We can help them get out the word on their capabilities and promote their firms.

“For example, if they want to expand their residential customer base, we can offer advice on when to use Internet marketing techniques, when to use mailers, and what kind of information they should convey that is most likely to attract the potential customer. Basically, this is all about how to partner within the electrical supply chain for mutual success.”

Conventional classes and e-learning

Since training is a perennial need for contractors, many manufacturers offer a variety of programs, and most are expanding their curricula.

“We continue to work closely with the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee to provide materials for any training manuals they are developing,” Bowler said. “We also have our Lighting and Electrical Institute at Nela Park in Cleveland, and this has been augmented with a program called ‘Nela on the Road’ by which we can bring discrete segments of our training curriculum to an individual contractor’s location.”

The company also has a comprehensive array of training and product-specific informational data available on its Web site.

“We’ve invested heavily in e-learning,” Bowler said, “and we have a full lineup of training materials that contractors can utilize once they register online. This includes courses allowing them to earn credits in continuing education.”

He also noted that since contractors often ask for more detailed installation instructions, the company’s Web site has been upgraded to facilitate finding this information quickly. A dedicated contractor path has been added to the homepage, and once the contractor clicks on this, he will be routed automatically to this particular instructional sector every time he returns to the Web site.

Keeping the dialogue going

While training is crucial to the contractor’s ability to meet and hopefully even surpass his customer’s expectations, manufacturers stress the need for keeping the lines of communication open at all times.

“On any given project, we encourage the contractor to keep the dialog going,” said Sarah Eastman, trade marketing manager, industrial-commercial division, Osram Sylvania, Danvers, Mass. “Typically, we talk him through the design and application requirements and suggest some options that he might not have thought of because he has a lot more on his mind than just lighting. We try to provide three or four choices as opposed to just one solution.”

Osram Sylvania has demonstrated an ability to help contractors by keeping them aware of regulatory and legislative issues that could have either negative or positive implications for the installer. An example is the situation of electrical and electronic equipment waste disposal, particularly lamp recycling. To date, six states have enacted legislation mandating specific disposal procedures, and there are costly penalties attached to failure to comply. Indications are that other states will follow suit.

“Many contractors are not aware of this issue and don’t know how to dispose of this material correctly,” Eastman said. “So when we work with a contractor on a lighting retrofit project, we consider the recycling step as part of our partnership program with him. We provide mail-in boxes that he can fill with spent lamps and send them in for appropriate recycling.”

Another potential regulatory stumbling block for contractors involves a new line item in the 2008 National Electrical Code that governs a specific type of lighting installation.

“Due to the stimulus package, a lot of public schools nationwide are retrofitting their gymnasiums,” Eastman said. “What many contractors are not aware of is the new code stipulation that metal halide installations have to be fitted with a special luminaire lens, which is expensive. We’ve pointed out to contractors that fluorescent lighting can be substituted, obviating the need for the enclosure and saving the end-user customer money.”

And on the subject of making the contractor look smart to the end-user, the company also makes a point of reminding installers that there is a federal tax deduction available for garage owners if they install new or retrofit lighting that exceeds the requirements of the pertinent energy-efficiency code provisions.

‘Measure twice, cut once’

The contractor is faced with a daunting array of decisions to be made from the bidding stage on through installation, and he needs all the advice he can get, preferably as early in the process as possible.

“Contractors should always check with their resources, whether manufacturers or distributors, so the decisions they come to will make the most economic sense,” Eastman said. “They understand the wisdom of the proverbial ‘measure twice, cut once,’ to avoid waste and save money. ‘Use energy-efficient products’ is not a specification. Strategic advice is available for reaching the right solution. So why not ask rather than guess?”

Part two of this series will discuss what the distributor can do for the electrical contractor.

QUINN reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 or mirabel@snet.net.