The Home Depot (HD) executive in charge of the retail giant's pro services contested Tuesday suggestions that his company has abandoned the pro market, arguing that existing programs continue and that recent strategy shifts will better serve the professional customer.

"Actions speak louder than words: We haven't changed our focus on the pro," Chris Waits, The Home Depot's vice president for sales and services, told ProSales in an interview. "They're still on the top of the list. To be successful, we have to have the pro business. Going into a store and dealing with an associate is going to be the proof."

The Home Depot just two years ago included "Own the Pro" as part of its strategy and mentioned that goal regularly during quarterly meetings with analysts. But last week, it released an updated three-part focus that omitted any specific reference to the professional builder/remodeler. Home Depot executives said then that the company now will focus on customer service and "simplifying the business," establishing "product authority," and promoting productivity and efficiency in part by getting more sales from existing stores rather than pushing to build new ones.

An HD spokesman later contacted ProSales to protest what he said was the story's implication that HD was abandoning the pro. Another HD official then set up an interview with Waits to detail current activities.

During Tuesday's interview, Waits said:

  • The Home Depot continues to keep a pro desk at each of its 2,000 U.S. stores, where three to four people typically share duties on weekdays. What has changed, Waits said, is that the company is doing a better job scheduling when specific staff is available. For example, he said HD will push to schedule the hours of sales associates who tend to serve pros so that they are in the store at times when pros are most likely to be there.
  • HD still has more than 200 sales reps who manage pro accounts. While that number has dropped a bit in recent years, "that's pretty strong when you look at other field teams and support functions in the company," Waits said.
  • The Home Depot recently appointed directors for the company's three U.S. divisions to help support associates in the field and tie in their efforts to the work at HD's Atlanta headquarters.

Waits also said The Home Depot has improved its technology, is offering better prices for volume purchases, is focusing more on training associates, and has retained the guarantee to pay a 10% premium if a customer can find a better price elsewhere.
Watts, who also manages HD's tool rental center and installed sales operations, added that several initiatives designed to serve the entire HD customer base will pay dividends to pros. These include boosting the number of popular products in stock and initiating "power hours," in which HD managers and other back-office workers drop what they're doing to focus on customer service.

"Almost everything that they covered [at last week's presentation] supports the pro," Waits said, including "when you talk about logistics and fulfillment being in stock, when you talk about service and power hours, and having people with good attitudes to help them."

Waits also pointed to a program HD has launched to provide 600 scholarships of $500 each to help people attend trade schools.

Who does HD count as a pro? According to Waits, a 19-year veteran with the company, it's basically anyone who gets paid to do repair or construction work. Waits said this group includes people who manage apartments and work in the government or military, along with the more traditional "sticks and bricks" customers. The pro also can be defined based on its ability to fit into HD's two other major customer groups: the do-it-yourself and the "do it for me" markets.