Customer Focused: Bill Rossiter says that retaining existing customers is less costly in the long run than trying to force your marketing program to constantly "buy" new ones.
Customer Focused: Bill Rossiter says that retaining existing customers is less costly in the long run than trying to force your marketing program to constantly "buy" new ones.

Be Flexible

Along with knowing your market, Bob Chamberlain argues that flexibility is key to a successful marketing plan. That’s why the Nisbet Brower marketing director has built checkpoints into his plan, where at intervals he can evaluate a particular strategy, tweak it if need be, or eliminate it altogether.

The Ohio dealer serves residential builders, commercial builders, and consumers, the latter primarily through its showrooms in Cincinnati and Dayton. Depending on the target customer segment, Chamberlain says his company has to determine what makes the most sense when it comes to defining strategies and allocating marketing dollars.

With builders, especially semi-custom and custom builders, relationships are very important. On the consumer side, it’s a different scenario, Chamberlain points out. “You really do need to have a significant Internet presence for the retail segment.”

“Part of the Internet process is how you choose to engage people,” he adds. “Sometimes we get leads through the Internet on the kitchen and bath side. They contact us about looking for a remodeled kitchen. Those are easy to measure.”

For that retail segment, Nisbet Brower has used a mix of television, radio, and print advertising, but Chamberlain admits that trying to figure out ROI is at best “kind of fuzzy.”

For the showroom’s TV campaign, sales associates asked customers if they came in because they saw the commercial. But since a resulting sale might not occur for months, if ever, figuring ROI is tough, Chamberlain notes.

At Jackson Lumber and Millwork in Lawrence, Mass., marketing manager Pat Marcotte has learned to change with the times. When the dealer catered more to the retail trade, Marcotte spent more marketing dollars on print advertising but found retail customers hard to woo.

The dealer decided to refocus its marketing on courting builders and remodelers.

As a result, she says, “We started advertising totally differently. I went from doing cut-and-paste ads in papers to doing events for remodelers and builders.” Now Jackson Lumber offers its builder customers continuing education courses and classes on the lead-paint issue. Two years ago, the dealer set up a rewards program for remodelers.

Newer platforms, such as social media and smartphones, will work only when a dealer has a good handle on what content customers want and how they prefer to receive it.

“You can’t just do things the same way you used to,” says Kimberly Brandner, director of marketing and client services for Brandner Communications, a marketing and public relations agency in Federal Way, Wash. “You have to be creative about how you reach customers.”

Stick With What Works

With its 99% pro base, Syracuse, N.Y.–based Erie Materials doesn’t have to worry about dividing up its marketing dollars. “If we were having to market to consumers and homeowners, we would have to inflate our marketing budget a lot,” says Jim Santoro, Erie Materials’ marketing director.

The dealer, which has 10 locations (including a distribution center) serving customers in northern New York and Pennsylvania, ranked No. 20 in this year’s ProSales 100, posting $182.8 million in total sales in 2012.

“We rely a lot on direct mail and electronic communication, and we try to evaluate [our efforts] based on buzz and feedback,” he says. The dealer sends out postcards and mailers with the occasional coupon. Santoro says that he has found email to be the most cost-effective form of marketing. To that end, Erie produces a monthly email newsletter and uses email blasts to announce a new product or send a reminder about a promotion.

Like most other dealers, Erie hosts customer appreciation events such as barbecues, which are held at each of its locations, and sponsors outings such as a dinner cruise, a fishing trip on Lake Ontario, or a golf weekend. The dealer also puts on a biannual trade show, along with smaller events and seminars for customers, which often give local architects the opportunity to earn continuing education credits.

Clear and Consistent Messaging

Even retailers that are proficient at marketing can be a little heavy-handed in their self-promotion and a little light on the variety of their promotions, observes Katy Tomasulo, public relations and social media manager for Seattle–based agency C Squared.

Marketing by small businesses tends to be “too intense for too short a period of time, so no one pays attention,” says Mike Michalowicz, co-founder and CEO of New Jersey–based consulting firm Provendus Group. He recommends “a constant drip” [of information or promotions] so customers in need will think of that dealer first.

Beyond traditional advertising, that message can be delivered in many ways: newsletters, blogs, and opinion pieces in local newspapers, for example. It can also be delivered through a dealer’s branding. Each of these platforms, though, must be consistent and clear, says Jennifer Swick, a former marketing director with Parr Lumber who now is a partner at marketing firm Wheelhouse 20/20, in Portland, Ore.

Swick and her partner, Scott Ericson, another Parr Lumber alumnus, note that clarity might entail developing separate campaigns for different markets and even individual yards, especially if locations don’t stock everything that the dealer is selling in its weekly circulars.

Swick and Ericson agree with other marketing experts who say that a price-driven marketing strategy will eventually yield diminishing returns—despite conventional wisdom that price drives transactions. “I can price-shop anyone in three minutes on my smartphone, but if it’s a price-only proposition, you constantly have to reacquire that customer,” says Mayfield, the Kansas City marketing consultant.

Ericson asserts that the question any dealer’s marketing must answer is, “Why should a customer buy from me?” The answer, he says, must be unambiguous: Why are your quality and service unique? And if the dealer’s marketing can’t answer those questions, Ericson points out, the dealer needs to find its value proposition and figure out a way to improve it.

Value-added marketing emphasizes how dealers can help professionals sell to their customers, says Interrupt Marketing’s Rossiter. Tomasulo of C Squared adds that dealers can position themselves as experts to both pros and homeowners by marketing services such as installation or sharing the latest product trends. In that vein, dealers should leverage their relationships with suppliers. Tomasulo points to decking tool kits that her client Weyerhaeuser Distribution recently created that include 10 how-to articles, which dealers can print out and post in their stores.

“Engagement should be the key to all marketing endeavors,” Brandner says. And the more personal and face-to-face that engagement is, the better, say other marketing experts.

ER Marketing recently polled dealers buying from distributor Huttig Building Products about their preferred communications mode. Email ranked first by a wide margin. But faxing placed a surprising second. Mayfield explains that dealers like receiving pricing and product information from distributors that they can post at their service counters for customers to read while they’re waiting to place orders.