There's a lot more involved in selling a new product than just rolling up to a jobsite and pitching the latest LBM snake oil. Sales staffs of dealers that successfully sold new products or that brought new product lines onboard have learned it takes a team effort, an understanding of the customer's and the market's needs, and a firm conclusion that it's a viable product to carry.

But that's not enough. Above all, you can't venture out offering a product half-heartedly, a number of sales experts told ProSales. In order for a product to become part of America's homes, everyone in the sales chain–from vendor to customer–has to say "yes" to that product and believe in it.

"One weak link in the sales chain can kill the deal," says Bill Hofius, a former PlyMart executive and founder of ReMarketable Products Group, a manufacturers' rep organization serving the Atlanta market.

"What you are really trying to do is fill a void in the market," Hofius explains. "It can be the greatest product in the world, but if you don't understand the value component, it's going nowhere."

Into the Void

Exclusive rights to sell a new product or product line aren't mandatory, dealers and sales experts say. On the other hand, the fact that product is sold by the big boxes can be a deal killer. For instance, multiple sources told ProSales they stopped selling Trex decking once it was carried by big box retailers. If they couldn't compete with the price offered by the likes of Home Depot and Lowe's, why bother to carry that item, they reasoned. Trex responds that it supplies just one color of its Accents decking line to The Home Depot; anything else that a Home Depot customer wants from Trex must be special-ordered. But for many dealers, that's enough to justify dropping Trex and selling an alternative product that meets the needs of themselves and their customers.

"You have to be able to differentiate yourself, get deeper into your customer's business, and get into their wants," says Michele Holt, general manager of Lanier Training Group in Atlanta.

"We are interested in unique products and opportunities," adds Scott Babbitt, brand manager at Boston Cedar & Millwork, a distributor based in Holbrook, Mass.

Ready to Grow: Jeff Erhard, vice president of sales for Erie Materials in Syracuse, N.Y., says that new products "give our salespeople something to talk about and gets them pumped up."
David Brennan / Ready to Grow: Jeff Erhard, vice president of sales for Erie Materials in Syracuse, N.Y., says that new products "give our salespeople something to talk about and gets them pumped up."

Babbitt says Boston Cedar asks a number of questions when reviewing new products, including: Is the product viable? Can the customer make money with it? Does it cut installation time or cut down on maintenance? "There are many, many elements before we even get to a second meeting with a vendor," he notes.

American Cedar & Millwork, a five-unit dealer headquartered in Lewes, Del., that serves both sides of the Chesapeake Bay, takes the approach of not seeking out bargain-basement products. Rather, it prefers to tout products that aren't known to the mainstream.

"We are education-driven, not price-driven," says Bob Buckley, general manager of American Cedar's Millersville, Md., location. The dealer would rather bring new products into the fold than carry the same line already offered by dealers and retailers in the market.

"We take the unknown and make it known," Buckley says. "We would rather take the responsibility to sell something than take orders."

In fact, American Cedar attempts to start each season with a new product. While the company's primary product groups are windows, exterior doors, trim packages, and siding packages, the dealer also sells decking and rail products. Recently, it took on an interior moulding program, and it is currently bringing a synthetic roofing material on board.

"We feel that bringing on new products is good for our sales force," Buckley says. "We like to be new."

Adding a new category or product can also inject life into the sales force.

"New products give our salespeople something to talk about and gets them pumped up," says Jeff Erhard, vice president of sales at Erie Materials, the nine-unit roofing distributor based in Syracuse, N.Y.

Into the Mix

Aside from motivating sales or filling a void, there are other reasons to add new products. The current brand might be weak or overworked, for instance. But there are pitfalls

"If a company decides to add a product category, the company has to be as good or better as the other supplier currently providing the product in the market," Hofius says. It's not enough to put lighting fixtures in a showroom, for example. What goes on display has to be a result of evaluating, understanding, and overcoming the competition. Just because a product line is added does not mean instant business.

Lanier Training Group's Holt advises dealers to find ways to make their customers more successful. For example, is the salesman just rattling off features and trying to sell a product, or is he actually learning about the builder, the builder's business, and what the goals are for that business?

"You have to combine features and benefits of the product and see if there is a match with the business," Holt says. "There is always going to be another product or a cheaper product.

"Builders make their money on selling homes, not buying products," Holt adds.

Avoid showing up with products you aren't famous for, as it might cause confusion. If the supplier is known for roofing but shows up selling windows, it might cause customers to scratch their heads. Even worse, it could create a lack of trust.

Hofius advises a business to decide what it actually is and wants to be known for. For instance, if the dealer is known for roofing but is really an exterior solutions provider, the company needs to embrace and push its identity.

"How you view and market your company is important," Hofius says. "The whole company needs to turn around and say 'this is what we are.'" But being focused isn't the same as being restricted; rather, a new product line can be touted as an extension of an existing service. For instance, "If we are trusted to keep the house dry, why not be trusted to keep the [building] envelope dry?" Hofius suggests.

Erhard believes you can't dabble with a category: you are either in it or not.

One issue for Erhard is that his sales reps prefer to sell what's in stock. "Special orders can be perceived as too much work so they tend to not want to do it," he says. "They sell what's on the shelf." That's a good thing for Erie salespeople, given that its locations have a reputation for stocking inventory high and moving it out fast. But most dealers aren't like that. Thus, bringing a product on board that isn't deeply stocked–particularly a new product–can be tough.

A Cut Above: Bill Hofius, founder of ReMarketable Products Group, a manufacturers' rep organization serving the Atlanta market, believes companies introducing new products have to be as good or better than other suppliers in the market providing equivalent products.
Bob Mahoney / A Cut Above: Bill Hofius, founder of ReMarketable Products Group, a manufacturers' rep organization serving the Atlanta market, believes companies introducing new products have to be as good or better than other suppliers in the market providing equivalent products.

The salesman has to understand product logistics: whether the item is in the warehouse, on the floor, or in a distribution center thousands of miles away. Will it take four hours or four days to get the product to the job site?

"The outcome must be predictable and understood," Hofius says. If the product isn't in stock or too difficult to obtain, the customer can always find another supplier who can get the product to the job site in 24 to 48 hours.

Erie sells seamless gutters. One of the reasons the company has succeeded in moving the product compared to its competition is that it is inventoried well. The same is true for a decking line.

"A lot of people were dabbling with it," Erhard says. "We put both feet forward, brought in an entire line, and stocked it deep."

Before bringing on board Culture Stone stone and brick veneer, Erie interviewed a number of manufacturers in a number of settings, including trade shows, before deciding. The company built a database of pros and cons before choosing Culture Stone.

Similarly, the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association (NRLA) was well aware of the role that architects play in specifying particular products for their projects. So NRLA decided to help its members and suppliers educate architects on products by opening up its most recent Expo to architects free of charge as guests of dealer-members. It also gave accreditation courses to architects through two days of the event.

Just as dealers must care for architects and builders, they also must work back to the vendor to make sure there is a good fit.

"Service and delivery of the product are essential," Erhard says. "If we can't get the product in a consistent fashion, we can't sell it." In a world where supplier consolidation happens on a weekly basis, the quality of vendor service can change in a heartbeat. "If it's a vendor we are not aligned with, it could pose a problem," Erhard notes. "Certain company cultures don't mix."

"First and foremost, we look at the vendor to make sure they are financially stable and operating on a sound basis," says Babbitt, of Boston Cedar. "Do they have a proven track record or are they a startup?" According to Babbitt, the company's viability, along with the product, are core musts before a first or second meeting can take place, never mind a program becoming a reality.

Part of Erie's interest in carrying stone veneer was the observation that there was a market need but no one in the market was doing it well. Now Erie sells to masons all day, every day.

"Because of that product, it opened up a huge avenue of business for us," Erhard explains. "They are a great trade and they weren't getting serviced very well in that product." By bringing on the product, and doing it well, Erie was able to capture an entire new clientele.

That servicing effort included asking masons questions, learning what they need, and then coming up with questions that not only elicit information but get the customer thinking about the product you have to offer. If the right questions are asked, the dealer and sales force have a chance.

With Culture Stone, Erie also tapped deeper into the architectural community, which knew the product and consistently used it in plans.

"It makes it a lot easier to sell a job when you have exactly what the architect is specifying," Erhard says.

Let It Be Known

Sales reps should understand technical aspects of the product from front to back, including installation and handling techniques. That's an escalating challenge, as end users are becoming better on product features.

"Buyers today are much more interested in product selection and information than they used to be," American Cedar's Buckley says. "They are Internet savvy and do a lot of their own research independent of the contractor."

Erie gives extensive training on new products, including installation techniques, while providing reps separate product guides and sell sheets.

"Training and knowledge are a huge part of it," Erhard says. "Our people can sell anything, if they believe in it and they understand it with confidence."

The Real Deal

Looking to sell new products or a new category? Industry experts emphasized these keys:

Understand Your Customers: Know their needs, wants and goals, then figure out what types of products might make their business more successful. Builders are in the business of selling homes, not buying products.

Fill the Void: Know what your competition is offering and try to bring products on board that aren't in the market now. Don't just offer the same old thing everyone already has in their warehouses.

Realize the Logistics: When selling a new product, understand the logistics of getting the product from a vendor's distribution center to the job site. Do you have enough of the product in stock to meet orders, or has the product become a specialty order item? The latter could deter customers from ordering the product due to the lengthy time it might take to get it to the job site.

Know the Product: Understand its technical aspects and keys to installation. Being that much more of an expert about the product can help your sale. It can also help iron out any challenges that might occur on the job site, or resolve claims that part of the product wasn't delivered.