Supplier & Demand: Building Better Relationships

Mike Antoniak

“If a sign shop doesn’t succeed, we don’t succeed,” says Ken Von Wald, president of Denco Sales, a Denver-based distributor of materials and equipment to the sign industry. 

That acknowledgement sets the foundation for the “highly functioning relationships” between shop owner and supplier that Von Wald sees as critical to partnering in this competitive business. “All business relationships are built on a mutual sense of trust,” he explains. “It predicates an understanding between the sign company and its suppliers that, if we communicate honestly, we can do great things together.”

Greg McKay, general manager for supplier Earl Mich Company in Wood Dale, Illinois, agrees that a beneficial working partnership always begins with an honest dialog. He advises sign shop owners to “communicate” with suppliers the challenges they’re facing and what the supplier can do to make their life easier. “Service is what this business is all about, and we need to know if we aren’t supplying what the customer is looking for,” he says.

In fact, when these relationships sour, it inevitably comes down to some type of breakdown in communications, according to Von Wald. “In a highly functioning relationship, we’re not just taking an order today. We’re also talking about what’s on their horizon, what projects they’re bidding on,” he says. “When there’s a specialty project, they can turn to us for advice on unique materials they may not be aware of.”

McKay recommends one of the best ways customers can help him is with regular feedback. “Let us know about products we may not carry,” he explains. “Let us know if there’s a problem with materials purchased, so we can discuss them with our manufacturers and they can fix it.”

Partners in Success

Though price plays a role in shop owners’ decisions on which supplier gets the order, Von Wald says that focus on price alone can undermine the beneficial role a supplier might play. “Let’s create a scenario that drives costs out of the relationship,” he suggests. “When sign shop owners can communicate candidly with us about what’s going on in their business, we can work with them to make them more successful.”

That can prove critical to meeting today’s challenges. “One of the primary things we provide our customers is working capital,” says Von Wald. “They don’t have to have all their money tied up in materials sitting on their shelves.”

A competitive price is only part of what a reputable supplier should offer, and Stacey Clausen, marketing manager for Fellers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says a supplier can also be a resource for building a more successful business. “Sales reps and manufacturer reps have a wealth of knowledge and experience that customers can tap into. Use these resources to find the right product at the right price to complete your job,” she says. “It’s good to be thrifty, but don’t let pricing be the only factor when making a decision. In the long run, it may cost you more than you saved, if you end up sacrificing service and reliability.”

Dan Barefoot, president of Graphics One, LLC in Burbank, California, also believes shops could miss out on everything a reputable supplier can provide by choosing on price alone. “You may be getting the lowest price but not getting the best value for what you’re spending. Over and over, I’ve seen when people take a short cut, then they have problems,” he says. “Suppliers should be able to provide you with the education and training that will enable you to run a more successful shop.”

Plan Ahead

At Wensco Sign Supply in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Sales/Customer Service Manager Ben Van Houten suggests planning ahead helps maintain good working relationships. “We’re constantly being caught off guard by surprise orders from sign companies who give little or no notice about a big order,” he explains. “The more conversations we can have with our customers regarding their upcoming jobs, the more we can plan to have adequate inventory on hand to meet their needs.”

Robert Martz, president of Chesapeake Graphics in Westminster, Maryland, says shop owners should keep suppliers aware of what’s ahead in their business. “When they know they have a big project coming up and will need more material than they normally order, let us know in advance, so we can be sure we have enough material in stock.”

By “forecasting” their needs, shop owners can really help their suppliers. “When they can look ahead ninety days and tell us what they expect in terms of jobs they’ll be doing and materials they’ll be using, we can make sure we have what they need on hand,” says Barefoot. “And when there’s a special project they’re considering or bidding on, we can also provide advice on what the best materials might be for that job.”

Suppliers with specialized expertise can be the shop owner’s best ally in identifying and developing new services. For example, Barefoot targets specialty niches like metal substrates for dye sublimation printing. “Your supplier should be able to tell you about the costs and investments required to move into new market opportunities like direct fabric printing,” he says.

When shop owner and supplier keep in touch, Van Houten believes both parties benefit. “Speak often with your sales rep or customer service rep and let us know if we’re not giving you the attention you deserve,” he continues. “Let us share our expertise on complicated subjects like LED or neon layouts, paint color matching, and substrate applications.”

Ordering

To avoid misunderstandings, Clausen recommends thoroughly assessing what each job requires before placing an order. “For materials, make sure you know what you want the product to do, how long it needs to last, whether or not it needs be removed, etc.,” she explains.

Ordering in quantity means less orders for the supplier to process and often price breaks for the shop owner. “If you’ve got a project that will require fifty rolls of overlaminate, rather than buying one or two rolls at a time, consider ordering from five to ten rolls,” advises Clausen.

When ordering equipment, take time to closely scrutinize the details of any great deal. “Make sure you know what you’re paying for,” says Clausen. “One company may include a take-up reel with a printer, whereas another may consider that an add-on and charge more for it.”

In day-to-day operations, McKay says sign shops can improve the ordering process with a few relatively simple measures. “Before phoning in an order, make a list to ensure you order the right materials in the right quantities and can then verify the order,” he states. “I highly recommend using suppliers’ online ordering systems to eliminate any potential errors.”

McKay also advises to keep track of the different products you use, so you don’t purchase the wrong item(s). “You want to know exactly what you’re using, to make sure you’re always getting the right material for the job,” he says.

Knowing and adhering to suppliers’ ordering requirements and deadlines also avoids problems. “People inherently wait until late to place an order, and then miss our delivery cutoff,” explains Martz. “When you order earlier, you’re assured it will ship that day. And whenever possible, try and consolidate orders.”

Mertz sums everything up: “Any way sign shop owners are willing to work with us helps us both out. When they’re happy, we’re happy.”


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