How Visibility Creates A Competitive Advantage

Recently, a reporter from the Home Section of the Washington Post contacted our showroom and was fascinated by a unique product. We were excited by the prospect of having the product and our showroom featured in the Post. Well, what we envisioned as a positive turned out to be a nightmare. The product was featured, and we were the only showroom mentioned where the product could be obtained. However, the reporter also identified a Web site where the product was available at a 40% discount from the manufacturer's suggested retail price that I provided to the reporter.

My initial reaction was anger. I vowed that I would never talk to that reporter again. On second thought and upon advice from a public relations professional, I realized I needed to reconsider. Union Hardware is one of the oldest and best-known showrooms in the region. We have been the subject of favorable media attention over the years. It would be penny-wise and pound-foolish to reject a reporter simply because I did not like the way a story was covered.

Raising Awareness

Favorable media and customer relations are assets to any business operation. Good press from the papers, customers or other sources enhances a company's image. Good press creates awareness. Owners of decorative plumbing and hardware cannot spurn the media or look at reporters as adversaries.

Like most of us, the press wants to find the path of least resistance to complete any given task. The easiest path to many reporters is to call contacts who are ready, willing and not afraid to talk to them.

No one knows this better than Donald Trump. Trump' during his early career'became a media darling of sorts simply because he was accessible. He understands the job that reporters and the media have to do and is accommodating and forthright. He was the path of least resistance. Now, he's everywhere.

While it is nice to be featured in the local paper or trade press, public awareness pays far greater dividends than gratifying one's ego. Many showrooms have to compete against national companies that are household names, include glossy four-color inserts in weekend editions of the newspaper or undertake multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns.

To compete for the hearts and minds of our customers, we have to be known and we have to constantly communicate a clear message that resonates with our target audiences. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a showroom to operate in obscurity. Media and public relations can help to level the playing field. Learning how to work with the media and take advantage of exposure opportunities can contribute significantly to a showroom's credibility and visibility, regardless of size. Credibility is key. It is difficult to create or foster creditability if a company's successes are unknown. It is axiomatic that one needs to obtain credit for one's successes, and that credit is the fundamental upon which credibility is based.

Consider a designer who has solicited proposals from several showrooms for a project. One of the companies is well known to the designer, but the others are more obscure. Which company is more likely to receive the project if all of the other factors are considered equal? Which company is more likely to receive the project if the reputation of one company is that it delivers products and services on time and on budget while the others do not have a similar track record or their performance is not known? It only takes one bad project for designers, builders and customers to recognize the value of superior customer service.

The same principles apply to employee recruitment and retention and the ability to attract new lines, unique product offerings and exclusives. Simply put, do you want to do business with someone you know or someone you don't? Positive familiarity creates a competitive advantage.

Honing Your Image

Working with the press is only part of the process of creating a showroom's public image. A fundamental responsibility of showroom owners is to create, enhance and protect the public face of the corporation. Often, achieving this goal requires owners to move beyond their comfort zones by speaking in public, opening their showrooms to the trades, hosting new product introductions, providing technical training to designers and installers, becoming visible in the community, participating actively in industry organizations and taking advantage of technology.

Like many of my peers across the nation, we try to differentiate our showroom by projecting an image of providing superior service. However, our idea of superior service does not necessarily agree with the expectation of customers. I learned this lesson the hard way.

Several years ago I received a call from an irate customer demanding to speak with an owner. The customer was disproportionately upset that a product scheduled to be delivered within three weeks did not arrive for five weeks. She stated, "You charge enough, why didn't you care enough to inform me that there would be a delay?" I tried to explain that, given the volume of orders that we process, it was almost humanly impossible to track every single customer order and know if they are delivered on time.

The truth of the matter is that we were both correct. It was humanly impossible to effectively track the thousands of orders we place every month. Nonetheless, it was not unreasonable for the customer to expect a notification of a delay.

The conversation had a profound effect that led to the development of our Concierge Service. It is based on the premise that if something is not humanly possible, we shouldn't rely on human beings to perform the task. Our Concierge Service is an automated order tracking system that keeps in constant communication with customers and manufacturers to help assure deadlines are met and customer commitments are honored.

The system is relatively simple and can be easily applied to any showroom that uses a point-of-sale database. When an order is entered, a fax is automatically sent to the manufacturer and a confirmation of the order is sent to the customer that identifies the anticipated delivery date. We have customized the correspondence to mirror the look of our Web site to help cross-brand different communication. If the deadline passes and the order has not been received, an automated fax is issued to the manufacturer requesting a status report. A second fax is issued, if necessary, to obtain an update of the anticipated delivery date. Upon receiving a response, a shipping manager enters the new delivery date. That entry triggers an automatic e-mail or fax over the salesperson's signature to the customer apologizing for the inconvenience the delay may have caused and advising the customer of the new delivery date.

The results have exceeded our wildest expectations. Part of our new salesperson training includes preparing staff to hear from satisfied customers who thank them for the e-mails and status reports that we send. Our program customizes the process to make it personal. Our Concierge Service enhances our image, increases our credibility and provides a service that many of our competitors cannot match.

Many showrooms may find it difficult to develop an effective customer relations and/or media strategy on their own. Expert help generally is needed to build competitive visibility. This is where participation in trade associations, becoming visible in the community and networking with peers can be a source of tremendous assistance.

I have found that my peers in the industry are more than willing to share their ideas and experiences. Organizations such as the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association (DPHA) also serve as an invaluable resource. The members-only section of the DPHA Web site offers business practice models ranging from sample employee manuals to easy-to-use door hardware take-off systems. DPHA also will help its members create competitive visibility by publishing a series of consumer kiosk messages in 2005 that assist showrooms in differentiating themselves as professional organizations from competitors whose actions illustrate that the primary reason they are in business is simply to sell products.

We need to move beyond our comfort zones to create an overall corporate communications program that makes a statement reflecting what our companies are and what we want them to become.

As to the feature that appeared in the Washington Post, there is a positive postscript. I learned a valuable media relation's lesson that I can share with my peers. Additionally, the manufacturer contacted the Web site that was offering the discount to indicate that those practices violated the company's policies and could not continue if the site was to remain a customer. The product is now listed at the full retail price.

Barry Goldberg is v.p. of Union Hardware in Bethesda, MD. He has been involved in the decorative plumbing and hardware industry for nearly 15 years and served as one of the driving forces for the formation of the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association. He currently serves on the DPHA Board of Directors and as a member of the DPHA Executive Committee. DPH Perspectives is published every other month exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design News.