Technology will increase your efficiency, and theirs.  

While we talk about business being slow and describe today’s economy as a slowdown, what stays stuck in fast-forward mode is your urgent need for information. That just keeps getting faster.

One of the top 10 wholesalers in the country recently met with customer focus groups made up of plumbing, HVAC and electrical contractors. What surprised the wholesaler’s president the most is how much contractors are using the Internet these days as a business tool.

“We were underestimating how much they were using it,” he said during an industry roundtable I moderated last fall. “Just like wholesalers have an instant need to respond to customers, contractors have an instant need for information.”

Being in the information business, we’ve seen this trend gaining momentum for some time now. So much so that we realize you no longer have weeks to wait to receive information in the mail from a manufacturer about a product or service you see advertised or featured editorially in the pages of Plumbing & Mechanical.

You’re much more likely to visit the manufacturer’s website or call its toll-free phone number you see in the ad to get this information immediately. You also can find these URLs and phone numbers in ourAd Indexand the URLs for theproductswe highlight.

In the wholesaler’s case, he said his company is investing in customer relationship management software and sharpening its other electronic business tools in order to stay connected to contractors. That includes a deepening involvement with social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn.

The wholesaler is using social media for a dual purpose: to get its story out to its customers, who primarily are contractors, and to get instant feedback from them. The rise of social media - at least in the PHCP industry - comes as another surprise to the company’s president.

“It’s really gaining steam,” he said. “One of our key manufacturers, Charlotte Pipe, has a Facebook page. Who would think a piping manufacturer could drive interest on Facebook?”

The wholesaler attributes the growing momentum of social media and the Internet as a business tool to a younger generation stepping into leadership positions in their customers’ businesses. That explains part of it, and is only a sign of what’s coming down the road.

An executive with another wholesaling firm on the same industry roundtable has noticed how younger contractor customers are interacting with his younger counter employees. They’re building relationships, but they are different than they were in the past.

“When you have younger customers come in, they’re texting orders,” he said. “Forget email because emailing takes too long. They’re texting.”

The same wholesaler is allowing its best contractor customers to enter their orders directly into its computer system. This step represents another dramatic departure from how business used to be done.

“We have opened up our inventory and our pricing to our partner customers - not all our customers - and they’re using it,” the executive said. “It was like, all of a sudden one day there was a fax machine and you weren’t taking orders over the phone, and now contractors are actually entering orders into our system.”

This process enables contractors to place their orders at any time of the day - or night - and from any location with a computer. They’re not restricted to standing in line during the hours the wholesaler’s counter is open.

With many companies working with fewer people than they did in the past, this type of arrangement allows both contractors and wholesalers to work more efficiently. When business does pick up again, you can expect these technology-driven efficiencies to continue.

That’s why progressive wholesalers are being careful in how they choose their technology. They want to improve the efficiency of the distribution channel but not at the expense of losing the customer relationships they’ve spent years to develop.

“The relationships we created and fostered in the past are going to be different with the next generation of contractors,” one of the roundtable members said. “We have to make sure we stay on top of that change. We’re going to manage those relationships differently and we can’t do it the way we’ve always done it. It will be very important that we prioritize our investments in technology correctly to address that, or we’ll have a problem managing those relationships.”

Your urgent need for information only will increase as your business improves. Forward-thinking wholesalers and man-ufacturers are equipping themselves with the technology that will continue to satisfy that need.