Listening skills may not be the first thing that comes to mind at a plumbing and heating supply house. During one of my treks, I made the time to acquaint myself with the front counter people. I usually find an abundance of insight, smiles, and good service lessons to learn from those who work the counter. Similar to any organization, when you really want to know what is happening, ask the folks on the front line. Doing this will almost always reveal the unvarnished truth.

On this particular day, a comical and interesting conversation ensued. “What’s happening these days?” I asked. Jim, one of the counter guys, yelled to his co-worker, “Hey Charlie, this guy wants to know what is happening. Should we tell him about our discussion from the other day?” Charlie looked at Jim, then he glanced at me with a wide grin and nodded his head in the affirmative.

Charlie approached and said that his role has changed much due to this economy. “Some days, I feel like setting out a small bowl of beer nuts, so our customers will feel more comfortable,” Charlie said with a smile that didn’t hide his seriousness.

Based on what I learned from Jim and Charlie, the role of the supply house counter professional is somewhere between a therapist and a trusted confidant.

“I feel more like a bartender on most days,” said Charlie.  “Contractors approach our counter with hard luck customer relationship stories, which sound like romance woes. While we’re not serving booze, we are expected to make our customers feel like they can drown their sorrows and unload on us. And we have to hunker down, nod our head, and listen just like a bartender. The alcohol usually does the talking among bar patrons, but in today’s down economy, these contractors are talking from their gut. They’re really hurting.”


“Our contractor customers are bummed due to the economy,” said Jim. “Fewer residential homeowners are replacing their air conditioners and furnaces. They’re opting to fix their older equipment, which is sometimes 15 or 20 years old.”

Jim explained how challenging it is to find parts for older equipment. I saw Jim’s facial expression turn serious as he explained the difficulty in trying to service legacy equipment and source the needed spare parts. “Tracking down obsolete parts is akin to being a detective,” he says. “It requires ingenuity, bulldog tenacity, and a relentless spirit. However, our customers really appreciate the extra effort, and their satisfaction is our focus.”

As I listened to Jim, an image of trickle-down challenges emerged in my brain. The trickle begins with the homeowner looking to save money by averting a big purchase. A homeowner’s logic, while well-intended, flies in the face of the long-term savings achieved with a more efficient unit. This trickles down to the contractor who lives by the code that, “A bird in hand is better than two in the bush …” and, not wanting to lose the certain, albeit small, repair job, refrains from suggesting a higher efficiency replacement. After all, he doesn’t want to give the impression of being pushy or aggressive because that may cost him this minor business opportunity. Down economies raise fear among entrepreneurs, which results in a scarcity mindset and risk aversion.

Jim has learned that a challenging economy can make work more demanding. A counter professional’s willingness to dig deep and uncover creative resources is what enables long-term business continuity. This is the magic mojo that keeps contractors coming back again and again.

Customer retention is a winning principle in any transactional business model. Contractors have many choices about where to buy their parts and supplies and, more than any other factor, the historical track record of a supply house drives loyalty.

As I listened to Jim and Charlie, it became abundantly clear to me just how much patience, tenacity, and professionalism are required to serve customers well. A mature adult does not allow an economic recession to diminish the service level and compound matters. One thing is certain: Customers who appreciate Jim and Charlie’s empathy will keep coming back — even more so when the economy turns up again.

Listening skills matter.

Publication date: 9/26/2017