Distributors tailor services to new market entrants

April 1, 2002
Contractors entering the voice- and data-cabling field get some assistance from their longtime distributors

Contractors entering the voice- and data-cabling field get some assistance from their longtime distributors.

It is not news to anyone that contractors with skill and experience in wiring disciplines other than voice and data have turned their attention to the "world of Cat 5," as our industry is sometimes called. A great many electrical contractors offer voice and data cabling services, positioning themselves as one-stop shops for end-users who need both electrical and voice/data system installation. More recently, installers of other low-voltage systems, such as sound, security, and alarm systems, have begun to target voice and data cabling as a service that can round out their offerings to customers as well.

And as the saying goes, everybody starts somewhere. A long-time electrical contractor just entering the voice/data cabling field likely will look to several resources for information. One of those resources can be the distributor that the electrical contractor has worked with for years.

Research conducted in summer 2001 by the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED-www.naed.org) indicates that more than 68% of its membership sells voice/data products. Results show that more than 84% expect their voice/data product sales to grow over the following two years.

So, what do these electrical distributors do to assist their existing clientele into the voice/data business? "More than half of the distributors surveyed-56%-reported having a voice/data specialist on staff," White says. An additional 15.9% planned to bring one on staff within a year of the survey. Of those with specialists on staff, the average number of such employees is two.

Nearly 55% of the NAED survey respondents offer voice/data training programs for their customers. An additional 22% planned to offer training within a year of the 2001 survey. Most of that training (62.2%) is at the "fundamental" level, with an additional 31.1% at the "intermediate" level.

Support at the counter

In addition to technical training, advice and support for contractors who walk up to a distributor's counter are also key. In that vein, Conectis, a newly introduced program from Rexel (www.rexeldata.com), aims to make the transition to voice/data business as smooth as possible. Targeting primarily small to medium-sized electrical contractors, Rexel is using Conectis to provide "select product groups to electrical locations," says Bill Albert, Rexel's vice president, datacom. "Our datacom and electrical sales forces are working hand-in-hand, taking advantage of management, inventory, and resources."

The program provides product selection, inventory replenishment, sales and training assistance to all participating electrical branches and their customers. The company said that it will begin rolling out Conectis to all 307 electrical branches in the United States. Albert says he anticipates some of the branches becoming "strategic" locations. He notes that a version of the program has been running successfully in the Middle Atlantic states for a couple of years.

In terms of product availability, electrical, data, and voice, product distributor Graybar (www.graybar.com) is in the final stages of rolling out its logistical network, centered around 16 regional distribution centers. When complete later this year, the logistical network will let the distributor ship orders to 98% of its customers within 24 hours of order placement.

Currently, 14 of the 16 regional distribution centers are operational; the company uses a paperless warehouse management system in its regional zone warehouses. "This system helps us increase inventory and shipping accuracy, increase order fill rates, and provides us with greater flexibility to serve our internal and external customers," says Robert D. Merrill, zone manager.

Joe Ray, a project manager with Interstate Electrical Services Corp.'s Network Systems Group (www.interstateelectrical.com), was in the very position described here just a few years ago. With significant electrical experience behind him, he led the company's launch of the Network Systems Group. "At the time, we were starting the voice and data group, I got help from Graybar, the distributor I had been using for electrical products for a long time," he says.

Graybar assists voice and data contractors with four programs "above and beyond the standard fare of training, having RCDDs on staff, and sending technical personnel out on sales calls when they are needed," says Karl Griffith, national marketing manager. "We align ourselves with quality manufacturers, and we have their inventory in stock," Griffith says, referring to the company's logistics network.

"Also, Graybar Financial Services is a leasing program that helps contractors finance projects for their customers," Griffith continues. "Customers can extend payments as far out as five years, leasing the material, the installation, and the maintenance. The program benefits the contractor because the contractor gets paid when the job is complete, and the amount financed does not count against the contractor's line of credit."

Third is the VIP (Verified Independently for Performance) program; ETL Semko third-party tests products to specifications that exceed TIA standards. "The testing is done randomly; ETL selects products from our stock," Griffith says. He adds that the program also offers the verification of open systems. Explaining specific benefits to contractors, Griffith says that, because the products are tested in channel configurations, the program helps contractors decipher product specification sheets. The installed products will be used as a channel, and channel-performance results are helpful. Graybar also offers promotional materials that contractors can use to articulate the program's benefits to customers.

Finally, Graybar offers the E-Point program, which works like airline frequent-flyer miles; contractors earn points by purchasing selected products. "It is designed for principals of contracting organizations," Griffith explains. "They can subdivide their points and give them to employees. This allows the principals to run safety, sales, or other contests and give out the E-Points as rewards." Graybar began offering the program to its telephone-interconnect clientele in mid-2000, and in January began offering it to its voice/data customers. This month, it rolled the program out to its electrical clients.

Now that Ray and Interstate Electrical have been installing voice and data systems for years, he expects more pricing and delivery support from his distributors than he does technical support. Ray specifically mentioned that the Wilmington, MA branch of Communications Supply Corp. (CSC-www.gocsc.com) has been helpful with pricing and delivery of his data-communications products.

"Nowadays, I get more technical help directly from manufacturers than I do from my distributors," Ray says. Interstate is a certified installer for Hubbell Premise Wiring, among other manufacturers, and through that relationship Interstate gets to preview some prototype products long before they are available on the shelves.

Low-voltage installers

Like electrical contractors, installers of other low-voltage systems are offering voice and data cabling installation with increased frequency. And much like electrical installers, they too can benefit from using their existing distributors in their new business ventures.

Howard Fox, CSC's director of marketing, points out that his company picked up "a significant account base" of low-voltage (alarm, security, and audio) contractors when it acquired a smaller distributor in the Southwest approximately four years ago. This collective base of contractors has approached CSC for support as it has entered the voice/data market.

"We have lent our experience with market segments," Fox explains. "For example, we have pointed out that segments such as health care and education are hot segments. Today, the corporate commercial market segment is not.

"We also provide our customers with technical information," he continues. "We let them know about Category 5e, Category 6, and fiber. And, we provide them with the new tools-literally tools-that they will need to carry out voice/data jobs. So, our support is on three levels: market knowledge, technical skills, and products."

John Pryma, general manager of cable manufacturer Genesis Cable Systems (www.genesiscable.com), markets his products to installers of commercial voice and data structured cabling systems, as well as installers of residential cabling, sound and audio systems, and alarm and security systems. Genesis has a working relationship with distributor ADI (www.adilink.com), which has more than 100 branches and significant market share in the alarm, security, sound, and audio market segments.

"ADI hosts combined training seminar/expositions, during which the daytime is devoted to education and the evenings include exhibits by vendors," Pryma says. "The attendees get educational credits for the courses they take," he continues. ADI takes this program to different cities, and Pryma estimates that attendance typically runs from a few hundred to more than one thousand installers.

"Individual ADI branches also host training days," Pryma adds, "with manufacturers doing a fair amount of training too." He says Genesis has participated in several of ADI's training initiatives.

Patrick McLaughlinis chief editor of Cabling Installation & Maintenance.

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