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Getting the Most Out of Distributor Relations (Conclusion)

When disaster strikes, the right partner can make a huge difference

CHICAGO — When a relationship is working well, there’s a tendency to start to take it for granted. Dry cleaners looking to grow into the future, however, would be well-advised to keep their partnership with their distributors fresh and alive. A distributor can assist their cleaners is ways that might not always be obvious.

In Part 1 of this series, we examined factors to look for when forging a relationship with distributors, and in Part 2, we looked at the benefits of working with a trusted partner. Today, for the conclusion, we’ll see how a distributor can help a dry cleaner navigate a crisis and make it through to calmer waters.

Serving During the Pandemic 

As piece counts dropped when the pandemic lockdowns took effect, the shock wave hit the cleaning industry's distribution sector immediately after it struck dry cleaners. Not only did the need for supplies drop, but distributors had a heartbreaking front-row seat as their clients fought for their financial lives. 

“The coronavirus has had an impact on an already vulnerable industry,” says Marc Katzman, president of Metropolitan Laundry Machinery Sales. “With dry cleaners struggling before the pandemic, we have seen fewer stores who are able to keep their doors open. If the coronavirus has shown us anything, it is that we must look out for one another’s safety.”

“The pandemic has been extremely harsh for us and the entire industry,” says Andrew Dubinski of Texas-based Mustang Enterprises. “The calls have slowed now, but for about six months, we got a call two or three times a week about a dry cleaner closing and needing to liquidate their equipment.”

“The pandemic has affected our business by causing most of our customers to have to reduce staff or close,” says Larry Lieberman, president of North Carolina’s B&G Lieberman Co. “Sales of supplies are down, but we hope that in the next six months, as stores return to normal, that our supply side will improve, as well.”

While orders fell, Katzman believes that dry cleaners earned their “essential business” status and were particularly well-prepared from a health perspective during this challenging time.

“Dry cleaners have always practiced safety and cleanliness within their stores,” he says, “so, when the pandemic hit, they were ready to rise even higher when it came to the safety of their employees and customers. I see distributors, as well as dry cleaners, maintaining their loyalty to keeping their customers safe by continuing to provide an essential service to their communities.”

For those dry cleaners who survive, Dubinski says, there is the potential to gather business from the companies that had to shut their doors.

“A lot of our customers have picked up laundry contracts with bed-and-breakfasts, Amazon warehouse wear, insurance fire/flood claims, and so on,” he says. “We all have been forced to diversify and change our business model. As weddings and events come back, religious services reopen, and people return to their offices, we are optimistic that our industry will thrive.”

Besides offering their advice and observations about the industry, John Silverman, president of Tschopp Supply Co., believes that one of the most valuable things a distributor can do for clients is simply to let them know that they are there for them.

“We’ve become obsessive about communicating with our customers through our newsletter, and our sales staff have doubled down on calling on their people,” he says. “For us, the pandemic has put customer service at the forefront of what we do.”

This effort, Silverman believes, has given his customers a much-needed boost through the dark times: “A lot of people thought that, with the pandemic, customers might not need as much service. We think that people need our services more now than ever. We think in-person customer service is very important.”

“All of us have really learned what’s truly important in our lives,” says Mark Towery, vice president of Tschopp. “We have spent thousands of hours on the phone and in person speaking with our customers. They are truly our friends before, during and after the pandemic. Some of these conversations were heartbreaking, but I believe we helped them, just as they’ve helped us. This pandemic isn’t forever, and we’ll get through it. Friends first, sales second.”

A Powerful Partnership 

Having the right relationship with a distributor can help a dry cleaner in good times or bad. It’s a collaboration that boosts both parties — but the relationship needs to be built and maintained from both sides.

“If customers are not feeling connected to their distributor,” Silverman says, “they should seek out the distributor principal, give them a call and talk to them. A lot of us are out there, willing to talk to people and help them with business problems in general. I think that it’s important to stay in touch, even if you’re just calling to say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? How are things going there?’”

“Distributor relations are critical to the success of the drycleaning industry since the pipeline cannot be filled by just one company,” Lieberman says. “Relationships are still the best way to do business — not by price alone. Customers know that many factors affect the price; quality is very important and knowledgeable servicepeople are not free.”

“We are here to see our customers succeed and here to support the drycleaning industry,” Dubinski says. “Without our strong and loyal customers, we have nothing.”

For Part 1 of this series, click HERE. For Part 2, click HERE.