Chemical education programs to build customer relationships
As a pool dealer, you probably carry a dizzying menu of chemicals. When a customer comes in with questions about proper use of chemicals for one situation or another, it’s a perfect opportunity to build a relationship on the consumer’s terms, provided you can supply the right answers, backed by working knowledge and expertise.
Just about every major chemical company (and some pool manufacturers) has created a relationship with its dealer network by providing some sort of education program — which, in turn, allows the dealer to build relationships with their customers and their business. None of this is altruistic, but a common-sense approach to operating and building business. It’s a resource available for the taking.
Johnny Garcia is director of retail chemical and national accounts at PoolCorp. Under his aegis, the company has five retail specialists who are constantly working in the field; in part, these folks work with specialty retailers who carry PoolCorp products to teach them what each product does, and how to sell and display it in store. “Consumers want to understand what they are buying,” Garcia says. “We show dealers how to communicate how a particular product works and how the product will get [customers] back to enjoying their pool quickly.”
At BioGuard, education manager Alicia Stephens is passionate about making sure her network of dealers is well versed in its products, too. “We believe our dealers are some of the best-educated in the industry; the more knowledge and understanding they have of chemicals and how they can be used leads to a better consumer experience,” Stephens says.
Imperial Pools builds brand loyalty with dealers through its BASOC Elements training program (basocelements.com). “We recognized as a manufacturer and distributor that we weren’t doing a very good job helping dealers — and by extension, their customers — take care of their pools once they were done,” says Ed Price, director of training at Imperial. “One of the first things we did was take a look at how chemical education was getting to the market. We learned quickly that the chemical-makers emphasis was on the products they sold most; there wasn’t any particular order. The BASOC program is grounded on the five basic categories of pool care: water balance, pH adjustment, water sanitization, oxidation and control of algae and minerals.”
With research, Price recognized dealers were experiencing difficulty understanding water-chemistry concepts and were often in a precarious position when trying to communicate proper water treatment to its customers, who often walked away confused. Price also saw that chemical companies who had effectively communicated the complexity of chemical treatment had the strongest dealer networks, while creating competitive differentiation as well.
In a crowded and highly competitive marketplace, Stephens says arming retailers and their staff with knowledge leads to better customer relationships, long-term business, increased per-customer value and brand loyalty.
Each spring, BioGuard rolls out its H2Know education platform for dealers. Stephens and her team travel across the country and offer in-depth technical training, open to all dealers in its pipeline. It’s an aggressive program with 50 such trainings annually.
Perhaps one of the most popular education offerings from BioGuard is its online webinar series, available 24/7. Kim Wolter, owner of Wolter Pool and Spa in Beloit, Wis., makes these webinars mandatory for her staff, especially seasonal hires. “People can go to a big chain and buy chemicals,” Wolter says. “But when they come to our store, they’re getting expertise to help solve a water-treatment problem…. When I observe our seasonal employees, it’s amazing to see how much they can learn in a year. Plus, it’s gratifying when a customer is delighted you solved their problem.”
The BioGuard webinars start with the basics of water chemistry, all the way up to a more advanced working knowledge. There are three levels of certification for this online training, which culminates in the student being named a BioGuard Water Care Expert. Stephens says BioGuard began offering training at the repeated request of dealers who wanted be a trusted advisor to customers.
Jennifer Hamilton operates Poolman of East Windsor in Connecticut with her husband and son. Hamilton says Imperial Pool’s training programs have had a positive effect on not only new and seasonal staff, but also seasoned employees. “This was a re-education process for us,” Hamilton says. “We have a gentleman who’s worked here for 30 years. After one of the trainings, he was shocked to learn of the importance of calcium in the water-treatment process. It was something he never mentioned to customers until he went through training from Imperial Pools.”
While PoolCorp does not offer web-based education, it successfully produces The Retail Summit, an annual event each January for pool professionals. Attendance is by invitation only. In addition to a robust variety of vendors from chemical companies, there is structured training on topics like new products, how to market and technical aspects of products. The live, in-person training routinely attracts about 300 dealers. Garcia says only certain dealers in its network receive an invite — the ones focused on growing, expanding their customer base and wanting to learn how to compete with big-box stores and online retailers, Garcia says.
For dealers looking to offer customer-training events, BioGuard, PoolCorp and other manufacturers offer some level of assistance. Wolter successfully latched onto this concept with off-season “Pool School” events in her store, which are routinely and predictably packed with vendors and customers.
“Our dealer base has received our programs very positively…there’s so much more information that we’ve been able to offer our dealers than have ever been available in the past,” Garcia says. “Our goal is to help them take this knowledge and successfully apply it to their consumer base.”
Price at Imperial Pools cites “an explosion” in dealer interest in their BASOC Elements program shortly after its introduction in late 2013. “We’ve heard from several dealers about how our program has enhances their business,” Price says. “We also go a step beyond chemical training, water testing and education programs by offering a done-for-you retail design package, with product displays that help guide the consumer toward water-treatment solutions and reinforce the dealers’ expert status.”
BioGuard’s Stephens says one of the ways these programs work for her company is competitive advantage: “We use it as a value-added element for our dealers and as a prospecting tool,” Stephens says. “When we pitch new dealers, we stress to them that we will make sure they are among the best trained dealers in the industry.”
While not sharing specific numbers, Garcia says its education outreach has translated into measurable and continued growth. Stephens echoes that statement. “We’re driving our bottom line with it because the better-educated our dealers are, the more products they’re able to sell and the more they’re able to buy from us,” she says. Price says his dealer network is also armed with a deep network of advisors to help provide answers and solutions to even the toughest water-treatment problems.
These companies are creating value by giving dealers and their employees an education on their product line free of charge. The more-informed dealer is better able to meet the needs of customers, building trust and relationship-based business — which is virtually impenetrable by the Goliath retailers in your market.