After several years and dozens of surveys across distribution industries, we’ve found that customers have very specific communication preferences. We asked them to rate various types of communications and the frequency they wanted to hear about them from their distributor. In every case that we have done this research, the distributor is astounded to learn how open customers are to appropriate and timely marketing and sales communication.

The following table summarizes these results:

Communication Type Frequency
Email Weekly to Monthly
Sales Rep Visit Varied Widely
New Product Flyer Monthly to Quarterly
Catalog Annually
Specialty or Mini-Catalog Quarterly
Technical Bulletin Monthly to Quarterly
Phone Call Monthly
Product Discount Flyer Monthly to Quarterly

Customers have indicated a preference to receive communications in both digital and print formats. It’s not a surprise that they still want to receive the traditional print catalog once per year. As we’ve discussed in past articles, print is still a very viable and preferred form for customers to have a complete view of your products. Due to economic pressures, many distributors have either discontinued their print catalogs, or have severely reduced circulation. In industries where a web presence may be in its infancy, it is extremely important to maintain a vehicle that stills offers the breadth of your product selection.

One distributor whose customers we surveyed had stopped sending catalogs unless customers specifically requested them. Through the survey, we found that most of the customers wanted to receive the catalog on an annual basis, because they actively used it to order and source product.

Distributors are often shocked at the responses we receive on email specific questions. One electrical distributor did not want to send out emails, because they felt the emails would be perceived as spam and they didn’t want to upset their customers. When they realized that customers WANT to receive emails about topics relevant to them, they decided to consider an email program.

Respondents said they wanted to receive product related specials and discount offers on a monthly basis. The delivery method for these could range from a 12–15 page print flyer of new products introduced, to a targeted email informing customers of a discontinued item. The key to ensuring your emails aren’t perceived as spam, is to deliver the information the customer is most interested in. It doesn’t make sense to send an email to a customer about a product they would never use, but it makes perfect sense to email a customer with the complementary product to the one they just purchased. Targeted email campaigns are an excellent way to inform customers of your product breadth.

The area where we saw the greatest variance was Sales rep visit. The preferences varied from weekly, to annually, based on the industry we reviewed. Field Sales is the primary sales channel for most distributors, and customers are used to being visited on a normal schedule, based on their need. Although Field Sales is important in uncovering new opportunities and providing a valuable bridge between the customer and the company, it is also the most expensive sales channel.

In fact, we found that the customers of a hardware distributor actually preferred receiving a weekly or monthly phone call rather than a field sales visit. There are many reasons for this, ranging from better relationships with inside sales, customer time constraints etc. but the point is to expand customer touches beyond the normal field sales call. Customers are open to hearing from you in a variety of different ways. This opens the door to additional opportunities to extend your company’s reach with less expensive touches such as emails and proactive phone calls.

Proactive phone calls are another key communication type. They will be more expensive than an email, but are still 1/10 the cost of a field sales call, and are just as, and in some cases, even more effective than a field sales call. Don’t assume that your customers only want a field visit. In many cases they may prefer a phone call with targeted information, that only takes a few minutes rather than spending an hour with a field sales rep. Cost comparisons between field sales and outbound calls are significant:

Type of Sales Average Contacts/Day Average Contacts/Year Average Annual Salary Average Cost per Contact
Field Sales 3-4 750-1,000 $100,000 $100-$133
Outbound Call 20-25 5,000-6,250 $45,000 $7-$9

Outbound calling enables many more contacts at a much lower cost per contact than field sales. Field sales will always be necessary, but when combined with an outbound calling program could be used even more effectively.

In summary, customers should be allowed to choose how they want to receive your communications. They can be asked on an inbound phone call, a field visit or even an email. Tell them that you want to let them know about those things that interest them, and that you will respect how they want to receive this information. Trust in your company’s value, and don’t assume that customers don’t want to hear from you!