What Your Customers Really Want

From the perspective of an end-user, what makes a good distributor? What are the qualities that end-users are looking for in their suppliers? When their money is put down on the table, what expectations do they have about the products they are buying and the person (you) from whom they are buying it?

The editors of Welding & Gases Today went to their LinkedIn contacts and Twitter followers to find end-users willing to answer questions about their experience purchasing gases and welding equipment. The end-users weighed in on the relationship between distributor and manufacturer and their view on how to make it better. Generally, end-users say communication is good with their suppliers. They have strong ideas on what they look for when choosing a supplier and are not afraid to move on when their needs aren’t met. Surprisingly, more end-users ranked the availability of good service over low price as their number one priority when choosing a supplier.

On the following pages are some of the comments received from end-users.

“We purchase bulk industrial gases, cryogenic gases and lots of equipment. It’s real important that a supplier be able to define why a given product is better or worse than another. If we buy acetylene gas from supplier X who charges $100, and supplier Y charges $80, and X isn’t communicating what else he brings to the table, then at the end of the day, price will always be the deciding factor. That’s not necessarily the right thing for our company, but unfortunately, if we don’t know about the other pieces of the puzzle—service, support, training—then price is the deciding factor. The people on our end making the purchase are really just buying what they have always purchased, and they don’t know there is more available, i.e., improved technology, advanced training, better service. We’re a large company with several locations across the U.S. I prefer that our branches use local distributors, as long as they are competitive on price and bring more to the table than just product. I think the local distributor adds value, particularly with training and safety. We’ve had some incidents where someone has gotten injured because they were welding improperly or a tank spilled over on a cart and crushed their toe. These are things that training can help us improve. There really are not a lot of local or regionalized suppliers that offer this type of training.”

—Matt Lucas, Category Manager
at Aleris International

Provider vs Product Chart“I look at a product’s quality and reputation, but the bean counters put price above everything else. We use bid quote, so low price means a lot. I think that fast delivery is one of the most important traits a supplier can have. Most of our equipment is used for gas metal arc welding, and I like working with a local distributor who stops by and keeps me up to date on new products and technologies.”

—Bill Behnke, Welding Engineer
at Valiant International

“I want my distributor to have product in stock. And I want it immediately when I need it, so I don’t have to hold the inventory. Price and service are equally important when deciding where to buy, but generally the decision is based on the reputation of the supplier. Our company buys argon, acetylene, oxygen and the bulk of supplies from a local distributor because, to us, the service our distributor provides is paramount.”

—Lynn Baker, Manufacturing Manager
Company Name Withheld

“We do pipeline welding almost exclusively. While price is important, at the end of the day, if the product has issues or it isn’t exactly what we need, service becomes crucial. Automated equipment is purchased directly from the manufacturer, as our application is very specific. We expect the manufacturer to know the ins and outs of their equipment and support us with that knowledge. We buy consumables from local distributors, and we want the best consumables as we push the limits on strength and toughness. In many cases, we’re willing to pay more for a superior product, but we’ve been disappointed with some of the major consumable providers. Depending on the year, we go through 100,000 to 200,000 pounds of welding wire. I would think that would be enough to get some specific things developed for us. But they don’t seem very interested. It would also be nice if the consumables were stocked on our supplier’s shelves. As the economy recovers and projects increase, it may be more of a struggle to meet our clients’ requirements with available product. If we have to, we’ll go overseas. We’ll go wherever we can to get the consumables we need to do the work. It might cost a little bit more to do that, but that cost differential is probably less of an impact than falling behind on a project.”

— Joel Troyer, Welding Engineer for Technip

Full Service vs Specialized

“I look for two things when I purchase gases and equipment: The supplier’s service must be good, and the price must be good. I’ve gone through several different suppliers to find the one that can meet our standards in both areas. If the service starts to drop, I’ll find someone else whose pr ice may be a bit higher, but whose service is spot on. However, I’m not going to pay an exorbitant price just to get good service. If I have to consider only price, I’ll shop at the big-box stores. I want courteous conversation, and I need to be able to talk to a salesperson. When I have a question, I want an answer. I don’t like it when everything runs through a computer and there is no personal response. I don’t want an automated relationship.”

—Mike Peacock, Production Manager
at Viastore Systems

“I use a local distributor for one reason: they’re local! A full-service provider offers greater selection. My needs are simple: good service, a great reputation and the ability to deliver quickly. The distributor’s merits are more important to me than the product’s reputation. In 20 years, I have not had any communication breakdowns with my distributor. I’m happy.”

—Harvey Beck, Owner of Harbert’s Products

“Gases and welding is all about who can provide the best service. Everyone offers the same kind of equipment, and everyone is price-competitive. I purchase bulk oxygen, nitrogen and cutting gases from a local distributor because I want that personal touch. I’ve noticed that manufacturers don’t often visit our facility to be hands-on with their distributors. We got better at controlling costs during the recent downturn. I’d like to know what we can do differently that will reduce more costs, and manufacturers have the technical expertise that can help us do that. For example, I’m reading about some adhesives that are replacing welding. What technology is out there that will help us reduce more costs?”

—Gary Powers, Director of Sales and Marketing for Cast-Fab Technologies

Service vs Price Chart

“It’s tough for a lot of us who manufacture in the United States to compete against companies buying cheaper materials overseas. With the economy the way it is, many are really dependent on getting that lowest price and have ditched vendors they’ve had for years because they can get something for five dollars cheaper. As a manufacturer, we have to compete against this, so a lot of what we buy is based on price. But while pricing is a big factor, I think the service the distributor can provide is very important. There are a lot of guys out there who are quick to call and email me and are always in my face when they want to sell me something. And after they do, when something goes wrong, they’re nowhere to be found. I want my distributor to be there for me, so I buy local. In some cases, prices are higher but their service and reputation for quality are above all else.”

—Nick Shirk, President of Alum Metal Fab

“We target aerospace and defense industry applications, and as a titanium company, we use very pure argon. We buy automated equipment from integrators and power supplies from a local manufacturer’s rep. The level of support the manufacturer can provide is superior to that of an authorized distributor. The supplier’s service and price are not our top considerations; product quality is of prime importance. Do they use state-of-the-art technology? When working with a supplier, I want good service across the board and a quality product. If I’m not getting that, I look for another supplier.”

—Manager of Welding Technology & Business Development
Individual and Company Names Withheld

“Service is a given. Price is king. In today’s market, cost is a tremendous sway when choosing a supplier. When dealing with a nitrogen generator on-site, my choice of a supplier is based on the most economic equipment that meets the purity requirements. When I’m getting bulk gas, transportation cost is an issue. Then I want a local provider. Our providers are predominantly the large national distribution companies, but I also use a local independent in some locations that can provide on-site service, as well as the labor to deliver packaged gases to our labs.”

—Michael Sweeney, Category Strategy Manager for
Supplies & Services at Pfizer Inc.

Not Getting From Supplier Chart

“A bid contract is developed based on our anticipated needs for the year, and since this is a government facility, the contract goes to the lowest bidder. We deal with the very large national and international distribution companies because they are able to deliver gases and supplies two or three times a week. We’ve run into situations that caused us to switch suppliers, once when the gas we were getting didn’t have the quality level we specified. We recently fabricated a commercial nuclear reactor closer head for a power plant and found inconsistent compliance with the marked color schemes on the cylinders. Our supplier is doing better with this, but we’d like them to do more. We prefer a full-service provider because if we change directions, we want to be confident the resources will be available. We have a cryogenic application coming up—the national thermal nuclear energy research reactor for France—and we are building very large cryogenically cooled magnets. Our current supplier knows we’ll come back to them as long as they keep delivering good products and services and continue to meet our needs.”

—M. Applegate, Weld Engineer
Nuclear Operation Group at Babcock & Wilcox

How has the economy impacted
your buying practices?

“The amount of dollars invested in equipment has decreased.”
“There are more eyes on cash flow.”
“Every PO is signed off at a high management level. They used to just go through.”
“Spending $100,000 used to be no big deal. Now $5,000 is a big deal.”
“At one time I had five tanks of gas available. If one went empty, I had a spare. Now I have two full tanks. I have to keep closer ties on the flow.”

 

“For a recent project, all the bidders had equally good reputations, so I went with the lowest qualified bid. We don’t have one key supplier, so the reputation of the supplier is very important to me. Starting out, both sides should set guidelines on inventory accountability. The customer needs to manage their side and police the bills, and the supplier should provide accurate information and keep the buyer aware of inventory levels. It would help to get more up-to-date inventory reports from my supplier. I wish the supplier would visit on a regular, monthly basis to check in on things and just ask, ‘Is everything OK?’ rather than coming in only when I call them. ”

—Harland Chadbourne, Corporate
Purchasing Manager for Waste Pro USA

Manufacturer Support Chart

“My number one expectation from our suppliers is good technical support. This is why I personally prefer to purchase directly from the manufacturer. They usually have better service and technical support than the local distributor. When I run into issues, they’re not textbook problems. They require someone who’s been through a lot of applications. We manufacture automotive torque converters, and we are using pure argon, a pre-mixed argon-hydrogen blend, and other gases. If we run into trouble, we need someone who’s dedicated to TIG welding, not someone who deals with multiple processes. We expect knowledgeable people to answer our questions in a timely manner. Whether or not their product or consumable is responsible for our challenge, we expect them to help us with our process. I also want consistency. If a power source is being replaced after many years, I expect the replacement product, which probably has been upgraded, to integrate seamlessly. If I have to make all kinds of adjustments or redevelop a process because the equipment has been upgraded, that’s a problem. If that occurs, I expect hands-on support from the supplier.”

—John Paul Biggers, Research
Weld Engineer for LuK USA

“The merits of the product, including its reliability and reputation in the field, are more important to me than where I purchased it. I prefer using a local distributor when buying equipment, preferably a full-service distributor. If I have any questions or problems with the product, it’s much easier to get hold of someone and have it taken care of. We use sonic welders as well as generic TIG welding in our tool room, and I’m looking mainly f or reliability and a good price.”

— Steve Marquart
Plant Manager at Injectronics

Prefer to Buy From Chart

“I like using a full service, local distributor who meets my first purchasing criteria: ability to offer service. While price is important, I look at my supplier’s expertise in a particular area and make sure they’re knowledgeable about the products they are going to sell me. Do they offer solutions? Sometimes an outside eye can see things I can’t see. We’ve had challenges regarding the length of time it sometimes takes to receive a quote. To avoid this, both sides can improve. We have to give the distributor specific information and make sure they understand exactly what we need. The distributor needs to make sure they have a full understanding of what we’re looking for and understand the urgency of what we need to get done. I also think a face-to-face presence is necessary. One manufacturer shows support to us when he visits our facility alongside his distributor. This particular manufacturer comes often and helps with solutions. Others are a different story. There is one manufacturer’s rep who has visited us twice in 12 years.”

—Joel Armstrong, Welding Engineer at
LeTorneau Technologies

Gases and Welding Distributors Association