More and more industries are implementing business texting channels, and among them are warehousing, logistics and supply companies. We recently spoke with Gary Gerson, director of information technology at the Wittichen Supply Company in Alabama where they have implemented business texting to complement their ERP and help drive HVAC sales. You’ll hear the specific ways Wittichen uses texting for business and how texting was instrumental in their response to the coronavirus crisis.
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Scott Heimes: Welcome to the Zipcast, where we talk about the latest trends in texting for business, customer communication strategies and technology. I’m your host, Scott Heimes, chief marketing officer at Zipwhip, and thanks for tuning in.
Scott Heimes: One of the industries that’s using business texting more and more is warehousing, logistics, and supply companies. Today we speak with Gary Gerson at the Wittichen Supply Company in Alabama where texting has become a normal way of doing business. You’ll hear how business texting was instrumental in Wittichen’s response to the coronavirus crisis, as well. Stick around to learn more.
Scott Heimes: Welcome to the Zipcast, Gary.
Gary Gerson: Good morning. Thank you for having me.
Scott Heimes: So tell us a little bit about Wittichen Supply Company.
Gary Gerson: Sure. Wittichen Supply Company is an HVAC wholesale distributor. We’re based out of Birmingham, Alabama. We operate 25 locations, 21 of them are in Alabama, two of them are in Georgia and two of them are on the Gulf Coast in Florida. And we’ve been in business for roughly 100 years.
Scott Heimes: Oh wow, 100 years. And what’s your role there, Gary?
Gary Gerson: Yes, I’m the IT director at Wittichen Supply Company. I started in June of 1996 and so I’ve been there for about 24 years. Started in the warehouse while I was in college and kind of worked my way up into the IT department and it’s a great family business and I’ve been here ever since.
Scott Heimes: So just for our listeners, Wittichen is focused on the air conditioning, heating, refrigeration sort of market, right? Your customers are HVAC contractors and the like?
Gary Gerson: That’s right. Yeah. We’re a wholesale distributor of HVAC and our customers are the industrial commercial and residential HVAC mechanical contractors. So if you own a business or a home and you call somebody to come out and work on your air conditioning equipment, then those are those folks that come out to see you or our customers.
Scott Heimes: Well, I know you’re a customer of Zipwhip. Thank you very much for being a customer. But tell our listeners a little bit how Wittichen uses Zipwhip. How do you apply texting for business in your workflow today?
Gary Gerson: Well, the primary use of it is between our customers, our mechanical contractors and our frontline inside sales counter folks. Each one of our branches has multiple guys that work the sales counter and they’re servicing customers that are walking in to pick up orders or to place orders directly at the sales counter. Those guys are also answering phone calls with technical questions all day long and so the inside sales guys are our primary touch point for the Zipwhip product and they’re communicating with the customers through that platform.
Gary Gerson: So it could be a lot of different things. They could be placing an order where we’ve seen customers hand write down an order on a piece of paper and take a picture of it and text it to us and say, “Hey, I need this in 15 or 20 minutes, can you have it ready for us?” That that seems to be a very quick way for our customer base to get an order in is to just hand write it down, take a snapshot of it and send it off. Some of them will text the orders in. They know our part numbers pretty well and so they’ll just text the order in. Some of them will just be asking questions.
Gary Gerson: Another use case that we see a lot is our customers will be out in the field working on a system, they’ll run into a situation where they have a part that’s not working or they’re trying to troubleshoot something and they snap a picture of what they’re working on, whether it’s an evaporator coil or an expansion valve or any of the many parts and pieces that you have in HVAC system. They’ll take a picture of it, maybe grab a serial number or model number and snap a picture of it to one of our guys in the sales counter and somebody will grab that message and start a dialogue back and forth with the customer and usually results in an order being placed. Our guys will take the information from the text message and they’ll plug it into our ERP system and they’re off to the races.
Scott Heimes: So Gary, I understand that you guys also use texting for your delivery routes and for messaging around that. Can you tell us a little bit about how you apply texting for your deliveries?
Gary Gerson: Yes, that’s correct, Scott. We do use texting for our deliveries. Prior to Zipwhip, our delivery drivers would actually physically call the customers that were on the delivery route. So for example, let’s say that our location in Foley goes to 10 or 12 businesses on a Monday every week to deliver a stock order for them. And the previous Friday, this delivery driver would call and do a check in with the customer to see if they had any last-minute requests or needs. And so we actually do a group message with a template and we schedule those out on Fridays and so those alerts go out to the customers that are on that route for Monday. So it gives the customer an opportunity to text in any last minute requests for the delivery run and it eliminates the delivery driver from having to make a phone call, play phone tag for a couple of hours, making sure that everybody has their last-minute requests in. So it’s been a great solution for us and probably saved us a considerable amount of time making phone calls.
Scott Heimes: It’s a very interesting use case. So you must have guys at the counter have access to Zipwhip right there on their terminals and were able to incorporate it that way?
Gary Gerson: Yeah, actually we use the desktop notification application and we use the web application and they run both of them. In fact, we made Zipwhip as one of the startup pages in Chrome. So as soon as they log in in the morning, they start up their browser, their web mail opens up, their Zipwhip interface, web interface, opens up and obviously the desktop alert comes in, opens up automatically.
Gary Gerson: It’s not uncommon for us to have anywhere from four to five to up to ten people at a single location monitoring the line through the course of the day watching for messages and communicating with customers. Just depends on the size of our branches. Some of our branches are satellite branches. Like here in Birmingham we have four satellite branches that are smaller. They have maybe six to eight guys that work in that branch. Whereas our Birmingham location, we have 25 people here at our Birmingham main location. Just depending on the number of people in the branch, the inside sales folks will be logged in.
Gary Gerson: In most cases, at each branch, there’s a main guy who’s taken ownership of it. He’s the lead guy on Zipwhip. He tries to keep tabs on it closely. Everybody sees the messages and each guy has their customers that they communicate with. But we pretty much have a point person at each location that’s responsible to make sure that things are followed up on and whatnot.
Scott Heimes: Handle all the inbounds and track them down. So when did you decide that you needed a texting solution? What were some of the drivers?
Gary Gerson: It’s an interesting question. Yeah, it’s a fascinating question. It came up about a year and a half ago and we were actually approached by a competitor of yours. It’s a company that really is a startup company, they haven’t been around for very long, but they had actually built a platform from scratch and they were targeting wholesale distributors. That was pretty much their marketing approach was that they wanted to be the… And that’s their goal today as far as I know, is that they wanted to be the texting solution for wholesale distributors. And they approached us because they had done some business with some companies that we are affiliated with.
Gary Gerson: Wittichen Supply Company is a member of the Key Wholesale Group Association and the Key Wholesale Group Association is a buying group. It’s a 22 member companies, privately held companies like Wittichen Supply nationwide. There’s about 370 some odd locations nationwide across those 21 businesses. One of the other Key Group members had actually started using this competitor’s product so they reached out to us and they wanted a to do a demo. So we watched their demo and then we took the same approach that we take to a lot of our IT projects is we don’t just jump on the first thing that we see or just do what everybody else is doing. We wanted to do a full evaluation of the market and see what all features were out.
Gary Gerson: So I set off on a course for about six weeks and learned all I could learn about texting because I was a little bit unfamiliar about the texting to phone line technology. And the company that approached us first, I really had thought, Scott, it’s interesting because I thought that they had some proprietary technology that they created and had a patent on. And I thought, man, I couldn’t get my head around, how do you do texting to a landline? I thought there was some magical technical thing that was going on that only they knew about. And so I started doing some research and I realized pretty quickly that, oh, hey, it comes with every landline. It’s just a matter of turning it on, almost like a light switch.
Gary Gerson: And so I thought, well, okay, so they don’t have any proprietary technology in that regard. Let’s go see who else does this. So we started looking around on the internet and started looking to see what other companies do this. And we narrowed it down to about three or four. And then we went through a full evaluation. We sent in our demos, we created some categories that we wanted to rank each of the companies.
Gary Gerson: And we actually, through the first round, we eliminated one company and we got it down to three. So it was the first company that I mentioned, you guys and then another company. And we had, let’s see, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Eight feature points that we wanted to evaluate on and we ranked those three companies one to three on each of the feature points and then we looked to see who had the best overall ranking.
Gary Gerson: Through the course of all this, we learned a tremendous amount about texting. What we found was that it appeared that Zipwhip was way ahead of everybody else in terms of the features, in terms of having been in this industry for a longer period of time. I just personally really just leaned heavily towards Zipwhip and the features.
Gary Gerson: What we ended up doing is, after a short period of time, we narrowed it down to Zipwhip and the initial company that reached out to us and we ended up doing two beta programs, two pilot programs at two of our locations. So we got Zipwhip up and running at one location and the other product up and running at another location. We did that for a solid month. And then we had our inside sales counter guys fill out a survey.
Gary Gerson: During this whole time I was heavily involved in learning all the features and looking at all the different options of the different products and working with the guys on the sales counter to figure out what is working best. We wrapped up this entire evaluation and at the end of the day we decided that it was best for us to go with Zipwhip. And so even though we were approached by a competitor, another company, we ended up going with you guys because we just believed in the product more, had some of the features that the others didn’t have.
Gary Gerson: And so I know that’s a little bit more than ‘how did you first start getting into this?’ But that’s how it all started. We were initially approached by a competitor, but through that, that opened up the door for us to really evaluate the testing platforms.
Gary Gerson: What I really wanted to do, Scott, because I have… My career history, I’ve got a background in programming, I really wanted to just spin up our own entire infrastructure for texting and wired up to our ERP and just do a whole thing. But it’s a little bit unrealistic. For our size company and the amount of resources, it just wasn’t, as much as I would have loved to do that because it enabled me to put my programming hat back on for a little while, it just wasn’t a viable option. So we needed to pick the best solution that was already there. That’s how we got started with texting and that’s how we ended up getting where we are now.
Scott Heimes: Great story. So the impact of the business, you’ve been at it for a year. Any metrics that you can share?
Gary Gerson: Yeah, metrics. We’ve talked with several people about this and this is the hardest one for us, is how do we measure, what tangible piece of evidence do we have that it’s worth the investment, that it’s increasing sales? So it is really difficult to measure that. It’s more of something that you can see and feel, but you can’t put on paper.
Gary Gerson: I know from just looking at the conversations that we’re having with our customers, I just know that it’s a benefit. Now how do I translate that to something in black and white on a piece of paper, on a balance statement? That’s really hard to do because we don’t have yet a way to track an order that has resulted from a text conversation because we’re not classifying or tagging our sales orders. They’re sourced from the sales counter, whether it be phone, somebody walking in and handwriting it or texting. We haven’t broken that out yet because we didn’t want to put that burden on the guys on the sales counter to always have to say what type of order is this on every order that they write.
Gary Gerson: For us, we haven’t had the need to justify the expense. We just know that there’s value there because we see the conversations that are going on with our customers. We know that some of our competitors that are large nationwide companies are using similar texting platforms. In fact, I know some of them are using the other company that originally approached us as part of the reason why we wanted to go another direction and form a partnership with another company instead of just doing the same thing everybody else is doing. So for us it’s kind of a partially keeping up with the Jones’s and also partially just measuring it through what we see with our eyes and ears, not so much what we can put down on paper.
Scott Heimes: Yeah. Well, thank you again for selecting us. It’s really meaningful and we’ve been talking a lot about business as usual, but this year, pretty unusual times right now with the coronavirus crisis. How has the pandemic affected your business at Wittichen?
Gary Gerson: From a sales perspective we’re doing really well. We’re an essential business. We’re grateful for that. As soon as it gets hot, we’ll see how we’re going to do but we definitely prepared for a rough rest of the year just because there’s so much uncertainty. From an operational standpoint we’ve had to make a lot of changes. Our showrooms are still open to our customers, but we enforce a lot of social distancing and we have touchless sales transactions where our customers can come in, give a verbal order over the sales counter, they don’t have to touch a signature pad. We’ll sign on their behalf and give them a copy of their invoice or they can have it emailed to them directly.
Gary Gerson: We offer curbside assistance or curbside delivery. Obviously we deliver it to the customer site. We’ll make deliveries for them. We’ll bring the products out to the curbside if they don’t feel comfortable coming into our branches. Several of the things that we’ve had to do is we have a great relationship with our customers. All of our drink stations where guys… You’d normally come in and can get a free soda out of the drink dispensers, all that’s been turned off. The lunch rooms and break rooms have all been roped off. There’s not a lot of congregating in our sales showrooms, which we’ve been big on that. We have a really good relationship with our customers, like I mentioned, and they like to come in and hang out sometimes, especially in the mornings. So a lot of that’s been limited. So there’s been a lot of operational changes that we’ve had to deal with. But as of right now all of our branches are open and all of our employees are safe and healthy and hopefully it continues.
Scott Heimes: Yeah. Has texting played any role in your response?
Gary Gerson: Absolutely. One of the things that we kind of scrambled to do at the last second was put together the group messages to let our customers know changes in our operational procedures, or we changed our business hours, some of the social distancing, let the customers know about that.
Gary Gerson: And then also we actually had a location where we had a couple of employees tested positive and needed quarantine. We actually had to close the branch for, I believe it was 10 to 14 days, while we sanitized and whatnot. So we needed to let those customers know quickly. We identified quickly who was in the branch based on who had signed for the sales orders on the days where we had an employee that was tested positive and was in the branch. And so we let those customers know which of their employees were in our locations.
Gary Gerson: We used the auto reply feature that we love to where… Normally it’s used for after hours, but we turned it on permanently to let our customers know that our other branches were open for business. We included the text numbers that they could use or business lines that they could text if they wanted to continue those conversations with other branches.
Gary Gerson: Just getting out the word to our customers and then the auto responses. That’s where the group messaging thing that we talked about earlier came into play. We scrambled at the last minute to try to get those messages out in mass. There’s that 50 contact limitation right now on the number of people you can have in a group. I hear that’s being upgraded to 100 soon. I don’t know if that’s-
Scott Heimes: It is.
Gary Gerson: Public public knowledge or not. If I let the cat out of the bag, I apologize. You guys can edit that part out, I suppose. But I did hear that.
Scott Heimes: That is coming. You are correct. Very soon.
Scott Heimes: So as we close this out, any advice you’d give other supply businesses considering business texting? Anything you’ve learned the hard way that you’d try and recommend?
Gary Gerson: I would definitely recommend doing the pilot programs. That was very beneficial for us because you sit in on a demo, and this is with any software project or any service that you’re looking to evaluate. You sit in on demos, I don’t care what company it is, in a demo you always see all the best stuff. I mean, you always see the best features. If the person conducting the demo is really good at what they’re doing, the demo goes really well and you don’t see any of the gotchas or the features that are lackluster. But we like to put things to the test so it was really important and beneficial to us to have the guys on the sales counter conduct that pilot so we could see how do they do with it and just go through all the features.
Gary Gerson: So definitely I would recommend doing a pilot program. I would recommend looking at several different products and finding out what works good for your use cases. Identify all your processes. Make sure you know going in, why are you attempting to do this? What problems are you going to be able to solve with this? And then from there just decide what’s most important to you.
Gary Gerson: I think what it was for us was the templating and the group messaging features. That really put it over the top for us to select Zipwhip because it enabled us to create and schedule messages for our delivery routes. We wouldn’t have probably figured that out if we had not done the pilot program and that put it over the edge for us because that was a feature nobody else had.
Gary Gerson: So definitely do a pilot program. Kick tires and look, beat it up real well and see it for yourself in your own environment.
Scott Heimes: That’s some great advice. Well, hey, Gary, thanks so much both for your business and for joining us today on the Zipcast. I really enjoyed it.
Gary Gerson: You’re welcome, Scott. Thanks for having me today.
Scott Heimes: Thanks for joining us. Now if you’re like me, you enjoy nerding out on texting data and industry predictions. So go ahead and download our new 2020 State of Texting report. You can find this at zipwhip.com/SOT2020. And make sure you subscribe to the Zipcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, so you get the latest episodes. And feel free to text us with topics you’d like to hear about or other feedback for the show. Just send a text to (347) 772-3529. Until next time.