• Contractingbusiness 560 0810rajkovich

    Lau Parts Perfecting Customer Service

    Aug. 1, 2010
    For more than 80 years, Lau Industries has made moving air its business by producing the motors, fans, blowers, louvers and other products and accessories

    For more than 80 years, Lau Industries has made moving air its business by producing the motors, fans, blowers, louvers and other products and accessories that keep the air flowing through homes and buildings. But moving air is only part of the story. Coupled with the quality and innovation of Lau's products are the people behind the products — the men and women who keep the products flowing through the supply chain by working closely with HVACR wholesalers to fill orders, answer technical questions and ensure that they have what they need to help their customers.

    Lau Parts Division is the aftermarket company of Lau Industries, supplying universal replacement products and parts to HVACR wholesalers around the world. "A lot of companies that sell to wholesalers are distributors and aren't making the products," says Sam Rajkovich, Lau's director of sales and marketing. "Not only do we have the advantage of being part of a larger organization, but we're a domestic manufacturer with all of our knowledge in one place and we're the only manufacturer that sells directly to wholesalers in our category."

    Dayton, Ohio-based Lau and its nine manufacturing facilities are scattered throughout the United States, with each location specializing in specific product lines. Its three regional distribution centers in the United States are strategically located near Los Angeles, Dallas and South Bend, IN.

    Edgar B. Lau founded the firm in 1928 as the Lau Blower Co. and produced large volume, high-quality blower wheels. Over the years, Lau grew by bringing new products to the market and by being acquired by larger companies, which has allowed Lau the capital to further develop its products and markets. In 1990, Tomkins PLC, a London-based company that focuses on manufacturing, purchased Lau.

    While the HVACR world knows Lau for its fan blades and blowers, the company also manufactures other product lines that include fire and life safety products, control dampers and louvers. "We really rely on our sales reps to make the connection with the wholesalers in their areas, so they understand that we're more than just fan blades," Rajkovich says.

    While the product line is diverse, the support for these products remains firmly focused at its Dayton headquarters. That's where you can find the full engineering support and customer service for wholesalers along with one phone number — you don't have to page through a directory to find the right department for a specific product. "Having one phone number is a real benefit to the customer," Rajkovich says.

    Customer service is a hallmark of Lau, and the company prides itself on having the highest level of technical knowledge in the industry. "If you were to ask us what our strategic advantage is, that's it," he says. "Our customer service people have an average tenure of 15 to 17 years." Lau customer service goes beyond the knowledge of Lau product lines and how it markets its products, according to Rajkovich. Their staff can also identify and recommend how Lau may be better able to improve a system's operating capability. "A customer may call about part 123, but our staff may say to them that they could use another part with a motor with less horsepower that requires less energy. It pays off."

    Because Lau has been in business for 80 years and has produced so many air moving products, the customer service staff is prepared to handle many different inquiries. Lau once manufactured and sold whole house circular fans before air conditioning became widely used, and Sears named it vendor of the year in 1968 for its humidifiers. Lau advertised its Super 20 pedestal fans in the 1950s on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen. "There are still people out there who use these fans, and they'll call us looking for a part," Rajkovich says. "We try to answer them the best we can." (Lau has a letter and photo posted on its website, www.lauparts.com, from a satisfied customer whose family bought its Lau pedestal fan in 1955 and continues to enjoy it to this day.)

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    While the customer service team in Dayton provides wholesaler distributors and others with the support they need on the phone, Lau's manufacturing representatives are the bedrock of dependability at the HVACR branches and on sales calls. Like the customer service representatives, Lau's manufacturer reps have long histories with the company, with an average tenure of about 20 years. "The real message that we try to get across to our wholesaler customers is that when you're calling someone from Lau, you're getting someone who is experienced, knows the product and knows the customers," Rajkovich says. "We pride ourselves on that. Having reps with such long tenure allows the company to develop deep relationships with customers. Their knowledge of the wholesale business and an understanding of their markets serve as the basis of trust they have developed with customers."

    Lau uses the annual HARDI convention to bring together its manufacturer reps and review new products and conduct refresher training. Rajkovich says the collective experience and shared wisdom of the group is perhaps the most valuable outcome of each meeting. "I always like to say there's more they can teach us than we can teach them." In addition to the HARDI conference, Lau also is actively involved at other shows, conventions and workshops as well as some of the larger independent wholesaler group shows. Their goal is to meet with as many people as possible and gain their insights into all aspects of how they do business. "You can't be easy to do business with unless you understand the needs of your customers and their customers."

    Lau sees HARDI as one of the great equalizers for HVACR wholesalers, offering smaller, independent distributors timely and relevant data and resources, according to Rajkovich. "Having the conference gets people together and gets them on the same page," he says. "What HARDI provides really helps to level the playing field."

    Being at the trade shows or riding with wholesaler customers on sales calls provides tremendous insights to Lau employees. Whether it's a Lau customer service rep, a manager or a manufacturing rep, "We're pretty committed to spending time in the field," Rajkovich says. What they see in the field and what they hear from their wholesaler customers and from those customers' customers inform us on how new products are developed and existing products are reworked. "We rely on the feedback that we get and we really take it to heart when it comes to product development," says Anna Schlotterbeck, Lau's marketing manager. Adds Rajkovich, "I can't think of an instance where a customer recommended something and we didn't make improvements. It's all about partnering."

    As the only manufacturer dedicated to the replacement business, Lau supplies parts for OEMs and is able to stay well ahead of the curve when it comes to what they will require. "I know today what a major OEM will be using next year," Rajkovich says. And every year, Lau adds new parts to its catalog. "We work very hard at determining what's in the market in terms of equipment and making sure that we're going to have the right products to meet the needs of our customers," Rajkovich says. With Lau's in-house R&D team and engineering staff, they are able to supply the industry with the most current and highest quality products and parts.

    The current trend is toward those products and parts for higher-efficiency units, a direction that Lau believes is here to stay. As part of its focus on these issues, Lau recently introduced its Cobra fan blade, which decreases sound and increases energy efficiency 10 times. "Our message is that you can take an old condenser, put new fan blades on it and become greener just by making a simple modification," Rajkovich says. "It's taking equipment and upgrading it, making it better for the environment and saving money and energy."

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    Because wholesalers' customers often need Lau parts immediately, Lau works closely with them to ensure that they have the right inventory in place — reinforcing with them that the product has to be in stock in order for them to be successful in selling it. Lau sees this as part and parcel of its partnership with its customers. "Part of our business is making sure that wholesalers have the products in house when their customers come in and need them. Keeping our focus on the customers gives us a competitive edge over the competition."

    Lau is not trying to win business based on the lowest cost. "There are always going to be people willing to sell for less than you and there are always going to be people who search the ends of the earth to find a less expensive manufacturer," Rajkovich says. That's not Lau's value proposition, nor is it that of its customers. Lau has built its reputation and relationships by providing its customers with products that last, backed up by technical and customer support.

    The qualities that Lau brings to its customers are the same ones that Lau admires in its most successful wholesalers: having a wide variety of air moving parts on their shelves and providing complementary products that encourage customers to purchase more of what they need right then and there. "You don't want to be a one-trick store," he says. When equipment breaks, a contractor most always needs more than one or two parts. "He'll need a store that stocks a pully, a fan, refrigerant. That's what wholesaling is all about, having that breadth of product."

    Lau also is driving business to its wholesaler customers by reaching out to contractors. For Lau's damper products, for example, many of those sales typically occur at the contractor level. Rajkovich explains that Lau will provide contractors with sales literature that they can take to their job site, fill out an order form and take it right to the wholesaler for fulfillment. "It's ordering made easy," he says. Wholesalers can then input that information into a program and provide an instant quote for the contractor. This also makes it easier for the wholesaler.

    While Lau may no longer manufacture pedestal fans or humidifiers that won them acclaim from Sears in 1968, the company continues to provide the service and quality that customers expect. "We've reinvented ourselves as a company so many times," Rajkovich says. Regardless of what's ahead, making it easy for the customer will continue to set Lau apart from the competition.

    Michael Maynard is a business writer based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at [email protected].

    Best Practice

    Lau's best business practice is to have highly trained, technical support staff answering all incoming calls from wholesalers, contractors and building owners as well as dedicated teams of warehouse staff in three distribution locations in order to ensure prompt shipment of orders.

    Definition and Example: Having a well-trained, technical staff makes for the ultimate customer service experience. When someone calls Lau, they don't want to be transferred or put on hold, they want answers to their air moving questions. Lau prides itself on not just having parts numbers listed in a catalog but having the experience and knowledge to service each customer's needs.

    Significance: This has played a very important role in shaping how Lau services its market. Lau is able to leverage this knowledge base because it is the only manufacturer of air moving devices that directly services the wholesaler market — being able to quickly and efficiently service customers leads to a better customer experience and long-term relationships.

    Benefits: Lau has seen the benefit to this strategy pay off short-term and long-term. By having customer service in the same building as R&D and engineering, training is always fresh, relevant and easy to perform. Our positioning as a leading HVACR component manufacturer also gives us an advantage from a new product development perspective. We strive to provide wholesalers and distributors with the latest technology and products to suit their needs.

    Procedure: Procedurally, it is a very simple process. We have developed training modules and exams in-house as a way to train and then measure progress. Additionally, customer service is encouraged to visit our manufacturing locations and other offices to learn and share best practices.

    People involved: For training to be effective, it must involve the entire company. It's easy to get everyone interested if everyone from senior management to the receptionist is interested in learning more about Lau's products. Everyone in the company takes part in extensive product and procedural training.

    Timing: The best way to retain knowledge is to conduct training frequently. Lau holds monthly internal training for all front-line staff as well as in-depth quarterly training and knowledge reviews.

    Cost: Aside from travel expenses, the cost is simply a time commitment.

    Contact: Sam Rajkovich, Director, Sales & Marketing, 937/476-6504, [email protected].

    Lau at a Glance

    Vice President: Dr. Michael Brendel, Lau VP of marketing and engineering Director: Sam Rajkovich, Lau director of sales and marketing Headquarters: Dayton, OH Operations: Dayton, OH; Rochester, IN; Mira Loma, CA; Dallas, TX; Grandview, MO; Juarez, Mexico; Galesburg, KS; Lexington, KY; Geneva, AL; Olive Branch, MS; and Fairmont, WV. Employees: 4,000 Annual Sales: $100 million Major Product Lines: OEM and replacement air moving devices such as fan blades, blower and blower wheels. Related accessories such as Gates brand belts, pulleys and bearings, shafts and service tools. Air control and fire/life safety dampers, louvers, access doors and related accessories. The company has added air curtains to its product line for 2010. Website: www.lauparts.com Year Founded: 1932