Information Technology and the Tool Dealer

Don’t skip over this article, thinking it will be boring. “Information Technology.” It sounds kind of like something a Wall Street business needs. Certainly, we don’t usually match the phrase “Information Technology” with the mobile tool business. For the most part, the tool business operates just as it always has. A tool rep rides around in his truck, sells tools to technicians and collects the money. It hasn’t really changed all that much. So why be concerned with IT?

First, it would be helpful to explain exactly what IT is. IT is the science of maintaining computer hardware and software in a way that makes it easy to use information. That is the computer geek’s explanation. That doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

I have almost 19 years of route sales experience. I spent 10 years as a bread salesman, operating a route much as we do for tools. During that time, computers became much more prevalent in the route sales business. I watched many of my fellow vendors go from sales pads to handheld computers. The company that I worked for was one of the last to begin to embrace computer technology. When I was issued my first computer, it was quite a day for me. Up until that time, we used a sales pad, route book and manual cash up and order system. I had figured that the company would allow us to do all of these things with a computer.

They had other plans. Our manager was very much against the computer technology, so it was only allowed to be used for the billing and cash up, but not for the ordering. We still had to use route books for that! I remember being very frustrated with the fact that I was not allowed to embrace this technology that could make my life so much easier, my route performance faster, and my time more productive.

Eventually the company had to get with the times, and allow the selling records and ordering to be done with the handheld computer. Good-bye route books and manual paper orders (I remember having to print off a paper copy of all sales records and orders for the route … which could stretch in length up to 30 pages!)

In 1998, I entered the world of the tool route. My first computer was a Panasonic Toughbook, running Windows 95. The hard drive was about 20 Megabytes. That PC was certainly an antique by today’s standards. You could run the software that you used to operate the route and manage the inventory. If you were really clever, you could possibly run WordPad or Notepad to keep some notes in, but that was about it.

One of my first upgrades was to add a faxmodem software package to allow me to fax my weekly reports to the DM without having to print it and fax it. I could even see back then that it was a great way to save even a little time. But one was really limited on what they could do. You sent your order with dial up networking, and don’t even think of connecting to the internet with your work computer, you could get a virus!

Fast forward 10 years. Today, what we can do now with a computer in comparison is astounding! Yet, many tool dealers are still not doing much more than printing receipts, managing orders and managing their inventory. They are still taking care of all other parts of the business with paper catalogs, and a notebook. Just like my old manager, these distributors are only using a piece of their computing power. They are still getting the job done, but could they be doing it smarter?

Can you imagine going into a shop with a technician still using a four-way wrench to change tires? My father did it that way for many years, and thought that method was just fine until somebody showed him a 1/2” impact wrench. Instant heaven! Yet, he had to be shown that new tool, and, if I remember correctly, he was not exactly quick to embrace it. It took a bit of prodding, but once he saw the benefits, he was hooked.

My hope with these IT articles in Professional Distributor is to help you see just what you can do with technology. There are many books written about using information technology in your business, but most are tailored for office jobs or very specific industries.

It will be baby steps for many of you. Perhaps, you can move from using your computer as a cash register, on to sending an email to ask about an issue with customer service.

Or, maybe you are already somewhat of a power user who emails with ease and uses the web for his research. I am hoping to take you further into just what you can do with this “air impact wrench,” and replace your “four-way.”

And, it will all be written by a tool rep—not somebody sitting in an office, who has never set foot in a tool truck in their life. Because, let’s face it; the tool business is a completely different animal than Wall Street.

Craig Woodman is a mobile tool distributor based in Maine for Cornwell Tools. Forward your comments or questions for Craig on computing issues in the tool truck to the editor at brendan@pten.com.

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