I treat customers like family, and yes, I get burned

Since I became a mobile tool dealer 14 years ago, I’ve seen a lot of distributors in my market come and go. I’ve seen a lot of different ways of doing business. I’ve faced a lot of situations with customers that have tested my judgment, my kindness and my patience. I’ve compared notes with other distributors on how they do things.

When I came into this business, I had experience working as a technician, as a shop owner, as a car salesman, as an auto parts salesman, as a property owner and other things.

I mention my extensive experience in business because I realize that the way I do things is not typical for mobile distributors. The fact that I am successful driving my truck only four days a week nowadays tells me that my way of doing things, while not typical, works for me.

In reading Professional Distributor and talking with other mobile distributors over the years, I learned that one of the most unusual things about this business is how diverse our skills must be. This is a common belief among the people in this business, and I certainly share it.

When Elliot Maras, editor of this magazine, asked me what most surprised me about this business, I replied that I never realized running a tool truck would require me to be a pastor, a father, an uncle and a grandfather to many of my customers.

My peers don’t all agree with me

I know that many of my peers in this business do not agree with me on this. I know that many distributors make it a point not to get too close to their customers personally, believing it is bad business. Many of my peers say it’s not good to mix business and pleasure. But I cannot think this way.

Those who believe it is bad business are probably right; it’s bad business for them. But I’m not them. I’m Bruce Henry.

For me, my customers are my family. There are some “relatives” I like more than others. Some of my “relatives” are characters. Sometimes they let me down. But like them or not, they are my family.

I can’t approach the business any other way. In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit that I did not always have an easy time in my 65 years of life. Along the way, there were people who took an interest in helping me. Had it not been for them, I would not be where I am today.

I’ve counseled customers who have struggled with alcohol and drug problems. I have helped several of them get sober.

Recently, one recovering alcoholic admitted he had a beer this past New Year’s Eve. I scolded him and said, “I don’t want to hear that from you.” I reminded him that he has a good job and a nice family to think about.

A few years ago, I caught a young technician stealing a knife on my truck. Instead of getting mad at him, I told him he could keep the knife. He has been a good customer ever since.

Yes, I do get burned

Things don’t always work out for the better.

One day, I saw a technician weeping in my truck. When I asked him what the problem was, he said his wife had been arrested for not paying traffic fines. He didn’t have the money to bail her out of jail. I offered to lend him the money. He said he didn’t want to borrow money because his wife didn’t deserve to be bailed out of jail. I asked him if he loved his wife and he said he did. Then he agreed to take the money.

That customer still owes me the money. He keeps telling me he’ll pay me. He may eventually pay me and he may not. But I still feel that I did the right thing.

Don’t get me wrong; there are times I do put my foot down with people. If I think I’ve given them a chance to pay their balance, I tell them the balance must be paid to keep my business running.

I think that by treating customers as family, they feel more responsible to return my goodwill and pay me what they owe me. It doesn’t work with every customer, but it works with most of them.

At the end of the day, I’ve managed to outlive 16 distributors in my market that have come and gone over the last 14 years.