Some Tips for Theatrical Dealers

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, is said to have cried out in despair: “What do women want?” That was in 1927 and I'm not sure anyone has successfully answered the question.

But in more modern times, I hear a lot of theatrical supply dealers ask: “What do the customers want?” That one I think I can answer, based on several years of extensive research. Every year, we here at Rosco run a number of focus groups among customer-users of color filters, gobos, scenic paint, dimmers and control systems. We supplement these group meetings with a number of one-on-one encounters among the customers. Our purpose in these meetings is to get a better idea of how the customers use our products, what products they would like to see developed, and generally how our products and systems can be integrated into their jobs of lighting and scenic design.

An important part of these discussions is always how they acquire the capital goods and expendables they need. We ask them how they shop (if they do) and what makes them prefer one theatrical supply dealer to another.

Please keep in mind that this is the gels-gobos-paint crowd. We talk to college and high school teachers, music ministers, production managers, technical directors and designers. This, not the million-dollar lighting rig for rock-and-roll touring, is the core of the business for most dealers.

What do you think these everyday customers answer when you ask them “How do you choose your suppliers?” Every theatrical supply dealer I've talked to about this subject says the answers will invariably be “service” and “low prices” — and is quick to point out that his or her company offers both.

But so does every other dealer — and the customers know it. So they expect the superb service provided by most suppliers. They also expect fair prices on their expendables. Given the generally acknowledged equalization in service and pricing, what attracts customers to a particular dealer? How do you achieve differentiation?

One of the answers we get most frequently is product information. The customers want the people they deal with to have this information at their fingertips. We market some of the most straightforward products on the planet — gels and gobos — and we and our dealers get hundreds of inquiries about products every day to our offices and our websites. People want to know, what is Roscolux made of? How does Image Glass diffuse the light? How are Colorizers or Prismatics used and how long will they last in a spotlight?

Imagine the questions they have about more complicated products, such as fog machines and fluids, dimmers or controls or scenic paint or finishes. Sometimes the questions are just plain silly, but by and large, customers ask questions about products and applications because they really need to know. Using these products properly is essential to their everyday jobs — and they much prefer to deal with suppliers who can help them understand what the products do and how they work.

I'm prejudiced on this subject, but if I were a theatrical supply dealer, I'd make sure that all the people who work with customers, over the phone or in person, take advantage of any training offered by any of the major manufacturers. Making customer service or sales people informational resources for customers almost certainly will pay off in increased sales.

The second reason customers gave for preferring one dealer to another is a little more mundane. It's inventory of expendable products. Most customers try to plan their product needs for a season or even a single show far enough in advance to have the gels, bulbs, gobos, and paint on hand when they need it. But it doesn't always work out that way. They need to have a supplier who can get them the particular Roscolux color, or foliage gobo, or gallon of Off Broadway paint they need right now. I know it's a challenge for dealers to maintain inventory of so many different expendable products, but it may well make the difference between keeping and losing a customer.

There's one more quality that turns up in our focus groups. The professional designers who work on Broadway or with the major touring music acts don't need or want guidance from dealers on how to design. But virtually everybody else does! It's one thing to know what the binders and colorants are in a brand of scenic paint. But it's quite another to be able to guide customers on how to paint simulated brick or adobe plaster walls. It's important to know that most Roscolux is tri-extruded polycarbonate. But it's just as important to be able to suggest colors to achieve a particular effect. Many customers will approach these questions tentatively. But once they realize that you know, or can find out, how to help them with product applications, you may well have cemented that relationship for a good long time.

It's said that good lawyers don't have to know the law. But they have to know where to find the law. Same thing here. You don't have to know which Roscolux colors to use to simulate moonlight. But you should know where you and your customers can find the information. (In this case, the web site or the Rosco publication called “Color Filter Guide”).

The three qualities we've discussed for theatrical dealers to attract and keep customers are product information, inventory and application knowledge. Nowhere in there did we mention charm, good looks or even charisma. It's a widely held misconception that the glad-handing sales person succeeds more often than the knowledgeable one. Of course, everyone would rather deal with people they like. But our research shows “liking the sales person” doesn't make the list of reasons to buy from a particular dealer. Think about your last purchase or lease of a car. Did you actually like the salesman who sold it you? Or was your relationship with him or her too brief to establish that warm a bond? What about the real estate broker who sold you your house? Did you buy it simply because you liked the sales person or was it how they did their job?

You get a chance to confirm your relationship with a customer or prospective customer every time they call you with a product or application question. The best way to insure success, in my view, is to be sure you — and everyone who takes those calls — can provide a prompt and authoritative answer. When you're dealing with dozens of product lines, as most suppliers are, that kind of knowledge requires training. It may well be the best investment a dealer can make in his people.