Converting Dealers to Solar

BURNABY, British Columbia, Canada – At the end of each fiscal quarter, Michael Hamanishi, president of Samlex America, grabs the Russian wooden nesting doll placed above his desk. He untwists it and takes out the next hand-painted figure sitting inside and sets it beside the previous one.

It’s a reminder that time is at work – and that plenty of hard work can be done in a year. And so far, the power conversion supplier known for its RV solar kits and robust inverters has yielded solid results, with growing sales and market penetration.

The quarterly tradition also reflects Hamanishi’s collected and methodical demeanor – an approach to organization that can be felt throughout the office halls in Burnaby, located just east of Vancouver, Canada.

Like the family of matryoshka dolls in Hamanishi’s office, Samlex offers a tightknit, familial setting. Starting at the top with Hamanishi, who maintains an open-door policy, this philosophy has enabled his employees to have open conversations, allowing the best ideas – be it marketing or customer service – to rise to the top.

The familiarity also is felt by the company’s customers, who get more facetime with Samlex representatives than they might expect, and who are guaranteed that a real person will answer the phone. Not surprisingly, the company takes great pride in its customer engagement initiatives and its familial-style work environment.

Since the power conversion supplier entered the RV market 10 years ago, it has significantly increased its distribution, touching more than 5,000 dealers across North America. Somewhat unknown to the RV industry prior to that time, the company quickly became a top three leader in its category, according to Hamanishi, who notes Samlex was previously focused on serving the utility fleets and the communications (wirelines, two-way radio, etc.) markets.

“The RV market came after us,” he says. “We were getting phone calls with people asking where they can get our stuff. These were RV dealers.”

It was a market Samlex decided it needed to address, so it set up RV distribution channels. The company began by selling inverters, but soon realized it needed to address the RV market with specific products. So, Samlex built charge controllers for RVs and made sure that solar panels were designed to properly fit RVs.

At the same time, the company worked to determine who the end-user would be, why it made sense to sell to them (through distributors and dealers), and what the applications are. Hamanishi says it’s a big obligation for the sales and marketing teams to leverage that information and to look at market positioning.

The greatest challenge, though, was taking the technically complex ideas of power con- version and presenting it in a way where consumers understand their needs.

“The RV marketing strategy had to be consumer-friendly – not installer/engineer-friendly,” says Sharl Cline, Samlex director of sales and marketing.

The solution to the puzzle, the Samlex team learned, became an educational binder.

Book of Knowledge

To make Samlex’s products – and the technologies behind them – more approachable for dealers, the company developed its Samlex Dealer Success Program, which includes an inverter and solar sizing binder.

“The strategy was to make the marketing materials very educational and easy to digest for both dealer and consumer, so they could work together on solutions,” Cline says. “It takes a few pages instead of just a paragraph.”

Whereas some education tools and order forms can read like IKEA instructions, the inverter and solar sizing binder is broken up into easily comprehendible sections. Immediately on the left is a pad of Dealership Master Parts Lists – a visual representation of eight pre-sized solar packages. It ranges from the 100-watt solar system with a 10-amp charge controller (mounting accessories included) to the 550-watt solar system and the 30-amp charge controller.

Part of the education is helping people understand how power is generated and used. One of the common misconceptions is that solar panels directly power appliances. More accurately, it charges the battery. Connecting to that web of device, power, energy collection (i.e., solar panel), storage (battery), etc., is an inverter or inverter/charger.

“You tend to lose people in that conversation,” Hamanishi says with a knowing laugh. “So, we start the conversation with, ‘What do you want to power?’ Forget about solar panels. Forget about inverters and batteries for a second. ‘What’s the lifestyle you want? What are you trying to accomplish? Why did you get an RV in the first place?’”

Understanding the lifestyle can then lead to the point of sale.

“Dealers need that clarity: ‘Why this product versus the other one?’” says Cline, “without making it about the price.”

“It makes sure the service department gets everything when they need it,” says Jonathan Krawchuk, business development manager for the RV aftermarket. “This is something we do that I think really sets our program apart from others because it sits up at the parts desk. It’s accessible. It’s ready to go.”

To see if a dealer needs an updated binder, Samlex will use different cover photos from time to time as an indicator for reps to swap it out.

Overall, the binder works in terms of simplifying the process of finding what an end-user’s needs are in terms of lifestyle (dry camping, comfort, adventure), what different systems can power (everything from laptops to video game consoles), and a checklist tear sheet that’s sent off like an order at a sushi restaurant.

The dealer then goes into his store’s inventory to assemble that package, or places an order to the distributor for various parts, which dealers can typically get next day, depending on their location. “With our products, we bring in a systems-type approach,” Krawchuk says. “So, rather than just offering package A, B, C, D … we offer customized packages with products that can be interchanged. We have more options for everything, which gives that customer freedom to decide what they need – instead of a cookie-cutter solution.”

Offering In-Person Training, Webinars & POP Materials 

Diagrams throughout the Dealer Success Binder were really helpful, Cline says, but training dealers is key to empowering customers with power conversion knowledge.

“If dealers have the training and the confidence, then they’re going to talk about it,” she says. “Our being out in the field with the dealers is the biggest key to the success of it.”

Krawchuk and the Samlex team are constantly traveling – for everything from field work to visiting distributors or attending trade shows – throughout the majority of the year. Spending more time in-person with customers makes a huge difference.

“The trust is built much more quickly,” Cline says. “The feet on the street have the right tools and see the right people often enough – not just once a season. … We won’t be sitting around in the office, we’ll be out there, too.”

Tech training seminars and webinars – standard or tailored – are the company’s way of acknowledging the complexity of power conversion. Those programs add additional support for the Dealer Success Binder.

Krawchuk recalls how, two years ago, a dealer who carried Samlex came to him saying he was off to a slow start during RVing season. Customers weren’t opting for many upgrades, so the dealer asked if Samlex could help. (The company says it has had a number of similar requests over the years.)

“Customers at some dealerships may not know that they have solar available,” Krawchuk says.

In response, Samlex developed sales clings the dealer could put on RVs on his sales lot to let customers know units could be equipped with solar, which proved successful. Samlex also offers dealership personnel spiffs on sales.

Expanded Inverter Offerings

As for inverters, Krawchuk says Samlex has a wide selection of offerings. Whatever is listed in a catalog is typically less than half of the full offering (more than 90). Dealers need only ask.

More recently, a new product was introduced to expand on Samlex’s EVO series of inverter/chargers. The 1,200-watt is the “smaller version” of the 2,200- and 3,000-watt inverter charger, which makes it better suited for Class B and C motorhomes, as well as travel trailers, according to Krawchuk.

EVO inverter/charger can power various appliances at once as long as they remain with the 1,200 watts. This is possible because of the 300 percent surge rating. It’s a feature that’s “quite unique,” Krawchuk says about an inverter of this size. And as with the entire line, Samlex has a minimum advertising price policy in place, as well as two-step distribution, which has become a big part of Samlex’s business philosophy.

“One of the great things about distribution is that it defines the market,” Hamanishi says. “Though there may be some subtle crossovers from market to market, the distribution channel defines it. Who you buy from on a regular basis defines what market you’re in and that market definition is very important to us.”

With its finely tuned operation, Samlex has accomplished a perception conversion when it comes to clearly explaining power conversion. Under Hamanishi’s guidance, the company looks to be on a course to grow beyond the next decade.

“Our support goes all the way down the line. We don’t limit our support just to distributors because that’s our immediate customer,” Hamanishi says. “We support the dealer and, of course, the end-user. They are our ultimate customer, and we need to make sure that they are using our products the way they’re intended to be used and the customer’s expectations are met.”

David MacNeal

David MacNeal is the former digital content editor of RV PRO Magazine.

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