In theory, selling water testing products and chemicals should be a breeze. Your customers need them and you carry them. But both you and your customers know many of those products can be purchased for less elsewhere — whether that's at the cut-rate pool dealer across town, or worse, at the Home Depot on the edge of town.

The temptation to buy from places like Home Depot is an especially strong one, and even the most independent-minded retailers find themselves going there for hammers, hoses or hedge clippers when local hardware stores carry the same things. Cost-savings and convenience are powerful motivators, and it's impossible for any small retailer to compete on those terms.

But while you lack the resources to battle bigger stores on price and practicality, you've got a depth of knowledge about water testing and chemicals that they can't touch. You've also got manufacturers that are eager to help you increase and leverage that advantage.

"As a pool and spa retailer, you want your customers to know that they can obtain reliable advice on water chemistry when they walk into your shop," says Joe Sweazy, technical services associate for AquaChek Pool and Spa Test Strips, Elkhart, Ind. "By demonstrating your expertise, you can create a competitive advantage against mass merchants."

To ensure their dealers maintain this edge in experience and know-how, and to help those whose experience may be lacking, manufacturers are investing a lot of resources in education. AQUA spoke with several manufacturers of water-testing products about their efforts, which range from in-store meetings and trade show seminars about water chemistry and testing products to Web-based education and interactive software for in-store labs. No matter the method or the products and services a dealer chooses, the manufacturers' goal is the same: to help dealers position themselves as experts in water testing and chemical prescribing so they can give customers a reason to open their wallets and make the trip to seek advice from real pool pros.

Chemistry Class

Any effort to strengthen your position as an expert in water testing and chemistry has to begin with your staff.

"In the competitive pool and spa industry, the more you know, the more valuable you are to your company and your customers," says Lea Jaunakais, vice president of Industrial Test Systems, Rock Hill, S.C. "That's why it's important for dealers [and their employees] to be educated."

This focus on educating staff members applies to manufacturers, as well, since they're the ones who will be charged with spreading the word to the dealer network.

"Our first step is training our own sales staff," says Jaunakais. "They have to understand every product and how each is applicable, so each week we go over a different product and discuss the applications, limitations and the aspects that make it advantageous. They have to understand them fully in relation to the other products on the market." As an example, she cites her company's recent efforts to spread the word to its dealers about its new Pool Check Copper 3in1 test.

"A lot of dealers were unfamiliar with its use, and didn't even know why they'd need to test for copper," she says. "We explained to our salespeople that copper ionizers were becoming more popular and many people would now want to test for copper. Our salespeople had to know about its different uses and why the dealer should be selling the tests before they called the dealers to explain it to them."

Once a manufacturer's salespeople know the product through and through, the next step in the chain is to pass that knowledge on to dealers. But, according to Drew Chuppe, senior marketing manager for AquaChek, a lot of dealers think they already know enough and don't need anyone's help. That's usually a mistake.

"In many stores the owner or manager is extremely knowledgeable, but the seasonal employees have no experience at all in the pool and spa industry," he says. "Often these employees arrive in mid-season when the full-time staff is already too busy to conduct water chemistry training."

To help these busy dealers, manufacturers offer alternatives to one-on-one, dealer-to-employee training. AquaChek, for example, offers the AquaChek Dealer Training Program, an Internet-based training course that's divided into three levels, each requiring about four hours of study, according to Chuppe. There's the Bronze level for beginners and the Silver and Gold levels, which get progressively more difficult and cover more-advanced topics.

"We find that even experienced industry veterans can learn from the Gold level material," he says.

The entire training program is free to retailers that sell AquaChek products, and users who complete all three exams earn 12 credit hours from NSPI toward professional certification, says Chuppe.

"Store managers can even issue passwords to all of their employees and then monitor their progress through the program," Sweazy adds. "Some of our customers actually pay a bonus to those store employees who pass the entire training course."

Another company that's helping dealers educate seasonal workers about testing and water chemistry online is BioGuard. Scott Newton, director of marketing for the Lawrenceville, Ga., company, says his company offers pdf files dealers can download from its Web site to teach employees.

"They're pretty basic," he says. "They're really more of a jumping-off point before people go to our ChemPlus schools."

These schools, which the company offers 16 times a year throughout the United States, are two-day training sessions on water care, application of BioGuard chemicals, troubleshooting and a program approach to pool testing and care.

"The ChemPlus schools also address selling skills," Newton says. "And on top of those schools, our field people do instore training with store personnel. Then our regional people put on hundreds of regional seminars, which are like abbreviated ChemPlus schools."

Like retailers, manufacturers have limited human resources, so sending a rep out to each store to train staff on water testing products and procedures is not feasible. Taylor Technologies produces a newsletter, a 50-minute training video on pool and spa water testing and chemistry, and is working on another training video for its Web site to help its dealers bone up on water chemistry. But its most effective training comes from its broad network of distributors, says Patricia A. Fitzgerald, Taylor's vice president of marketing.

"The No. 1 weapon in our educational arsenal is our distributors," she says. "They're very effective at this."

The main opportunities to tap into that knowledge and experience are at distributor tabletops, or annual mini-shows at distributors' locations, according to Richard LaMotte, vice president of marketing and sales for LaMotte Co. "Those are great places to learn," he says.

Lab Work

After having a knowledgeable staff, perhaps the second best way to position yourself as an expert in water testing and chemical prescribing is to offer in-store water testing. Most often, these stations spit out cures for the ills they detect, which allows the dealer and manufacturer to push a certain brand of chemical, i.e. the kinds customers won't find at Wal-Mart.

"The reasons people buy chemicals from dealers are convenience and service in the form of expert advice and water testing," says Newton. "So you'd better be an expert and you'd better do water testing.

"We give our dealers all the tools they need in the form of testing, water analysis and training. So that gives them what they need to position themselves as the experts in their business area."

In addition to offering so-called "wet technologies," in which water samples are fed into a machine, BioGuard recently developed a strip-reader technology called Accu-Scan, which reads test-strip pads, feeds the information into a software package and prints out the results.

"It's a damn fancy water test," Newton says. "The software package is called ALEX (for Analysis Expert). It not only tells you the problem, but it gives the solution to take the water back into prime water balance."

LaMotte agrees that software is a crucial part of a water-testing station, and that dealers would be wise to use it. "The software is half the element, and if they have just the lab, they're only halfway home," he says. "And it's easy to use. It's designed so the 16year-old son of the owner can go in there and learn how to use it in 15 minutes.

"Old-timers sometimes feel they can take the results and calculate the remedies on paper. They may be good at that, but their time is better spent elsewhere. Also, the software is flexible and customizable."

The ability to customize the software is important, LaMotte adds, since certain chemical ranges differ from one part of the country to another.

"For example in southern Florida, a company might want a broader range on cyanuric acid than someone in the northeast would," he explains. "On the West Coast they might want to expand the range on hardness."

AquaChek's FastChek water-testing station is also adaptable, gives prescriptions and is easy to use, according to Sweazy. "There are several in-store testing systems on the market today that calculate prescriptions automatically.

For example, with the FastChek test station from AquaChek, the employee can test the water, calculate the treatment and print out the prescription in less than 60 seconds. Even a seasonal worker can perform this task easily."

These software packages not only provide a high level of accuracy, they present a more professional image than chemicals and dosages scribbled out by hand, according to Chuppe.

What's perhaps most important to dealers, though, is that the suggestions are usually heeded by customers.

"My guess is more customers listen to their dealer's advice than their doctor's," Fitzgerald says. "When your water chemistry gets out of whack, the repercussions are usually immediate and visible. It's truly a case of an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure."

In-store labs also give dealers an opportunity to build customer databases, which can help them market testing products, chemicals and anything else a customer might want.

"Someone walks in and gives you their pool size, gallonage, etc.," says LaMotte. "The dealer gets tons of information from customers who come in for free tests. The data they collect can be a huge benefit to their business."

Class Dismissed?

No matter how much you know about water testing and chemistry, it's important to remember there's always something new to learn, and those who do what it takes to keep up are the ones who'll lead the class. You may be able to talk circles around the guy at the Home Depot who can't tell test strips from wood chips, but if you're not careful, a competitor may overtake you as the place to go with chemistry questions.

As long as you use the many resources at your disposal, you should be able to stay ahead of the curve — and sell more test strips and chemicals to customers who'll learn to rely on your help.

"If dealers didn't have this knowledge, what good would they be." asks Jaunakais. "Go into Home Depot. They have a gazillion products, but they don't know anything about chemicals."