Today's LBM market faces such tough obstacles as sliding sales, sliding margins, difficulty in controlling expenses, swings in commodity prices, and customer extinction. All need to be confronted and conquered. But before you launch willy-nilly into battle, I recommend you take several steps back and adjust your focus. What you see from that perspective could change what you do when you resume the fight.

As you refocus, consider these 10 areas:

  1. In an eight-hour day, how much of your time is focused on Customer-Valued Activities? Do you get distracted with incoming vendor cold calls, spam e-mail, friends on Facebook, and scanning the Internet? Try this: Before you leave your office today, make a list of customer action items that you will accomplish tomorrow. Do not deviate from this list. Tomorrow, put all noncustomer focused activities aside until you have completed the list.
  2. Prospecting. One of the best books about prospecting and closing larger deals is The Accidental Salesperson by Chris Lytle. This is an easy read. It teaches you how to become focused on selling bigger deals and clients while reducing your time swatting flies. Get a copy and read it in the evenings over the next week.
  3. Showroom. Is your showroom a great representative for your company? Stop reading this column now and walk into the front door of your building or showroom. What do you see? What can you change? What should you change? Are you focused on your business, your vendor's business, or business that you had 10 years ago? They're tough questions, but often forgotten ones.
  4. Delivery. When was the last time you were on a delivery? Is your driver focused on the road, the count, the positioning of the material, or the customer? What about your truck? Is it clean? Did you deliver the right materials? What does your customer think about the quality of the materials, time of delivery, and placement of materials? These are questions you can't answer if you are sitting behind your desk all day. You probably have heard of the term "Management by Wandering (or Walking) Around." What if you changed that to "Managing by Riding (or Driving Around?"
  5. Financials. Are you reviewing your financial reports on the first day of the month for the prior month? One of the principles of time-based competition is that "He who delivers the product the fastest, commands the highest price." A corollary to that--vital to survival in 2010--states: "He who knows his costs the quickest will make the most profit." Like many sayings. that might be a stretch, but it makes a point. At the very least, he who knows his costs the quickest can react and save the ship.
  6. There's Been a Bend in the Road. If your employees or your customers have not read the news lately, tell them this recovery will be different than those in the past. Economists predict we will not see another housing boom in the next few years. There are bumps ahead, and only the tough will survive. Stop managing your business like it is 2005.
  7. Plan for the Long Term. I have spoken with many dealers who are in survival mode. Their buzz is, "I need to survive the next few months." While I am conscious of the pressure that you are facing trying to survive in the short-term, I feel you have to also look long-term. Do you have a strategic plan? Mike Butts, a fellow ProSales columnist, wrote about this recently in his column, Two Ears, One Plan.
  8. It is not too late to implement Church Pew Selling. That's where you invite your contractors to come into your store every morning before they begin the day and drink a cup of coffee on church pews, benches, or chairs that you have placed near your sales area. They talk about their day and listen to others. It is a way to build a sense of community among your customers. This may also be referred to as relationship selling. You are not only selling, but the customers are selling among themselves. The roofer may be roofing after the framers frames the house, after the concrete finisher completes the slab. Each trade can mingle. We place coffee shops everywhere, but I have yet to see one in the middle of lumberyard.
  9. Social Media. If you are a distributor of building materials and not a retailer, you may have to drive out and see your customers. Church Pew Selling will not work for you. However, social media will. Facebook, twitter, YouTube, Linkedin, and a blog are all available and very easy to set up. But take note: Getting involved in these sites will cause your lens to go out of focus. Do not get involved without a clear message, a marketing plan, and a CRM package. If you are all things to all people, you have to refocus and now. For more on Customer Relationship Management software, read 6 Guides for Buying CRM Software. But please do not work on this item until you have accomplished the question #1 and get focused on your customers.
  10. Customer Feedback. I like surveys, but I love phone calls and personal visits. Try this: Take the delivery log from yesterday, call five customers, and ask them about their delivery. Tell them this is a courtesy calls to verify that you are delivering on your promise. If you have a survey, surely use it. But there is nothing better than just picking up the phone or driving out to your customers sites and talking with them about their buying experience with your company. If you are on the phone or speaking to your customers in person try biting your tongue and listening for a change. You are contacting your customer to listen to them not talk about you or your company.

Sure, I do not have a magic ball that will tell you how to survive this market slump. But I do know that if you are unfocused you will not survive. Make a plan and attack it. If you don't have a facilitator to create a corporate plan, use my 10 examples as a means to get started on getting focused. At the very least, call your top 10, top 25, or top 50 customers and see how they are doing. What have you got to lose?
Chris Rader is a consultant based in Lafayette, La. Contact him at