The phrase “Go ugly early” isn't just a reminder of an ex-girlfriend of mine from years back. It's a phrase I heard recently at an executive conference that really resonated with me. The speaker was explaining his company's theory on hiring installers that could also apply to any salesperson in the LBM industry. The organization had decided to take the plunge and hire crews before the business and installation requests got out of hand, and the comment referred to investing deeply in the overhead cost and commitment of hiring, training, and equipping installation crews.
Upon my return from the aforementioned conference, I had the pleasure of working with two distinctly different, yet strikingly similar independent lumber and building material dealers in two different states. At one time, both companies were the dominant player in their respective markets and they still enjoy a tremendous strategic and competitive advantage over the competition (of which there is an ample amount), yet they both find themselves struggling for business. Margins are flat if not declining, sales are down (yet the respective market dynamics are relatively stable), salespeople have seemingly lost the drive to excel, and management is at a loss as to what direction they need to take to find the road to recovery.
Both dealers are located in medium-sized metro markets (approximately 100,000), both have a relatively stable economic base—medical facilities growing, multiple industries supporting the economy, growing universities—and the presence of some national builders, along with large regional builders and the usual smattering of smaller independent contractor/builders.
So what's the problem? My guess is an attitude of complacency feeding mediocrity among the sales force, largely due to management that has taken a hands-off approach for a bit too long. One fallacy of management is that we often develop a strong sales force by nudging them along and nourishing them, feeding them “house accounts” when they arise and then when they seem strong enough, management sets them loose to flourish on their own.
While great in theory, in actuality most salespeople need constant attention—ego stroking, management assistance, account review, and encouragement—to continue to grow business, either through increasing sales to existing customers (organic growth) or seeking new accounts.
Both of these respective companies have fallen into the same trap—the managers are very dominant individuals who bring quite a bit of business to the table by their very presence; these “house accounts” are divvied up among the salespeople to supplement their existing book of business. While it can be good, it also can hurt the aggressiveness of a salesperson. If they see new business being handed to them regularly, they lose the drive to seek new business and may decrease service to existing customers—making those customers prime targets for your competition.
And that's where both of these organizations find themselves right now—looking for ways to grow their business back to original levels and get back on track. The recovery isn't going to be easy, nor is it going to be comfortable for the employees; in fact, it may get downright ugly before it's all over.
This is where “Go ugly early” can come into play, too. If you find yourself in a similar situation, look inside your organization to see if there is any complacency, lack of attention to your existing customers, or insidious attitudes. Then go ugly: Take the steps necessary—no matter how difficult—to rectify existing issues and guard against future problems.