Credit guru Thea Dudley has spent more than 30 years in LBM credit management. Now she's here to answer your credit and collection questions. Got a question for her mailbag? Contact Thea at

Dear Thea,
How often do you as a credit manager conduct customer visits? My sales reps aren't excited about me going with them and even less so about me visiting them alone. What are they afraid of and how do you justify it?
Signed, Clotheslined in Clackamas

Dear Clotheslined:
Why are you asking permission and seeking approval? I have news for you: You will be forever clotheslined with that attitude. You are part of the sales process. Accept it, embrace it, and act like it. That means customer visits. It is a chance to learn about them and their company. Everyone has a story, and learning about your customer’s business first hand tells so much more then financials or a payment history ever will.

Why are your sales reps so aggressively apprehensive about credit people meeting and greeting the customers? Were they mistreated as young sales pups, abused and tormented by an evil credit queen? It takes coaching, strategy, and leading by example to get your shelter dogs to trust you.

Let the planning begin! Figure out who you want to visit and what the objective is. Do you need financials, just want to put a face to the voice, want to thank them for their business, figure out how to help them grow the business and credit line with you, serve them with a lawsuit … what is your goal?

Once you've decided who you want to see, build the rest of your trip around that. Maximize your time out of the office by seeing several customers in the same area. Then reach out to the sales rep for the accounts you are planning to see and coordinate with them. Tell them who you want to see and what the objective is. Ask for their insight and help. By including them in the planning, it makes them much less "edgy." Plus they always have inside information that you wouldn't necessarily know but will help you on the visit.

If I am visiting a customer to review financials (some will only show you theirs if you show up), I let the rep know he is welcome on the visit, but when the financials come out and the conversation turns nerdy he needs to go take inventory. They are usually cool with that.

The "thank you for your business" and "let's grow your business" discussions are the easiest and the most fun. The tough visits are the ones in which you are going to talk about poor payment history, unearned deductions, unauthorized extended credit terms, and maxed out credit lines even though they want to purchase much more. These aren't always negative conversations; they are just tough. If you can have a coming-to-Jesus, air-clearing conversation, you may be able to save the customer and grow the business. Not always, but it can be worth the effort depending on the circumstances.

I have served my own lawsuits in states that allow it. A waste of time, you say? Why would I do that, you ask? The way I see it is, you didn't just stiff my company, you lied to me. I want you to look me in the eye and tell me why you can't work something out with me. So yes, I will look them in the eye and absolutely serve them. And I take the sales rep with me. Yes big boy, you wanted the sale, this sometimes is the other side of that sale.

Customer visits can be awkward if you just show up and expect the conversation to flow. You are going to have to make conversation, taking an interest in the business and them. Ask about them, how the company started, how they got into the business. Ask for a tour of the company. You learn volumes about your customer that way—how it is organized, how much inventory it has on the ground, whether it’s normal to have that much or that little. Are the employees friendly? Regardless,-say hello to everyone and ask what they do there. This is one of the best parts of this job—you have got to love getting to know the customer.

Take a moment to consider how you show up. If you look like the poster child for a greenhorn at a cattle drive, it screams outta touch and corporate wienie. Lose the suit and tie. I love my high heels and skirts, but not on a job site or customer visit, I learned a long time ago (the hard way) that showing up looking like Lumberyard Barbie is a handicap when touring warehouses or outside yards . And don't even think about climbing up that ladder to look at the latest roofing application. It all just ends tragically with a story about you that lives on forever.

As I mentioned earlier, every customer has a story. It is not always in the financials or pay history. I would have left a lot of money on the table over the years had I took the black-and white approach. Get to know the story behind the credit file.

As for justification, need I say more?! Customers shouldn't be afraid of your credit department, a healthy respect and maybe a tiny bit of fear sure, but not avoid and cringe whenever they hear or see you. Customers are far more likely to call if there is an issue or ask for your help with something if they have a positive relationship with you.

Grab your traveling shoes and head out!