Lampert Yards is no technological dinosaur when it comes to communicating with its customers, but for all the talk today about social media, this St. Paul, Minn.-based dealer still relies on the old ways.

"We've found that other forms of communication—e-mail, texting, even phone calls—have been less effective" in sustaining this connection, says Pam Leier, Lamperts' vice president of marketing. "We've actually stepped up our direct communication because you have to get in front of [customers] all the time."

Personal contact—what a concept! As they look for new ways into their customers' psyches, many dealers continue to believe face-to-face relationships are the wedge that opens the window to their contractors' preferences. But dealers vary in how they marshal this information and then funnel it through a decision-making process to create action plans.

Listen, But Push, Too

Syracuse, N.Y.-based Erie Materials is among the pro dealers that have been frustrated by the ineffectiveness of surveying their customers for their opinions."We've even added coupons, left surveys at job sites, and one time offered a giveaway," says Erie's president Chris Neumann. "But our response rate was always less than 10%."

Neumann acknowledges his company hasn't quite figured out the "science" behind finding out what customers want. So the "art" of that process for Erie Materials lies in the ability of its 35 outside salespeople to pique customers' interest in new items. "Our guys love selling new products; it's what motivates them," Neumann says.

Indeed, he cites two products his company began stocking—stone veneer six or seven years ago, and CertainTeed's cellular PVC trim more recently—that Erie convinced customers to try by "leveraging our relationship with them," says Neumann. "They know that when we bring something new on, it's because we believe in it and will support it. They are as loyal to us as they are to a product brand."

What the Boss Hears

The Wolf Organization of York, Pa., which distributes to around 4,000 dealers, uses a systematic approach. The distributor conducts advisory meetings with 10 to 12 dealers three or more times per year. These meetings tend to be product-line specific, and manufacturers have been invited to present new products, too. Wolf also conducts marketing training sessions with dealers and their contractor customers; it will hold 20 sessions this spring alone, says Jim Groff, Wolf's chief marketing officer.

These meetings help Wolf gauge the customer input its 50 sales reps and four regional vice presidents gather on a regular basis. The company's CEO, Tom Wolf, also calls on customers, "and if Tom hears things several times, you can bet we're going to move that way," says Groff.

The most "extreme and successful" example of customer input effecting change at Wolf Organization, says Groff, has been its introduction of Wolf Classic Cabinets. The company solicited comments from dealers for more than a year, and heard those dealers say they would purchase cabinets through Wolf if they could pick the styles, colors and price points. "And we've been rewarded with their business," says Groff.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest feedback Wolf gets from customers is to provide building products that perform well but cost less. "It's all about value," Groff says. He adds that Wolf's customers are also seeking "transparency" about products' features and utility. "We need to be more aware of that."

Frontline Troops

Lamperts' eyes and ears are its 96 outside salespeople. Day in and day out, these frontline troops keep this dealer's 35 locations in five states in touch with its customers. The salespeople are usually the first to hear when customers are satisfied or displeased with the products and services they've received, and are the people customers turn to first when they want Lamperts to offer something new or different.

Lamperts is among many pro dealers that have been frustrated by the limitations of surveys and polls to pick their customers' brains. In anticipation of relaunching its website in March, the dealer conducted two online surveys last year to learn how customers used its site. Those surveys garnered respectable 20% response rates and revealed that customers would visit Lampert's site more frequently if it contained even more product information. But Leier thinks surveys lose their potency when too many get sent out.

"Customers will eventually ignore them," she says.

Staying in touch with customers has kept other dealers from becoming prisoners of conventional wisdom, as when Lamperts heard pros in its markets say they'd be open to purchasing quality generic products. "That's been a bit of a surprise for us, being that we're in Andersen Window and Marvin territory," says Leier.

Processing the Data

New Jersey-based Kuiken Brothers has 15 outside salespeople supporting its nine locations, but that's just the start of the information-gathering process. Customers' new product requests are sent to Kuiken's five-person centralized purchasing department, whose managers meet quarterly. That department's director keeps a running list of potential products to add, some of which come from customers. They can view what Kuiken stocks in all 12 product categories via a pull-down menu on its website, which also allows them to suggest additions, says Ryan Mulkeen, the dealer's director of marketing.

Mulkeen says Kuiken Brothers now stocks all seven of Trex's decking colors and four of Kleer's decking products as a result of customers' requests, as well as led this dealer to stock the ModernView line of entry-level composite decking sold by buying group Lumbermen's Merchandising Corporation.

Mulkeen points out, though, that Kuiken Brothers isn't enthusiastic about giving customers carte blanche when it comes to special orders. In fact, its salespeople are trained to steer customers toward products within its stores' core LBM inventory.

"Our guys are pretty well versed on what we can support to fill demand," he says.

Similarly, Tindell's Building Materials' field reconnaissance revealed that remodelers and their home-owning clients in Tennessee tended to be "more quality driven," says Greg Fritz, its vice president of sales and marketing. This news has signaled to the company's five locations that they can capture higher margins on remodeling-oriented merchandise. And given that many of Tindell's builder-customers, out of necessity, have diversified into remodeling, this Knoxville, Tenn.-based dealer has expanded its variety to include such items as corbels and large-beam products.

Critical Mass

Over the years, Mid-Cape Home Centers in Massachusetts has opened two design centers in response to contractors telling its store managers they needed someplace where they could bring homeowners to show them products. Mid-Cape, with seven locations, also added installation services when buyer demand reached critical mass, says Kristi Galanek, director of marketing.

The next frontier could be solicitation of prospective customers before dealers or distributors venture into new markets. When Erie Materials moved into Albany, N.Y., and Williamsburg, Pa., "we sent a crew of people into those markets, rode around job sites, and asked [pros] what suppliers they were using and why," says Neumann. "Quite frankly, I think we should have done more of this."

When business conditions were soft, dealers weren't adding a lot of products or growing. So it's understandable that their connections with customers may have short-circuited or lacked purpose on occasion. But now that business is finally picking up again, expect to see more dealers and distributors reaching out aggressively to their customers for their opinions.