"What makes the job challenging or critical," Johnson writes via e-mail during a rare break in the day, "is assuring that the whole process, from the initial phone call to the final shipment, goes perfectly."

MULTITASKER: Chris Johnson, inside sales representative at Ganahl Lumber Co.'s yard in Los Alamitos, Calif., spends his day tracking current jobs, prospecting work, writing e-mails-and answering all incoming calls.
Tim Rue / www.timrue.com MULTITASKER: Chris Johnson, inside sales representative at Ganahl Lumber Co.'s yard in Los Alamitos, Calif., spends his day tracking current jobs, prospecting work, writing e-mails-and answering all incoming calls.

Such is the life of an inside sales rep: nothing special required–just perfection.

There's no consistency in the LBM industry regarding what inside reps do and what their potential is. If you were to put 10 dealers in a room and ask them to provide a job description for an inside sales rep, you might be surprised by the variety of functions the reps perform and what job titles they hold.

At smaller stores, they might function more like a retail sales clerk, greeting contractor and consumer customers and ringing up orders. Dan Boudreaux's Ace Hardware in tiny Napoleonville, La., has no outside sales staff, and all 16 employees are considered inside sales reps. At larger dealers, inside sales may be the term used to describe support staff for the outside sales reps (OSRs). Many dealers regard inside sales reps more as support staff, typically with one inside sales rep backing up two or three OSRs. The bigger the operation, the further from the counter that inside rep gets, to the point where Raleigh, N.C.-based Stock Building Supply calls the job "outside sales support coordinator."

At Ganahl, however, Johnson not only works the sales counter, he's also essentially the store's switchboard operator.

"I answer all the phone calls that Ganahl receives," Johnson says. "We believe business should begin with a voice-to-voice contact, and that is where I step in."

Non-Stop Juggling Whether they're backing up OSRs or running the contractor desk, inside sales reps are vital to a store's success.

"The relationship between inside sales rep and customer can't be underestimated," says Scott Ericson, a former regional sales manager for Hillsboro, Ore.-based Parr Lumber who co-founded the industry consultancy Wheelhouse 20/20. "The OSR might deal with the customer a couple times a month. The inside sales rep might talk to them several times a day."

"The pace they keep is nuts," says Dena Cordova, regional sales manager and senior account executive for Dallas-based Foxworth Galbraith, which has 35 to 40 inside sales support staff for about 75 outside sales reps. "It just amazes me. The phone is ringing off the hook. They have to be multitaskers."

Inside sales reps often are compared to air traffic controllers, and Ericson says the frenetic pace and constantly shifting tasks can be tough to handle.

"When I interview a potential candidate, I let them know this is a very hot kitchen," he says. "There's no time to sit back and check Facebook."

NO STOPPING: Ganahl Lumber inside sales rep Chris Johnson (top right) doesn't restrict himself to the sales counter. He also checks on orders, in this case with Rey Sanchez, a customer service rep at moulding supplier El & El Wood Products. "The pace they keep is nuts," Dena Cordova, regional sales manager and senior account executive at Foxworth-Galbraith Lumber (bottom), says of inside reps.
Tim Rue / www.timrue.com NO STOPPING: Ganahl Lumber inside sales rep Chris Johnson (top right) doesn't restrict himself to the sales counter. He also checks on orders, in this case with Rey Sanchez, a customer service rep at moulding supplier El & El Wood Products. "The pace they keep is nuts," Dena Cordova, regional sales manager and senior account executive at Foxworth-Galbraith Lumber (bottom), says of inside reps.

Regardless of whether their jobs are administrative support or active selling positions, most inside sales reps are hourly employees who get bonuses based on performance measures, such as sales volume, gross margin or error rates.

Industry consultant and author Bill Lee encourages clients to pay inside sales reps a bonus based on a percentage of the gross margin on sales they punch up. That gives them incentive to upgrade the sale, sell more special orders, and optimize pricing, he says.

Mike High, president of High Brothers Lumber and Millwork in Camdenton, Mo., uses a monthly incentive based on the dollar amount of the tickets written by his inside sales staff.

"They compete among themselves," he says. "It gets them to stop chatting with a vendor instead of waiting on a customer who's standing there."

At Mathew Hall Lumber in St. Cloud, Minn., a team of three inside sales reps and an estimator support seven OSRs. Sales manager Al Stern says he's changing their pay plan from individual incentives to a monthly bonus pool that encourages them to help each other. "We need to have them working as a group instead of working for themselves," Stern says. "It will take all of us to get through this recession. We're hoping this will get them clicking together."

Foxworth-Galbraith already uses the bonus pool model. A percentage of revenue generated for the month is split among the inside sales staff. "It incentivizes them to help each other out and work together as a group," Cordova says. "It works extremely well."