I was just a few miles from ProBuild's headquarters in Denver when 84 Lumber's Frank Cicero called. The day before, ProBuild had launched a reorganization (its third in 10 months) with a memo from Rob Marchbank (the company's fourth leader in 20 months). Others had seen P.R.-speak in Marchbank's declaration that the hiring freeze and executive departures being announced "will give us closer proximity to our customers and markets." But Cicero—who himself has been 84's COO for only 18 months—said he understood.
"Where they are, we did those things in 2009 and 2010," Cicero told me. "We had two divisional VPs and eight regional VPs and 25 area managers. Two years ago, I said ... it was really getting hard for me to talk to all those guys." So 84 took out the regional VP level and made those people area managers. "We really needed to get close to our customers," Cicero said.
The trouble with using "get close" as a reason in an announcement about change is that too often it's a euphemism for "We need to cut expenses—fast!" Indeed, ProBuild's memo might have started with talk about getting close, but it segued into a long list of executive departures, open jobs that will remain unfilled, and hiring freezes. That's a shame, because making an effort to understand customer wants and needs is some of the most time-consuming but rewarding work an LBM executive can do.
This issue is peppered with stories and advice that call upon you to listen more than you speak and to ask questions more than tout your company. To those recommendations I would add a recent tip from social media consultant Mack Collier, who is sick of companies that view Twitter and Facebook as a cheap and easy way to promote themselves. Social media's true value, he said in a recent blog, is that it provides a way for companies to learn more about their customers.
"What brands need to understand is that their advocates don't love them for their talking points," Collier says. "There is some common thread that runs through the brand, that binds them. Figuring out what those ties are and truly understanding your advocates takes digging and work." In other words, social media is just one more tool dealers should use in fostering what always has been a relationship business.
One way ProSales tries to get close is to come to your world; since January, associate editor Brendan Rimetz and I have visited dealers in 10 states. We also are making use of e-mails and ProSales' LinkedIn group, which already has more than 3,200 members, to get a better sense of what matters most to you. Your insights inspire items like "Steal This Idea!," as well as provide the foundation for our cover stories.
Marchbank would do well to follow up his memo by traveling across ProBuild's vast territory, explaining the reorganization to staff—and, hopefully, meeting contractors. Such travels would give weight to his assertion that the changes are intended to help ProBuild move closer to those customers. That's a direction we all should take.