As the economy improves and national suppliers continue to consolidate, there may be a resurgence of independent building material dealers. If that occurs, new and better sales employment opportunities will become available to those currently trapped in the bureaucracy of the national suppliers. Perhaps the real question is, can independents find success in hiring national supply salespeople?

Earlier this year, I interviewed a salesperson from a national supplier; many times during our interview she told me that account decisions, as well as many purchasing decisions, were handled out of Atlanta. It was mentioned so often that I finally said, “You know, at Ro-Mac Lumber, I’m Atlanta.” My response made it clear that, at our company, we don’t direct and hand-tie our people to the point they can’t make decisions. That is the problem with hiring salespeople from national suppliers; most of the steps and decisions in the sales process are out of their hands. Instead of salespeople, they often have been reduced to customer service representatives.

Over the last 36 years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of salespeople, and I immediately can tell a difference between national and independent salespeople because the national salespeople discuss processes and procedures while independent guys and gals talk about customers. Needless to say, the best salespeople are those who have the independent upbringing and entrepreneurial spirit.

That is not to say that national suppliers don’t have good reasons for implementing tight controls, given the litigious nature of our society and the questionable trustworthiness of every employee, but some national suppliers won’t even let salespeople price or bid their customers. Successful salespeople with independent suppliers are controllers who want to take charge of their customer’s experience. From ensuring the material take-off is correct to ordering special items, they want to be the captain and will get offended if someone tries to interfere with their customer relationship.

I think the biggest difference between a salesperson working for an independent dealer versus a national supplier is the ability to be a customer advocate. Let's be honest, no matter how good the operation, there will be problems. Great salespeople are bulldogs when it comes to solving problems for their customers. They will tell it like it is, even if that means causing hurt feelings. When dustups happen, problems get solved and bruised feelings get healed. I believe salespeople for national suppliers can't do that because are taught that getting out of line means getting fired. They are co-opted into “yes people” afraid to push too hard. The day a salesperson is too scared to stand up for the customer is the day that salesperson is reduced to being a customer service representative.

For the most part, it’s a lot easier on a national salesperson for the home office to dictate the terms of the customer relationship. If you are a salesperson who wants a well-defined sales structure and strict guidelines from the company, then you probably don’t want to work for an independent.

Can national salespeople and independent dealers find success together? Yes, of course they can, but the salesperson will have to learn to say yes to the customer a lot more than saying no. Saying yes could be a fireable offense with a national supplier. Saying yes with an independent allows for customized services and special attention to builders. If you want a more rewarding position, if you want more freedom and creativity, and if you have what it takes, check out your local independent dealer.