Dwight Shenk, an outside salesman for Petersburg, Va.–based Roper Bros. Lumber Co., carries two cell phones. Working in the rolling Virginia horse country around Winchester, he sometimes gets caught in a dead spot between a mountaintop and a clear signal. But with two phones, each on different cellular networks, he doubles his chance of getting an important call from his customers.
“It makes it so my guys can still get to me when they need me,” says Shenk. “If they don't get me, they know I'm going to call them right back when I do get in range, and get their issues resolved for them.”
Shenk's can-do attitude, and double-fisted cell phones, are just a small example of how Roper Bros. arms itself with a savvy sales force and the technology to back it up. In doing so, Roper was the third fastest-growing dealer on the 2006 PROSALES 100. While the firm has just seven locations, it landed just behind behemoth BMHC on the growth list, with a jump in sales of 38.5 percent over 2004.
While Roper Bros., like many sales leaders in the industry, has put into place a sales system that supports its outside salespeople with help from other staff in the yard and the main office, the firm also has invested in technology to make the selling job easier—on both the salespeople and the customer. For instance, the firm installed a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system, which allows all incoming calls to be directly routed to an individual salesperson's cell phone (or in Shenk's case, two cell phones).
“Our outside salesmen have no phone extensions inside the buildings,” says Roper president John Farrar. “Even if one of our salesmen is in the office doing work, there's no phone on his desk. The only phone he has is his cell phone. So, if someone calls for him, even if they call into the office, it gets transferred directly to him. The customer doesn't have to chase him down. It's been extremely effective for us.”
Farrar says Roper uses Cisco Systems' Unity unified messaging system, which lets the firm use features such as call forwarding, caller ID, voicemail, call waiting, text messaging, and faxing for each associate to make sure they stay in constant contact.
But Roper's investment in technology doesn't stop there. Each of the firm's 24 outside salespeople is equipped with a laptop, several of which have wireless broadband Internet access, so that they can get work done directly from the jobsite.
“We try to support them with technology to make their jobs easier,” Farrar says. For John Hinkle, Roper's director of sales, that makes a difference not only in the work his sales team can get done in the field, but in the image it sets forth, as well. “It makes for good sales talk,” Hinkle says. “Let's face it. People like dealing with people who they feel are cutting-edge. If you're calling on a new customer, and the salesman has his laptop out there in his truck and he's pulling up orders, that's impressive. Especially when the competition doesn't.”
Roper also leverages technology to increase the value of contractor services like takeoffs. Using Activant's Professional Estimating Software, the firm can run digital takeoffs for its customers, a tool Farrar says helps close the deal for many contractors. The software is currently being used at the company's Winchester, Va., branch, where Shenk is based, and Farrar says the firm is considering deploying the technology at its other branches as well.
Yet, as tech savvy as Roper is, its sales force also knows that those tools can only go so far in landing the deal. For Shenk, that means paying as much attention to his small customers as his big ones on a personal level, to help them grow over time. As an example, he cites a customer he has had since 1987, who started by building decks out of the back of his pickup truck. As their relationship has developed over the years, Shenk attended the builder's wedding and counts him as a boating buddy. The best part? “Today, he owns over 100 lots in one of our local subdivisions,” Shenk says. “You've got to keep in mind that your small customers always have the potential to become your large customers in the future.”
Farrar also knows that kind of personal approach can't be supplanted by any amount of technology. “At least around here, most of our builders are still family-owned businesses,” says Farrar, whose firm sells to an 80 percent custom home builder base, with the other 19 percent of pro sales going to production home builders and light commercial contractors. “So it's still a very relationship-based sales activity. The salesman still has to provide a service and a value that they're not getting elsewhere.”
Even if it means carrying two cell phones.
Vital Statistics: Company: Roper Bros. Lumber Co.
- Year founded: 1909
- Headquarters: Petersburg, Va.
- Number of locations: 7
- Number of employees: 385
- 2005 sales: $118.7 million
- Pro sales percentage: 99 percent