Scott Roberts

It’s an unchanging challenge with an ever-changing solution: How do you make things so easy for your customers that they keep coming back—especially when a growing market takes away time for individual TLC?

The answer this time is technology, dealers and experts say. During housing’s darkest months, so many builders dropped out and there was so little need to buy and stock goods that it was relatively easy to keep track of business with aging systems. But now that sales are picking up and long-dormant customers are returning, forward-thinking dealers are investing in devices and systems that will enable them to handle increased business, often without needing to increase staff.

“The professional, high-volume builder is going to dump a lot of the work on the lumberyard,” predicts Mike Potthoff, general manager for LBM dealer solutions at DMSi and a former dealer himself. “How quickly the lumberyard can process that and get them the products they need is going to be key.”

But simply cranking up the speed you do business won’t win you any applause from the customer, predicts Chris Rader, LBM consultant and president of the IT firm Rader Solutions. Service will. “The builder doesn’t want headaches, they just want it to be easy,” he says. “[Even] if the builder drops the ball, they want the lumberyard to pick it up.”

Potthoff, Rader, and remodeler/consultant Dave Klun  all urge dealers to analyze their range of customers and then find the tech tools and systems to meet those clients’ needs. Homeowners and DIYers are likely to appreciate additions that help them visualize a project, while builders will like devices that boost the speed and accuracy of their interactions with you.

See It Now

What will that door look like with a certain window design? How will those cabinets go with that countertop? Those are questions homeowners often ask themselves during visits to the showroom. Being able to provide a picture or view of how things will look could help make or break that sale.

It has become commonplace this year for manufacturers to announce an upgraded website or new applications for tablets and mobile phones that make it easier to envision their products in a wide range of environments, designs, and colors.

“The homeowner, to make their lives easier, you have to ask, ‘Did we hit them with enough visual, clean data to make them happy?’” says Potthoff. Rader recommends dealers with conference areas add wall-mounted monitors to help customers view and discuss design decisions.

Visualization isn’t just for homeowners, however. Huttig’s Doorway Configurator combines the ability to quickly review design choices with software that automatically prices the door based on the customer’s standing with the dealer.

Order in Your Pajamas

Increasingly, LBM success isn’t about having good systems in house but having systems that enable you to share your work outside the building. As Rader puts it: “Easy is having data online, invoices online, letting customers know something shipped, letting them know something shipped complete.”

The latest ProSales 100 shows how rapidly this is becoming an everyday occurrence. Forty-four percent of the PS100 members said they already offer online access to customer accounts, while 38% plan to add the service. Meanwhile, 45% do online invoicing (and 34% intend to do so), and 51% already send e-mails containing inventory or pricing information (26% plan to do that). No more than 28% of the PS100 provide today for online payment, purchase orders, or inventory/pricing, but between 42% and 49% intend to add those features. Once they do, smaller, less-well-funded dealers could find these technological differences will put them significantly behind in the race with bigger dealers for pros’ business.

Such changes are likely to become must-haves at all dealers because customers will expect them, Klun says. He argues that the new generation of contractors want to be connected with their suppliers in as many ways as possible. For them, e-mails and text messages could be the normal way to converse with you, rather than the exception.

Takeoffs Take Off

“Most of the professional builders don’t have a problem getting their order in,” Potthoff says. “That’s because they just give the sales guy the blueprints and they’re done with it.”

Services such as takeoffs have long been offered by building material suppliers, but new software and technologies have allowed dealers to become more accurate and much more efficient with such services.

“On the technology side, the factors that can really help are the blueprint design software options,” Potthoff says. Builders want clean, easy-to-work-with blueprints, and having the proper software can give you a big advantage over your competitors.

Such software can pay off in terms of time needed to do a takeoff, but its bigger benefit may lay in how it builds up trust. “If there is a high level of trust between a builder and a supplier, then that lumberyard is probably doing takeoffs,” Rader says. He notes that some builders he has spoken to sometimes don’t even check the paperwork because they have so much faith in their suppliers that things will be correct.

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