“Relationships are everything and everything is relationship.”

This quote is attributed to the well-known architect and builder, Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983). At first glance, the message may seem obvious, but let it sink in for a moment. It’s actually quite complex. “...Everything is relationship.”

Still not striking you as particularly prophetic? Take a deeper look into Buckminster Fuller’s work. As diverse as his contributions to the world of design were, much of these contributions stem from only a handful of foundational goals including “maximum gain of advantage from minimal energy input.”

A current systems designer, Daniel Chrisitan Wahl, also encourages us to think expansively about our relationships. Like Fuller, Wahl’s perspective on relationships breaks the norms of standard business (zero-sum) interactions where one party’s gain is another party’s loss.

This perspective should be relevant and instructive for lumber and building materials (LBM) dealers who are no stranger to the ongoing changes seen in the construction industry over the last decade. These “innovations” are due to a number of interdependent forces including climate change, the housing crisis, the skilled labor shortage, and venture capital/startup business disruption. For LBM dealers, this past year has also challenged us to think differently about how we reach our customers.

So how does a discussion on relationships help LBM dealers? The ProSales team recently ran an inquiry of this with an audience of 600 LBM dealers and the results are telling.

How Dealers Think About Relationships
At the recent virtual 2021 ProSales 100 event, dealers, distributors, and manufacturers gathered to learn and engage in conversations about topics impacting the industry, including technology, hiring, marketing, and relationships. In line with the event’s tagline, “Pivot to the Promise of Tomorrow,” the conference’s Relationship Building session challenged attendees to consider their own existing business relationships through a survey.

The survey polled attendees on existing relationships, relationships that are prioritized, and relationships businesses would like to spend more time developing. Not surprisingly, company-focused relationships with customers and employees are where dealers spend the most energy. The results of the survey suggest that attendees, and the market in general, has not historically prioritized strategic relationships and would like to spend more time prioritizing strategic relationships. In the case of dealers, strategic relationships are defined as relationships with groups such as suppliers, other industry players, industry consultants, and government entities among others.

As the results of the survey indicate, our industry needs to evolve how we think about relationships. Thinking linearly leaves us vulnerable to market shocks. Remember Fuller: “Maximum gain of advantage from minimal energy input.”

Good vs Better
Rather than just increase your number of customers by adding new categories to your client profile, designers like Fuller and Wahl might encourage you to seek, “What does ‘good’ look like?” Such a simple question permits you to break down the limitations of your business or industry and maximize it’s true potential. Here’s a list of recommendations you might consider at your next Business Development brainstorming session:

Step 1: Map out your ecosystem of partners:

a) Customers

i. Builders
ii. Remodelers
iii. Contractors
iv. Developers
v. DIYers

b) Personal

i. Sales representatives
ii. Customer service
iii. Internal employee-to-employee

c) Suppliers - these types of relationships often are the most important that aren't strongly cultivated

i. Manufacturers
ii. Distributors

d) Community

i. Non-profits
ii. Trade organizations
iii. Builder/remodeler associations
iv. Local sports teams
v. Schools
vi. Recruiters
vii. Various industry players outside local geography

Step 2: Now re-organize that map with you as an individual at the center of a concentric circle in a way that aligns everyone else “downstream from you.”

a) Who are your client’s clients? How can your work help them? How about your client’s client’s clients? And so forth…

b) Have a look at the community segment of your partners. Can they become your customers? What are their needs?

c) What is unique about each of these partners and how can you support their personal growth and development?

d) Where do your competitors sit and how can you...collaborate with them?

From Strategic Relationships to New Markets
Companies in the LBM industry often say they are in the relationship business. Developing and cultivating strong relationships are essential to success and longevity. As the industry evolves, this core characteristic of the industry is not likely to change, and relationships will likely remain as important as ever. However, businesses may need to evaluate how they think about relationships and where they look to develop them.

In an upcoming series of articles, the challenges and opportunities of relationship building in the LBM industry will be explored, including how you can tap into new relationships that not only present you with new partners, but new clients and new markets.