I was having a conversation with a friend of mine. “I have more customers complain about me than I can count,” he said, followed by, “And I'm sick and tired of retail customers.”

The only response I could think of was something like, “OK, and other than that, how are you doing?”

This “friend” is an employee of a large lumberyard chain in the South and had just been placed in the store manager position. And this was his attitude toward customer service!

Unfortunately, it's an attitude shared by many in the industry. Despite constant reminders from articles like this, the importance of customer service still doesn't always hit home, as is evident in this example and many more that I could give you.

As you're reading this, the weather is warm, we've broken into our full-swing busy season, and hopefully your business has far exceeded your earlier projections. So why am I writing about customer service now—this should be a winter topic, right? Wrong. There is never a wrong time to talk about customer service, or the importance of taking care of all of our customers—retail, builder, contractor, remodeler, or whomever we serve.

There was once a time in the lumber industry when the breadth of your product selection alone was enough to differentiate you from your competitors, but not today. Today's builders are inundated with material options from a multitude of different suppliers, many of whom also offer installation services as part of the product mix. These days, you have to be much more than just a supplier of a commodity product—you have to be a valued member of the supply chain.

I am sure if you've followed this column for a while, these words sound familiar to you. They should. I've long held the belief that you have to demonstrate a clear differentiation to hold on to your builder customers. And never in our history has that been truer. Every article I read and every builder I talk with says the same thing: Builders are looking for ways to simplify their businesses, reduce cycle time, and increase operational efficiency. For example, a 2004 purchasing study conducted earlier this year by BUILDER magazine (a sister publication of PROSALES) asked readers to rank the most important criteria used in selecting their suppliers on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being not at all important and 10 being extremely important. Here's how the chips fell:

Timely delivery 9.12

Having products in stock 8.93

Price 8.37