Aug/Sept 2018 cover of ProSales
Kouzou Sakai/Folio Art

Paul Evans remembers well the day he and a fellow BMC sales rep were about to call on a builder’s jobsite. Evans, BMC’s national VP of millwork and a longtime coach of sales techniques, smiled a teacher’s smile when the sales rep showed he had learned the importance of relationship selling by talking intimately about the builder, his family, his truck, and even the kinds of boots he wore. It’s no wonder, Evans thought, this sales rep was able to accomplish so quickly his main objective for visiting and then get clearance to take orders for several projects nearby.

So he told the rep: “That performance is a credit to the great personal relationship you’ve built.”

“Actually,” the rep replied, “I don’t know the builder. All the personal stuff came from his Facebook page.” They had done business for a year and never met.

“I then asked if the builder was OK with that,” Evans told ProSales recently. “The rep replied that not only was the builder OK with it, he preferred it. And in fact, the reason he’s doing business with us is because we’re so advanced in our systems we can communicate in this fashion.”

"If products aren’t part of the solution, they shouldn’t be part of your sales pitch.”—J. Michael Marks

The outside sales rep is as much an American institution as jazz and baseball. And like those two pursuits, it’s changing in ways that will elevate some players into stars and cast aside others as has-beens. We’ve entered an era in which dealers’ sales reps are evolving into a cyborg-like combination of human and machine. There’s less emphasis on emotional intelligence and a dramatic upgrade of the OSR’s personal database, with new technical skills and a lot more product and systems knowledge.

To flourish in the future, experts say, OSRs will spend far less time pushing product, with actual order-taking shifting to inside reps and online markets. Your job won’t be to sell things. Your job will be to solve the customer’s problems. As veteran marketing and sales consultant Bill Rossiter puts it: “Your customer or prospect will ultimately judge you not on how well they did fishing with you last fall, but more on how you help their business perform.”

Tee for Two
“When I entered the industry as an outside salesperson in 1993,” recalls Scott Ericson, now a co-owner at the Wheelhouse 2020 consultancy, “it was a relationship-based industry that relied heavily on hats, pencils, golf, fishing, and scotch to build relationships and grow sales. The customer’s expectations for performance were relatively low.”

Sales consultant J. Michael Marks says relationships used to matter largely because construction supply was a far sloppier business; pros needed sales reps to take kinks out of the supply chain and perform favors when emergencies (all too often) arose. Sales reps enjoyed holding the whip hand in their operations, both with the builder and with their own bosses.

“It was the LBM operation’s delivery and return policy, the salesperson’s personal quoting system, and the salesperson’s communication tools” that were used, Ericson notes. Imagine: All that control and company-paid golf outings, too.

Image for ProSales story on sales reps
Kouzou Sakai/Folio Art

’Net Changes
Then came technology, and with it a shift in customer expectations. Kuiken Brothers of New Jersey, a former ProSales Dealer of the Year, learned this early on when it became one of the first yards to enable customers to go online to check orders, product availability, and the like.

In those days, Kuiken’s database was growing so quickly that it had to go offline late at night to refresh its systems. That’s when Kuiken employees were surprised to hear complaints from customers about the computer access “always being down.” Kuiken discovered before most dealers that lots of pros did their office work at night. Today, it’s often the contractor’s IT department that calls the shots.

“New builders have extremely high expectations and won’t adapt their proven systems to accommodate the LBM’s or the salesperson’s process or techniques,” Ericson says. “They require the salesperson to quote the list in the format they want, package it in the way they designate, adapt the LBM point-of-sale system to produce invoices that support the contractor’s system, and deliver when and how the contractor requests.”

Evans says this is particularly true for production builders. “The relationship only helps on a cold-call situation to get you started,” he says. “Once you’re in their system, the relationship is almost nonexistent.”

Relationships used to matter largely because construction supply was a far sloppier business. Now the supply chain has fewer kinks, so your value proposition has to change.

Evans and other experts, such as sales and cultural sensitivity trainer Bradley Hartmann, note that relationships still matter when dealing with small builders, custom builders, and remodelers. But even with these clients there have been changes. On the good side, emails and high-tech systems mean OSRs don’t need to spend visiting time writing down orders. On the bad side, if taking orders was the only thing the rep was doing on those calls, why bother visiting? The customer increasingly can skip the visit entirely and simply buy stuff online. Indeed, the growth rate for sales of building materials on the internet tracks and sometimes surpasses the growth rates for all products.

Shifting Values
As the industry has gotten better delivering on time and in full, the value proposition that sales reps can offer has had to shift toward other attributes, like product knowledge. But because of the internet and digital communications, lots of pros think they don’t need your advice. They’re accustomed to searching for products online or spotting new goods in emails. So now, unless you can find something new to offer, there’s a danger your value proposition will come down to price, speed of delivery, and easy credit terms.

This problem spans lots of distribution businesses, and it’s getting studied at places such as the Industrial Distribution Program at Texas A&M University. Program director F. Barry Lawrence told dealers at an Epicor conference last November that one solution may be to redesign your sales effort.

Proposed pyramid business model for a distribution company
Craig Webb Proposed pyramid business model for a distribution company as presented Nov. 16 by Texas A&M's F. Barry Lawrence

Think of a three-layer pyramid, Lawrence said. The bottom layer features an e-commerce system where low-value transactions take place easily, consistently, and nonstop. While it’s meant primarily to serve current customers’ refill needs, the fact it’s online means you can also find yourself selling to new people—hobbyists, for instance.

The middle layer of the pyramid has two functions: inside sales and business analysis. The inside reps keep track of e-commerce trends, add related inside data (payment history, for instance), and then put in information from external databases, such as prospect lists or names on building permits. The inside reps use the data to spot potential customers, reach out, and begin a relationship on a relatively low-cost basis. Even if the relationship doesn’t produce sales, it will add to the dealer’s knowledge about what works.

The pyramid’s top layer includes outside sales reps who handle A+ customers or key target accounts. In part by drawing from data collected at the lower two layers and relying on expertise they’ve built up, these outside reps’ main duty is to provide value-added services to and deepen the dealer’s relationship with the customer.

Getting, Staying Connected
Notably, Lawrence’s model also puts social media in the top layer of the pyramid, because that’s a key tool for building and maintaining relationships when customers are too busy to see you. Social media encompasses platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapchat, as well as emails, e-newsletters, text messages, and blogs. However you use them, sales consultant Mark Mitchell says, the goal is to show you care.

“[Pros] really value people who realize the struggles they’re having and share helpful info that may have nothing to do with whether they buy from me,” Mitchell says. “A builder may say, ‘I’m seeing all this shift to panelization. That concerns me.’ If I were a building supply rep, I’d go online and read everything I could [about panelization] and share it. … And [then the builder] is like, ‘Wow, Harry, thank you for thinking of me. You understand my business.’ ”

Get used to using social media. Start with one program, like LinkedIn, and spend a few minues each day building electronic relationships.

If you’re a social media virgin, Mitchell suggests you start with one medium, such as LinkedIn. Create a presence for yourself online and then spend a few minutes each day looking for and making contacts, beginning with current customers. Odds are you’ll learn things about those contacts that you didn’t know. Take advantage of prompts alerting you to birthdays, anniversaries, and new jobs to send a personal note. Kuiken Brothers tracks Instagram so it can send shout-outs to pros who use its custom moldings.

“Everybody likes to feel important,” Mitchell says of what social media can do. It’s also a way to keep score; Mitchell says the president of one building product maker keeps tabs on which suppliers have “liked” the manufacturer’s product on Facebook. Of course, using social media puts a premium on writing and spelling skills.

If you manage a sales team, this might be a good time to see whether they’re up to the task. Studies suggest one out of 10 Americans has dyslexia or a similar reading or writing disability.

Expand What You ‘Sell’
Whatever you do, the same approach won’t work for all. For Evans, that means custom builders and remodelers are going to want help with product selection and new trends, while multifamily builders might welcome your offer to value-engineer a project. Hartmann, who is fluent in Spanish, runs workshops and has written a book advising English-speaking bosses on how to work effectively with Spanish-speaking workers and customers.

Rossiter, meanwhile, urges OSRs to expand their customer universe beyond the purchasing agent. That person is focused on price, Rossiter says, whereas what the company really wants is profit. A profit message based on factors like productivity, efficiency, and the ability to upsell appeal to the owner, subcontractor, general contractor, marketing chief, and other titles.

“It’s the sales rep’s job to understand and interact with all the builder’s influencers, not just the purchasing agent,” he says.

This isn’t a fresh idea; sales reps for years have been asking customers what keeps them up at night. The difference today lies in what the sales rep does about the contractor’s worries. In the past, the OSR’s solution to every builder concern was to sell a product. To that group, Marks has this message: “If products aren’t part of the solution, they shouldn’t be part of your sales pitch.”

"Your customer or prospect will ultimately judge you not on how well they did fishing with you last fall, but more on how you help their business perform.”—Bill Rossiter

That doesn’t mean you have nothing to sell. Rather, experts like Marks suggest, start looking at your LBM operation as more than just a heap of products and some trucks. For instance, suppose a customer needs to stage a project. Do you have space you can lend? What if several customers want to rent certain equipment—could you buy the item and lend it out to them as needed? The same holds true with human assets. Some dealers have their chief financial officer teach contractors business basics, such as how to create a budget and how to read a business statement. And your in-house marketing expert can win you points by being available for advice and creative work. Consider how a lot of dealers got into installed sales. Builders didn’t have a problem buying windows or lumber; what they lacked was the ability to put those goods in place. By handling the install, dealers solved the builder’s problem—and often won that builder’s business for years to come.

Be the Expert
But you don’t need to create a new division or buy a backhoe to solve a builder’s problem. What you do need is to understand your customers’ businesses intimately, and then find ways to show how you can help.

Mitchell suggests that when you do your rounds with customers, try asking each of them the same question. “What’s your favorite way to find new employees?” is an example. After you get a response from about 10 customers, odds are you’ll spot a trend that will be worth sharing with the next 10 customers and will be appreciated.

“Ask the question and listen. It has amazing power,” Mitchell says.

Above all, experts say, use the internet. Get in the habit of reading as much as you can about construction science, including the parts that don’t involve anything you sell. In addition, study the customer’s customer: What colors and styles do they want? How will that homeowner change over time? Think of trends like mother-in-law units, 3-D printing, multigenerational housing, and the impact of rising home prices and mortgage rates. How will those trends affect what you’ll sell in the future? Your customers could use the insights.

For generations, dealer sales reps have been go-to sources. Relationships helped start the sales, and relationships kept the sales pipeline flowing. Experts like Brian McCauley, ProSales’ “Uncommon Value” columnist, all say relationships aren’t going away. Recently, he declared: “By and large, I believe that any successes you achieve in life come down to three things: focus, effort, and attitude.”

Those are evergreen qualities. But other parts of the job have evolved, and what’s expected from the OSR today is a long drive down the fairway from where it started. We’ve entered an age in which your “best customer” may be someone you’ve never met.