Francesco Bongiorni

In the lumberyard business, dealers inevitably run across the cranky customer; one who’s dissatisfied, angry, or maybe even a little dishonest about an order.

If the customer is a long-time trusted partner with your business, it’s probably worth going the extra mile to settle a dispute. But, at some point, even the best customer expects too much and the cost of keeping them happy crosses the line.

When recently asked how often Ashby Lumber, in Berkeley, Calif., faces customer complaints, general manager Rick Kelley’s response was: “What time is it?”

It so happens that Ashby Lumber had just settled what Kelley characterizes as a “misunderstanding” over hardware finishes for a complex window and door order. Acting as a “funnel” to mediate the interests of several parties—builder, architect, designer, contractor, and homeowner—Ashby’s solution called for compromises on all sides. “Everybody took a hit,” Kelley says. “They had to pay more, we had to accept less. But [the dispute] got solved to everyone’s satisfaction.”

That kind of positive outcome is what pro dealers strive for when customers start grousing. Most dealers say they’ll bend over backward to keep customers happy, even if the customer is wrong. “If you want customers to be committed to you, you have to show that commitment too,” Kelley says. And in this age of social media, dealers also don’t want unresolved complaints becoming viral attacks.

A dealer’s willingness to appease ultimately comes down to how badly he wants—or needs—to do business with that customer in the future. “When you’re in a small market like we are,” says Jim Croome, president of Sandersville Building Supply, in Sandersville, Ga., “there are a finite number of customers. Our philosophy is that you don’t want to win the battle but lose the war.”

That philosophy was tested in early April when one of Croome’s customers insisted that he was shorted two pieces in his order. Because this customer had been problematic before, two of Sandersville’s yard staff had double-checked the piece count before the order was shipped. When they informed the customer of this, Croome recalls, “he thought they were calling him a liar or a thief.” So Croome loaded the two pieces onto his truck and drove 40 miles to the customer, only to be told that the pieces were short by 2 feet. Croome then went to the local hardware store, bought the right lengths, and delivered them to the customer at no cost. “We’ve gotten business from that customer since,” he says.

Western Building Centers, in Kalispell, Mont., with 10 retail locations, is like Sandersville: a big fish in a small pond. Company president Doug Shanks can’t recall a time during his 39 years in the business when he has definitively said no to a customer. “I’ve found that if you can resolve a problem, you’re going to have a very loyal customer—maybe for life.”

“You either take a financial hit or you hold your ground and risk upsetting the relationship with the customer.” —Kevin Hancock, president, Hancock Lumber

But Shanks admits that sometimes his company yields more than it should. In early May, Western was caught up in an issue with a homeowner who wanted the dealer to intercede with its roofing supplier. One bone of contention was that the supplier was seeking “a complete release” that would have voided the customer’s warranty. To placate the homeowner, Western offered to honor the warranty since the supplier would not.

Other dealers, though, say there’s a fine line between accommodation and surrender, especially when there are predatory customers who are trying to get something for nothing, “Sometimes taking a hard line is a good thing; otherwise, you become a pin cushion,” says Eric Steinman, executive vice president with Forge Lumber, in Erlanger, Ky. And although walking away from business is a last resort, it’s one that dealers insist must be in their arsenal.

Lower the Heat

Dealers say that customers with complaints are, in the main, rational and receptive to some kind of solution. But these same dealers have also experienced trying to calm irate customers who are demanding the moon to fix an alleged screw-up. “At the end of the day, you can’t win,” concedes Kevin Hancock, president of Hancock Lumber, with 11 locations in Maine. “You either take a financial hit or you hold your ground and risk upsetting the relationship with the customer. When we get to that point, it’s better to look at the long-term value of the customer, and I’ll usually bend.” Although each customer complaint is unique, there are some basic steps that dealers can take to defuse situations (see sidebar for more about this), and which may even prevent some complaints from arising in the first place.

Listen: Handling tough customers is often a matter of recognizing that their anger isn’t personal, says Julie Moreo, president of Turning Point International, which specializes in enhancing employee performance.

Shanks instructs Western’s managers to find something in a customer’s rant that they can agree with as a starting point toward fixing the problem. He also cautions them not to get defensive.

Complaint resolution isn’t all that different from an initial sales call in terms of the negotiating skills used, says Mark Torrisi, co-owner of Lawrence, Mass.-based Jackson Lumber & Millwork. Both are more effective, he says, when they follow author Stephen Covey’s maxim “Understand to be understood.” So when Jackson’s employees are trying to lower an irate customer’s temperature, they avoid talking about who’s going to pay for a mistake because that will inevitably cause the complaint to escalate. Torrisi then usually follows up with the customer to see how the problem was resolved.

After hearing both sides of an argument, there’s usually some truth in each of the accounts. Wilson says that his goal is, ultimately, “to do the right thing.” Hamilton Building Supply, in New Jersey, empowers its employees to proactively handle customer disputes, says general sales manager John Perna. “The trick is managing a customer’s expectations.”

Define the rules:
Dealers head off complaints stemming from another potentially troublesome source—special orders—by having clear policies about what’s returnable, what isn’t, and who’s paying. “Many complaints can be traced back to poor communication in both directions,” Hancock says.Carl Judge, who manages Wilson Lumber, in Huntsville, Ala., says the company enforces procedure-driven policies that include not accepting customers’ measurements for special orders and requiring customer sign-off on all CAD drawings. Hamilton Building Supply is fanatical about outlining the specifics of a customer’s order, Perna says. “We leave nothing to the imagination.”

Work with reliable vendors:
B&B Lumber recently faxed an order to a metal products vendor that guarantees four-to-six-day delivery. On the sixth day, the customer stormed into the store, wanting to know where his shipment was. “The vendor either never got the order, forgot to send a confirmation, or dropped the ball,” general manager Tom Baalmann says. Sometimes the only way to settle a customer complaint is to get the vendor involved. But that’s easier said than done. Kelley says that while some vendors are fantastic about helping to resolve disputes, with others it’s like pulling teeth. The first thing that Shanks asks whenever a supplier pitches a new product to Western is: How well do you stand behind your product? “If there’s a problem, the customer is going to complain to us, not to the supplier,” he says.Dixie Lumber, in Easley, S.C., proved that axiom when a recent series of mess-ups by the dealer and its supplier left a homeowner dissatisfied with the grids in the windows being installed. The company wound up giving the owner a $500 discount on a $3,600 purchase.

Manage your reputation:
Dealers must recognize that they can’t please all their customers all of the time and should be prepared for disgruntled customers who air their grievances via social media. It’s important to be aware of how quickly bad-mouthing online can spread and, if left unaddressed, affect your reputation. Ultimately, your business’s in-person customer service skills should translate to its online communications. Never before has it been so important to monitor social media and to promptly respond to customers about their experiences. Building a positive reputation online can help to increase your online visibility and give customers the confidence they need to select you as their dealer. When a customer posts something negative on a review site about B&B Lumber, in Wichita, Kan., the dealer responds with its own post that explains the effort it went to to fix the problem, Baalmann says.

When faced with a customer who has lost his cool, turn the temperature down by:

  • Letting the customer vent: Don’t interrupt mid-rant. Let them get the complaint off their chest. Give them a chance to cool down, and then talk about how you will solve the problem.
  • Establishing ground rules: Keep the lines of communication open and established policies and procedures to ensure order accuracy and completeness. Admitting when you’ve made a mistake: A simple “sorry” goes a long way to quell anger. Don’t bother with excuses, just acknowledge that a mistake was made and offer to correct it.
  • Knowing when to say no: If you’ve made what you consider to be a fair offer to deal with the complaint, but the customer still wants more, don’t be afraid to say no.

Know your limits:
Complaints rarely get so bad that a dealer will “fire” a customer. But each dealer has thresholds beyond which negotiations cease. For Kelley of Ashby Lumber, the cost of a refund sets the bar. “I can accept where we don’t make anything on the transaction, but when we have to pay out, that’s when I might say no.”Lindsay Olson, co-owner of Crenshaw Lumber, in Gardena, Calif., says that his yards dig in their heels when complaints are about lumber quality, which can be subjective.

A few years ago, Dixie Lumber grappled with a predatory customer—a homeowner who kept complaining about the spacing between boards of a deck she’d had installed, vice president Todd Merriss recounts. This homeowner revealed to Merriss that she had complained before, about a kitchen and roof installation, to her financial benefit. “I thought: ‘Here we go again,’” he says. Dixie replaced some boards but eventually told the customer that there was nothing more it would do. The customer, undaunted, redirected her complaint to Dixie’s deck-wood supplier, which ended up paying her $8,000.

Such relentlessness is rare. Nevertheless, dealers say that they must always be on guard for customers who want to make a mountain out of a molehill. “These are usually guys who have $10,000 on their account and are trying to use a $300 problem not to pay their bill,” Judge says. And you have to ask yourself, long-term, do you really want them as your customers?