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In LBM sales, being a partner is not what you think

Rick Davis sales brand

Are you a partner to your customers or a provider? I have a confession that the term “partner” makes me bristle. In fact, I think it is a wholly inaccurate description of most vendor-customer relationships. If I share my feelings with salespeople, they are quick to say, “But I am a partner to my customers. I always have their best interests in mind, and I work to help them succeed in any way I can.” Lovely sentiment, but as Ben Franklin said, “Well done is better than well said.”

I once said I was a partner to my customers until the day I delivered a presentation to a large group of them. After my portion of the program, a fellow manager started to speak. He addressed his “customer” audience and was stopped abruptly by an attendee who said, “Thank you. I appreciate you recognizing I am your customer and not your partner.”

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The comment was a poke at me for freely using the term partner. The attendee didn’t like my presumption that we were in the battle as equals. Thus, I considered what a true partnership is and concluded that a partnership is a sink or swim, succeed or fall, live and die together relationship. Ever since, I have shunned the term as a description of the customer relationship.

My banker once used the term with me. I didn’t correct him but quickly considered that my business could fail and, while the bank might feel empathetic, full repayment of all loans would be due. If I were to default, my so-called partner would exercise liens on my properties and voila! Partnership ended; I fail while the bank carries on.

Harking back to that comment from the offended attendee to our customer meeting, I realized the fact that I sold to his competitors. My goal was to maximize my market share, which meant I would have multiple customers and honestly didn’t have strong preferences which were the best contributors to my sales success so long as the cumulative score was in my favor. In short, unless my eggs were in one shared basket with my customer, then we probably weren’t partners.

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This sentiment did not interfere with my ability to contribute unselfishly to the success of each customer; it merely suggested that I had to rethink the true nature of my relationship with them. Was I a valuable consultative resource? Yes. A dependable provider of materials? Absolutely. A full-fledged partner? Not even for a second.

As a resource to my customers, I discovered that my services were highly valued in several ways. Unlike most manufacturer sales reps, I had spent years working for a one-step dealer. Therefore, my customers requested my participation on their sales calls. I also delivered abundant sales leads to my customers as the means to help them grow. They also relied on my support for events they hosted and scheduling assistance.

As a provider, I was cognizant of the balance between their pursuit of growth and my own. This meant I exercised pricing integrity to reward the most loyal, high-volume buyers. It also meant selecting the right customers who could be properly serviced and fit into the constraints of my company’s service capabilities. Mostly, as a product and service provider, top salespeople ensure their expertise in all phases of product knowledge—material features, capabilities, and availability—are honed to the sharpest level. In other words, you don’t have to be a partner to your customers to be the preferred supplier.

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Before you tell your customers they are your partner, consider whether they first call you one. If this is not the case, then you probably aren’t partners. Still want to use the term “partner?” Have at it. Just make sure you prove your worth in deeds. Well done is better than well said.


Rick Davis is the Sales Education Leader for ABC Supply and the President of Building Leaders. You can buy his books or learn more about his online sales training platform at buildingleaders.com.

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