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Real Issues. Real Answers: Managing Customer Expectations

With two-day shipping now seen as the gold standard of online shopping, customers can often be surprised by the weeks or even months it can take to source certain materials when working on a project. Years after the start of the pandemic’s effects on shipping and supply chains, many of those in the industry still struggle when faced with long lead times.

We asked readers who have opted in to our emails—let us know at operations@lbmjournal.com if you’d like to be on the list—and more than 170 readers responded to our prompt: What advice would you have for the dealer who posed this question?

“Our biggest issue is managing the expectations of customers in an age of ‘I need it now!’ During the pandemic, customers were understanding about longer-than-usual lead times. But now we seem to be back to an ‘Amazon Prime’ universe, where they expect nearly instantaneous service, and they seem to lack the patience to wait. We’re working to implement an ecommerce system that will hopefully speed up our response times. How are other dealers managing customer expectations that just aren’t realistic?”

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Responses from lumberyards, full-line building material dealers, specialty dealers, and distributors:

“Honesty is the best policy. Instant service can only be provided at a considerable cost unless the best service is reserved for the A-list or priority group. Making customers and sales associates knowledgeable of reasonable lead times is imperative. No way around it.”

“We hired more people, which was difficult to find just to keep up with customers’ demands.”

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“The bulk of my customers are not in the ‘need it now’ camp. The few that are head for the big boxes. Lead time of 4-6 weeks on special orders seem to be the new norm.”

“We try to always provide quality products and service. We do a lot of special orders and inform our customers that while we submit the orders by the next day, we have no control over our suppliers’ response time in shipping the order to us. Our customers are usually very understanding. We also try to keep our customers updated on changes to delivery dates if any delays are encountered.”

“Start by sourcing the product and then calmly explain when the materials will arrive. The customer can decide if that date will work for them or not. You can offer suggestions of products that might be a substitute if the timing might be better.”

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“The only way is to set the expectation up front. Once you do this you are better placed to provide a higher level of customer service.”

“Be very transparent with current product lead times. Some products have better lead times than others. If time is a critical factor, you need to get that out of your client at the outset of the conversation. In order to meet time constraints, you may need to refocus the product specification.”

“Don’t over promise the timeline. I always add 5-7 days to delivery times for any unforeseen circumstances. This way, if material comes in sooner, you look like the hero and customer is happy.”

“We focus on timely communication and real information. At the beginning of each project, our team lays out the timeline for the entire project. Our supply is scheduled months in advance to mitigate the emergencies. Things come up, they always will, but we simply communicate realistic expectations and timelines. Back to the basics of lumber life.”

“Have OSRs visit the site on a regular basis and talk to the subs. OSRs must have regular, frequent conversations with builder or job superintends. Emergencies are often the result of poor planning.”

“We are working as a staff to try to manage customer expectations, starting at the front counter, all the way through delivery. We are utilizing new technology to help with communication with the customer and between staff. This means that multiple people are working on a project and no work is duplicated, meaning less waste and downtime.”

“You need to first confirm if the expectations are unrealistic. Many of our vendor partners are actually not performing at the levels of their competition. You need to have a ‘pandemic is over and get it done’ attitude or you will be left behind by those that have already adapted.”

“We’ve had more instances of customers sending over reasonable delivery dates on mostly special-order steel framing packages, then bumping up the date and wondering why I can’t make it appear out of thin air. I’m not a genie, so I have to break the bad news that they’ll have to wait on the steel truck. Then, they usually also underestimate their material needs, so that compounds the issues.”

“Tell the truth always!”

“Transparency, and options. Communicate product knowledge and potential challenges up front, and highlight challenges and how you’ll manage expectations with delays or product substitutions.”

“Commitment to promoting products that manufacturers and product suppliers have chosen to establish adequate inventories and logistics that can satisfy our customer needs is one way we are resolving this problem.”

“Failure to plan on your part does not create an emergency on my part. We will be happy to look over your project and help you with a time frame to complete it.”

“We assure them that the manufacturer is making their product, or the wholesaler is not stocking as many products as costs have gone up, leading to special orders and longer production and shipping times. We ask for down payments to confirm that they are allowing us to order products for their needs. With that said, we give them an estimated ship date and then stay in contact with our customers until the order is delivered.”

“We try to give our customers the best estimated arrival window we can. Never give an exact date. Generally our customers are still understanding that even though things are getting back to “normal” there are still certain things that carry longer lead times still. For those that are impatient and not willing to wait, we just ‘wish them luck’ finding product sooner elsewhere. Not that we like to lose the sale but we can only place the order. We are not making the products they are ordering. Many of our loyal customers have become used to communicating their needs with plenty of time allowing for the extended lead times to get special order materials.”

“Clear communication.”

“We customarily offer same-day to next-day service on stocked products. We will substitute a higher quality if need be to make that delivery window. Products are pretty much the same from one competitor to another, so service is what differentiates us from our competition.”

“Sounds corny but practice the golden rule sincerely. Successful customers know they need you almost as much as you need them.”

“If the wait for service is on the front-facing customer service side, then would definitely recommend increasing staff to accommodate the customers or cross-train existing staff. We ran into a similar issue, and made it a requirement for every hire to be trained to service customers at the counter. If we have call outs, short staffed, or simply feel a rush then we know we can pull from a reserve to avoid losing sales. If the issue is tied to a specific department, you probably need to reevaluate how that area is staffed (kitchens, doors, etc.). If the service you are talking about is product related, then offering alternatives for faster arriving products could be the solution. We brought in a lower level kitchen vendor recently that operates on a more limited line, but with a fast turnaround. It allows us to have the customer choose between their dream kitchen in eight weeks or a really nice new kitchen in four weeks. It’s their choice and they are bought into the time frame.”

“Speed creates higher chances of human error. Stand on quality—quality borne of deliberate actions taken with accuracy and common sense. Quality delivered through a passion to get what the customer needs as soon as humanly possible. Great outcomes are worth the wait.”

“We are upfront with lead times at the time of order. Even Amazon Prime delivery in our area has lengthened (We’re rural PA and now it’s four days for Prime for the most part). I always tongue-in-cheek ask customers if they would like it ‘yesterday’ or if they would like me to use my magic wand to help the situation. Most take it well and it gives them a chance to breathe and think more rationally. I will also gladly refer them to another independent in the area or even make a phone call for them to another dealer to see if they have the item in stock.”

“We explain to customers that quality takes a bit more time, and with the labor shortage, the processing of goods is longer than pre pandemic. We try to be up front by letting customers know what the lead times are so that they can plan accordingly. We sometimes add on a week as a safe harbor. That way if we are early, everyone is happy.”

“Same day service for deliveries in a lumber and building materials company is an unrealistic expectation. Better planning is needed by those who think things can just appear overnight.”

“Train your customers.”

“I feel we are seeing a different side of it. During the pandemic, lead times were outrageous. Windows got up to 15 weeks, composite decking was six weeks … now I feel like people are thrilled when we tell them we can get them a window in three weeks. Honestly, I don’t feel we have seen the impatience come back at this point.”

“Face reality. We can get it this date. If you can find it faster, go buy it.”

“Some manufacturers are recovering faster than others so we suggest they look at options that will provide them with faster lead times while providing similar quality.”

“We are in a rural area but serve customers in every state from our single location in MI. I feel that mentality of ‘need it now’ is a regional thing: NY, NJ, and CA. Sorry if you’re from there! Our customers from all other states are surprised that we have items in stock and wait times for most items are low. We are not having a big issue with patience now, but there was certainly a lot required from 2020 through 2022. Labor has been and still is an issue and is causing some of the problems with longer wait times. I think you should ask questions of those with little patience. How is their work log and wait time of getting their customers’ jobs done? Labor is an issue nationwide and turning the tables on them makes them realize it. Builders in our area are booked one-to-two years out; emergency jobs are done on weekends. If they are making their customers wait, then they should understand that they may have to wait for supplies also.”

“Communication. Weekly emails to builders with lead times and scheduling through supply portals with realistic ship dates.”

“We express to them that there is no possible way to get the material quicker.”

“Do the best you can and communicate with the customer.”

“Set the expectation when they place an order.”

“We try to accommodate at the speed they need. If not, suggest they try Home Depot down the street, to see what slow and late delivery really are.”

“The strategy is to set your lead times and then make sure your organization successfully hits your lead time. The issue is when you miss the lead time.”

“‘I need it now,’ means ‘mistakes tomorrow.’ The need is an urge, thought and planning is wisdom. Avoid ping pong email/text matches. Pick up the phone, do some discovery, have a conversation. Don’t be a hero, be the guide.”

“We combat this by having our outside sales staff in constant communication with customers throughout the month and cycle of build. This helps manage the expectation and corresponding lead times by making sure we are accounting for that and not the contractor. If we leave it all to the contractor, we will always be operating as firefighters. Albeit some contractors are better than others.”

“It is what it is. We tell our customers up front how long a product will take to come in and they are generally OK with it as long as it isn’t outrageous.”

“We offer different companies’ quotes with different prices and different lead times.”

“Our strategy was to get the reps to be proactive with the builder on all products with long lead times that still exist. We have also constantly sent emails to builders to keep them informed about products that could cause delays on their projects due to lead times and encouraged them to order these products. Builders and homeowners have this mindset that the pandemic is all over and everything should be easy to get what they need and when they need it. I would encourage you to keep builders informed about long lead time products through emails and account reps. Us being pushy and proactive about ordering these products for the builders has minimized any hardship with the builders.”

Responses from wholesale distributors, manufacturers, and service providers:

“Builders need to communicate with their suppliers with their time tables and keep them updated and realistic. Dealers should not expect wholesale distributors to have everything in stock every day. Distribution relies on ‘on time’ shipments from manufacturers, but we know that is a wishful thought. Mill schedules, natural disasters, trucking issues, to name a few, can, and will change inventory levels. Distribution gets hit hard with orders each and every day from customers, who in turn are getting hit hard by builders. It’s a two-way street … none of these ‘outages’ are on purpose. Staying ahead in inventory levels is a challenge. Forecasts from the builder, to the dealer, to their suppliers must be in constant conversations to lessen the failures in the supply chain.”

“Do what you say you will do. Be honest.”

“Tell the customer/prospect the truth. Whatever the lead time is, it is. Be honest. There may not always have to be a ‘why.’”

“Being honest about the situations as they arise. Inquiring about other parts of the job to ensure that the needs are real. Improving our processes to improve lead times.”

“With kid gloves, but transparency. Don’t push the date to far out to try to make yourself look good for beating the delivery date either.”

“We’re pointing out that having to answer five different ‘compliance’ personnel is taking away our ability to get items shipped and invoiced!”

“We are in the millwork segment of our industry, which is far removed from ‘Amazon mentality,’ and have met our customer’s needs throughout the pandemic and beyond with very few issues or delays. All which have produced extreme loyalty!”

“We have to deal with big suppliers that carry large inventories and can deliver in 48 hours.”

“Begin with clear and complete communication from the start, letting customers know when they need to place orders and why. Document via the quote, order acknowledgement and through email. Issues arise when we haven’t been clear and consistent with our messages. Whenever we can meet their unrealistic expectations, we do. Then when we cannot, they trust our message that we cannot. We follow-up with any delays on our customers’ part so we can encourage more timely actions. For some, we do a debrief on the last transaction to prepare for better future transactions.”

“Distributors should go back to stocking materials.”

“You can’t manage if the manufacturers are not keeping up with demand. We do our best to satisfy our customers.”

“Explain to your customers their schedule may not align with your company’s and they need to get on board with creating a reasonable schedule. Quit catering to your customers without setting the expectation of a real lead time. Your company must be realistic with its lead times and once orders begin to push out lead times, you have to communicate that to the customers who you know are higher maintenance.”

“Tell the truth.”

“Overcommunicate.”

“By utilizing technology to help speed up the process, produce more efficient, accurate, and standardized results.”

“Working hard to help customers understand the pressures that still exist.”

Have a Real Issue?
Contact: Rick@LBMJournal.com. The reader who suggests the “Real Issues” topic will receive an LBM Journal prize pack.

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