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Real Issues. Real Answers. Offer to help, or let it be?

As suppliers, we know that our success relies on financially healthy customers. Does that mean we should offer to help when we see a customer making costly mistakes—with jobsite issues, poor financial management, etc.? Or do we mind our own business, let them run their company as they see fit, and hope they identify and fix the problems soon? That’s the question at the crux of this month’s Real Issue, which is Offer to Help, or Let it Be?

This month’s question came from a dealer in the Northeastern U.S., who’s unsure how much unsolicited help to offer his customers.

As we do each month, we built a very brief survey around this question, and emailed it to the LBM Journal subscribers who’ve opted in to receive our email communications. With 260 responses, it’s clear that this was a question that readers have definite opinions about. A big thank you to the readers who participated. By the way, when we say “very brief,” here’s what we mean: it took an average of one minute to complete this month’s survey.

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Each survey ends with the opportunity to share a business challenge that you’re wrestling with. If your suggestion is used, either for a Real Issues survey or as the inspiration for a “Tough Call,” you’ll receive an LBM Journal prize pack: golf shirt, cap, mug, pen, and more.

How would you advise this dealer?

“We know that we’ll succeed only to the extent that we help our customers succeed. But how far into our customers’ business should we travel? For example, if we notice installation issues on the jobsite that are wasting material or likely to lead to call-backs, do we point them out? Or, if they’re leaving money on the table due to poor financial management, do we reach out to them and offer to help? We’d love to hear how other dealers navigate these situations.”

“We will say something about labor or materials mismanagement, but we will not attack a contractor’s financial blunders. These are very personal!”

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“This would depend on the relationship with the buyer. If I felt they would be receptive, I would make a suggestion, offer what assistance I could provide, then drop it.”

“If you truly see a problem that may impact your business, there is no reason to remain silent. They should appreciate the assistance. Regarding another company’s financial management skills, that is a slippery slope as egos are often at stake. Unless they are lagging in payment towards your company, I feel that’s best left unsaid.”

“It’s different with each customer. I feel you have to point the issues you see out to them and let them decide if it’s important to them.”

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“Stay out of their financial business! The installation issue is easy. Offer clinics at your yard, or offer on-site training by manufacturer reps.

Direct all training to the carpenters or installers. The builders and installers will appreciate the attention.”

“Of course. You are running a business, not a table at a flea market. You rely on repeat business, and if you can help save your customer some money, they will be a customer for life.”

“I think you go where appreciated within the partnership. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want help. We’d love to help where they would be open to it. What a tremendous value-add!”

“I think it’s a great opportunity to hold classes at your lumberyard that speak to what you see your contractor customers are struggling with. Do they take more than the average amount of time questioning statements monthly? Hold an accounting class. Are they not adjusting drawers and doors properly during the kitchen cabinet install?

Bring your cabinet vendors in and run a workshop. Can’t forecast the future? Teach your outside sales force to be the voice of what’s coming, in relation to future purchases.”

“You have to plant some ideas in a manner that doesn’t overstep. Depends on the customer how far that step can be.”

“If you notice installation problems, you have an obligation to let them know.”

“You need to point out any issues you see. Do this in a respectful manner and be tactful about it. We need contractors to succeed in order to help us succeed, we hope the better they do the better we will do. Help them out any way you see fit. If they object to the help, move on and find contractors that want to improve and be profitable.”

“Absolutely! You are your builders’ partner. Anything you can suggest that will help their success you should.”

“Yes, the improper installation of products is something that needs to be expressed. A great product poorly installed is perceived as a bad product. An average product installed perfect is a great product. I would say it’s a gray area on the financial side. Nobody likes to be told they are making mistakes from an outsider. This all falls on the relationship with the customer. If you feel the relationship is there, go for it, just make sure you approach it in a respectful way. The customer may thank you for the constructive information.”

“Discuss the problems you see with the company’s owner. Your relationship with your customer is a form of partnership.”

“I believe that customers expect us to help them with wasting material and things of that sort. I also believe though, you have to be extremely careful when talking about financial matters.”

“Offer to help. Mentorship will only help the industry become even stronger. Making sure that that the customers’ business success will also increase future sales.”

“We would never offer advice unless asked, unless the issue directly affects us. If they have a lot of call backs because they order incorrectly, we would offer our services to help figure the materials list. Or, if they have problems with a certain type of material they are using, we can offer an effective substitute, we would do that. If they come to us in a financial bind, yes, we would make suggestions to help them achieve a better cash flow, in order for us to get paid more quickly.”

“We look at our contractors as a vital partnership with our business. I think there are ways to not insult the contractor but offer guidance. We run a pretty successful operation, and while we don’t always do everything right ourselves, we definitely appreciate the feedback from our customers on ways we can improve. From experience, our contractors appreciate the same feedback. If there are ways we can help others succeed, we all win.”

“If the contractor/customer is approachable, yes, make suggestions. But be diplomatic!”

“Years ago, I received a compliment from a homeowner. Unbeknownst to me, my customer, the builder, threatened to fire this homeowner and give him his deposit back because the homeowner was insistent on using his choice of lumber supplier. The builder, my customer, told the homeowner that this change was out of the question because he couldn’t successfully build his home without my assistance as his preferred supplier. He told the homeowner, ‘it isn’t what my supplier is selling or how much they are selling it for that’s important. It is what my supplier understands about my business that solidifies our relationship.’ It was probably the best professional compliment I ever received. However, the important thing here is that the builder and I had regular conversations about jobsite management, material usage, contractor awareness and financial responsibility. If we had not regularly discussed those business-to-business realities, I might have lost that builder as a customer.”

“We point them out, but if we learn the builder is not receptive or pretends to be receptive but does not make any significant changes, we walk away.”

“Yes, if they ask. If not, tread carefully.”

“Yes. Both of these are issues that I would bring to the attention of and help to educate the contractor. From my experience, they’re grateful for the help.”

“I feel these are two totally different topics. If we are seeing a problem with installation, we would suggest some type of training to correct the situation. As far as the financial side of their business, we steer clear of that.”

“Yes. This is the tough part of customer relations. But if you don’t offer some advice they might not survive financially and won’t be your customer anymore anyway.”

“I always point out improper installation and framers that are wasting materials or have improperly installed truss components. Taking care of issues is better sooner than later, it will cost more handling them later.”

“Be a consultant and a partner, not just a salesman.”

“I would point out installation issues and how to fix problems. As far as money issues, I usually ask them about at what point during construction do they get their draws and what has to be completed to get the draw. To cover my assets, I always file a Notice Of Commencement also.”

“Our stated mission, the reason we are here, ‘is to contribute to the success and profitability of our pro customers…’ Therefore, the answer to this question is a resounding yes.”

“I guess it depends on your market and how you get along with your customers. We come from a semi-small community, so when we see some of the issues that you are describing, we will point it out. Waste is waste, whether it’s time, material or money. For the most part, people are appreciative of the savings and someone having their back.”

“If they are significant, they should be communicated to the customer. We recently signed up a new customer that specifically told us that if there was anything that we saw that would improve their business or make it easier to do business with us, that we should be sure to point that out.”

“I firmly believe we are partners with our customers. I have also very diplomatically discussed areas that I thought they could improve. Most appreciate the feedback.”

“If you’re confident that you can suggest a time-or money-saving technique, then present the idea privately, to the right person. Address the owner, supervisor, accountant, or other client contact that is responsible for the decision and meet with them alone. Present the idea in a question starting with “Have you ever considered…”? We don’t want to insult the client or assume that they haven’t already thought of our idea. If you make the suggestion in front of the client’s reports, someone could get embarrassed. The responsible party may not even be aware that task is being performed incorrectly. The client should be the one to challenge his employees’ technique or decision. We just want to be a resource and strengthen the relationship.”

“There’s not much advantage in being what is described to me as being ‘A seasoned veteran, or an elder statesman’ in our industry. I’ve always managed to step in and offer my opinions and assistance only when, after getting to know my client well, I knew that advice would be welcomed and not viewed as an ‘intrusion.’ After offering what I believed to be a simpler solution, a better way, or a path for them to increase profits, I’ve always made sure to present my thoughts, or ideas as ‘an option.’ I’ve always presented it in a way that would still make it absolutely clear to them, that my advice was only a suggestion. Always leave them with the idea that it’s their business and their decision to make, but don’t retreat from offering some guidance.”

“It can be a sensitive subject, but if approached properly, this can really lock in a customer. Most of them appreciate anything our salespeople can do to improve their bottom line. Now, they’re always that few…”

“I always feel it is important as business-to-business you share insight and experience. It helps all of us to be better in the end. It may be as simple as asking, I am curious why do you do (subject) this way? I am always trying to learn. This then may lead to an open conversation. I feel if they are making poor choices, it may jeopardize payment to you. Never hurts to ask!”

“We use education events and quality control jobsite visits by our outside sales team to make sure our product is installed correctly. These findings are shared with our builders to help them be their best.”

“The more we help our customers become more profitable, the more business they are likely to give us.”

“Installation issues: Yes, offer help. Be honest without being critical, come alongside them and provide solutions. If the manufacturer offers installation training, offer this to your builder, explaining how it will reduce call-backs, maybe even take the class with the builder. Financial issues: Be intentional, past dues can open the door for a positive conversation, point them towards resources that bring results. Consider holding customer appreciation events that include seminars as part of the program, with topics like knowing your costs and how to be profitable.”

“If this is a good customer that I partner with, I can have a conversation about doing things better. We can certainly talk to the customer about better ways to install the products we sell but you have to be careful about the financial part of their business. I have had those conversations, especially when it looks like the customer is starting to slip on his ability to pay to terms. They will usually listen, but you can’t force them to drink the kool-aid.”

“We try to stay out of the financial part of their business, unless asked. If a customer has problems on the jobsite, we will bring it up, and offer advice, or perhaps suggest different product that might help.”

“Depends if they are open to feedback/criticism. People do not like to hear that they are doing things wrong, but a second set of eyes is helpful.”

“I consider it good customer relations to help our customers be more successful. So I would definitely offer suggestions on both accounts. Installation issues can cause all parties involved to lose money. Our suppliers usually kick in 1/2 and we kick in 1/2 and the customer usually will supply the labor, so speaking to them will keep money in everyone’s pocket. Poor financial management discussions should be general and tactful—treading lightly, but pointing out areas that would lead them to better handle their business shows that we are not only a supplier, but that we are partners and that we are invested in their success.”

“Our customer’s success is our success. We conduct educational Lunch & Learn sessions on business management, marketing, estimating, Quicken, MS Office, etc. for our builder customers and smaller design professionals. They are always well attended and are conducted by paid instructors who aren’t selling anything. These sessions, on occasion, attract a few that we may not currently be doing business with. This provides us with a list of prospects as well as an opportunity to show off our facilities and services. It doesn’t take long for the word to spread about these events and ultimately delivers additional possibilities at the next session to garner a few more new relationships. These efforts make clear that we’re not at all sticking our noses into our customers business or management issues. If we give 100% without expecting anything in return, the customer will eventually give us what we want: better relationships and additional business.”

“Yes, you should be helping customers succeed wherever possible. It does take some tact, so don’t be overbearing or too aggressive. Politely point out issues that ‘may be an opportunity for greater efficiency/profitability’ and see how the customer reacts.”

“Yes, offer help. Be respectful of going too far into their business, but approach it from a standpoint that when they succeed, so do you. Our business is based on relationships, and I think the most successful have built a trust with their customers that allows them to work together to achieve goals.”

“Yes, the success of your business relies on the success of your customers’ business. The healthier you help them to be, the healthier you’ll be in return. Installation issues often trickle into the dealer as warranty claims. Even if the claim is denied, there is usually expense in the research and decision. Offering help also helps strengthen your relationship with your customer. Most customers are pretty receptive to anything that’ll save them time or money. If it isn’t a subject you want to broach directly with the customer, you could always set up a lunch-and-learn or education session. Chances are, they may not be the only customer struggling with that installation or aspect of their business.”

“If you notice installation issues on the jobsite that would structurally affect the building or lead to a call-back for your customer or you, it should definitely be pointed out and corrected. If we designed and supplied a roof truss or floor joist system and it gets installed incorrectly, it could potentially come back on us, and then we have the headache of helping the customer make it right and the headache of defending ourselves. Your customer will appreciate the personal attention, too, if sales staff visit jobsites regularly and point those things out if he/she notices them. I wouldn’t go as far to get involved in any financial aspect of their business unless it pertained to you and them only.”

“I would strongly recommend being as involved as your customer will allow. Our goal is to be a solution provider, sometimes it is not the solution the customer wants to hear, but it may be what is necessary to make him a better builder and hence a better customer.”

From manufacturers & service providers

“As far as meddling in others’ financial management, I think that category is ‘None Of Your Business.’ As long as their bills are paid in a proper manner, their management style should be respected.”

“Anything that helps our customer will be reflected in our results. I believe that you can go as far as you are capable of going.”

“I’d say absolutely yes. Not only do you have a fiduciary responsibility to your client you have one to your business and community as well. Rising waters will raise all ships. Do not lose the grasp on the golden rule.”

“Depends on the customer and the relationship you have with them. Most appreciate the offer to help and if you have people in your organization with the expertise to collaborate to solve or streamline their issues that helps solidifies your relationship. The approach is the deal-breaker in this case. You have to have the right person approaching the right person at your customer’s place. Who you send in to help assist them is another hurdle. If your teams are overtaxed with their current roles, reaching out to assist a customer with an issue may put more stress on your company. How they approach and interact with your customer on some potentially sensitive issues is another hurdle. Short answer, yes. But with guardrails. Keep in mind, some people just won’t let you help them—ego, pride or just plain embarrassment may keep them from accepting help, not matter how sincere.”

“Tips for lost income due to waste is always appreciated when appropriately presented. Tread softly with poor financial management, as this can hit the ego directly.”

From wholesale distributors

“I would absolutely offer this type of support, but in a non-invasive manner. The more you can help your customers to succeed, the more you should succeed. Also, ideally makes them a more loyal customer.”

“You can only help if your customer is willing to listen. But be careful how far you step, sometimes their toes are as large as their egos!”

“Consistently monitoring your clients’ projects not only benefits your customer, but keeps your organization on top of their evolving needs, their progress through projects, which helps with your own planning of resources, as well keeps you familiar with their solvency. Post-project reviews internally and with the client can create a proactive environment, and create stronger relationships and ties with the customer, as well as suggest new products or solutions that will make your client more successful. Remember, your success is intrinsically tied to your customers’ success.”

“Yes for all.”

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