Real Issues. Real Answers. Staying connected

Real Issues Staying Connected
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None of us could have predicted a year ago that we were about to spend the next several months learning how to operate our businesses with as few of our staff in the offices, stores, and yards as possible. But we did it, and for the most part we did it really well, resulting in record sales months.

Even once many restrictions lifted, our companies still worked through a sharp reduction of in-person contact limited to video chats, emails, and texting. That’s why this month’s Real Issue asked what you and your company are doing to stay connected with your customers and co-workers.

The question for this month’s Real Issues survey came from a dealer who is facing challenges as his business was no longer conducted strictly in a face-to-face manner. Thanks to the nearly 300 readers who weighed in on our survey.

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What advice do you have for this dealer?

Our biggest challenge today is staying connected with customers and co-workers when COVID is spiking throughout the U.S., and in-person contact has been cut way back. We’re not averse to technology, and have been using video chats, Microsoft teams, and email more than ever, but nothing replaces face-to-face meetings and conversations. What are other LBM companies doing during these strange times to stay connected with their customers and their co-workers?

Responses from LBM dealers and specialty distributors

“We try to ask what our employees need as we deal with COVID. We have hired more employees to take care of customers.”

“We offer monthly newsletters, enhanced social media presence/cadence, socially distanced outdoor meetings either at the client’s office, or jobsites.”

“We are meeting face-to-face regularly. Our customers are small business owners who’ve been deemed ‘essential’ from the beginning. They are pushing forward with a ‘business as usual’ approach for the most part.”

“Mask up! And practice social distancing!”

“We are in a small town that is not a hard hit COVID area. We respect when customers are wearing masks, but have not had to implement additional measures since the initial eight weeks of the pandemic. We did institute several measures during the initial shutdown period.”

“We do a lot of Facebook ads, Twitter, and other social media to keep in front of our customers. We have done some Zoom meetings also.”

“The use of texting and emails has become more essential than ever. Using electronic files (pdf) from manufacturers, or scanning your own, makes communicating your product line and company’s value to the customer much easier in place of personal contact.”

“I text my customers and they like that form of contact the best.”

“Calling, texting, and email. Stress on-time deliveries to keep customers from coming into the store. Also pull orders so if they do have to come inside, they’re not here for long. (Time is money). Most of the time it’s the boss that is here picking up items for jobs. Verifying orders twice to minimize mistakes.”

“Hire good help.”

“We have used Zoom meetings more and more but we are still meeting face-to-face. We are doing outdoor meetings and keeping social distancing in place and wearing masks.”

“We pick up the phone and call people. It’s easy to send emails but they are also easy to overlook.”

“We are a small dealer in a mainly rural area; we have had very little change.”

“Continue in-person meetings, phone calls, but be respectful and just handle business. Don’t pressure them into Zoom meetings or calls if they aren’t comfortable. You have to do what they are comfortable with just like every other part of your business. The customer is always right.”

“We are still doing face-to-face business, but we are encouraging face masks and social distancing. We also encourage people not to come in if they are sick.”

“We use Microsoft Teams and phone meetings. We encourage turning on the video during Microsoft Teams meetings so we can see each other.”

“We have our sales team call at least five contractors, primarily those we have too little contact. They ask if they can help in any way and offer our services.”

“We are doing weekly and monthly inter-company newsletters to all employees.”

“We use what you said as well, but we also use a lot more social media and text messages to help fill the gaps.”

“Over communicate. Find a way and keep delivering your message.”

“We’re still using an outside sales force for face-to-face contacts. Our showrooms are still open, but we’re controlling access—appointments for showroom, one-way traffic to control access, constant disinfecting. We have developed a video message (commercial) to send along with certain email messages as well as on Facebook, twitter, and other social sites.”

“Keep lines of communication open, especially today.”

“By appointment we have meetings outside in our warehouse where we can be socially distanced and conduct business in-person. It is helpful to have a face-to-face with employees and customers and they seem to appreciate that.”

“I am in the credit department; I like to start with a phone call and follow up with an email. The phone call gives me the opportunity to convey a human touch with how are you, and how is your crew, etc.”

“Co-workers: When some are working from home, we have used Zoom for all or some participants. Sometimes it is used to bring work from home into an in-person meeting. During the warmer months we have held in-person meetings outside. We are limiting supplier visits to only when necessary and by appointment. For customers, we are limiting in-store customer traffic with curbside pickup and requiring appointments for project departments: millwork, decks, kitchens, etc. We have encouraged outside reps to keep in touch by phone rather than site visits when possible.”

“We are a rural small business with one location. At this time all of our employees are working on site. Emails, phone calls or texts…all these are used routinely to communicate with our contractors. However, we do not have a formal plan in place to stay connected with our customers. This is one regret I have during the spring when our state shut down the contractors.”

“We make schedules to at least call customers, on a regular basis, to stay in touch.”

“I still go see my customers. It may be for a very short time and at a comfortable distance and with a mask on, but I still go. I talk with my co-workers every day. This is not a time to completely hide. Our industry is fast moving to a lowest price gets the order. I see that as a really bad thing for everyone. Now more than ever is when we need the relationships. Do not let them slip away.”

“Depends on the customer. If you feel someone is feeling disconnected, ask them if they want you to stop by or ask them to come in, wear masks and do the social distant thing. You would be surprised how many contractors are happy that they don’t have a salesman showing up all the time ‘begging for money.’”

“We stay connected with our customers on a personal level with face-to-face communication, maybe on a more limited basis and with precautions taken. We are a small, privately-held company and do not concern ourselves with being as politically correct as a larger corporate company. Most of our customer base is like-minded, for those that are not we accommodate their wishes, but to spend capital on taking steps to appease a temporary situation does not seem to offer a good ROI or for that matter be based in common sense, unless there is a motive being veiled by COVID, such as cutting back on outside sales expenses. Just my point of view, and probably not one shared by the majority of the ever-expanding corporate culture within our industry.”

“(1) Weekly newsletter to contractors, remodelers, DIYers defining product availability and pricing, new products and services. (2) Follow rules for mask wearing and maintaining social distance, but stay in touch with those customers that are comfortable with these actions. (3) Expanding into ecommerce through BuilderWire. (4) Text messaging is preferred by many of our customers— keep them informed!”

“It takes some strategizing. You have to know your customers by understanding how they operate. Do they prefer phone calls in the morning before things get too crazy? Or maybe they prefer an afternoon call? Would they rather receive no call? Using the U.S. Mail is also an effective way to ‘touch’ a customer without invading their time. How about a thank you card that you hand write? In general, prospects/ clients will delete emails. A personal touch goes a long way!”

Responses from wholesale distributors and manufacturers

“I believe it is important, now more than ever, to get our industry caught up to speed with technology. It’s imperative to have a strong ecommerce presence and make it easy for customers to purchase from you.”

“Google meets, Uber Conference, Ring Central app, 3- to 5-minute product demo videos. You need one new iphone 11 or 12, one tripod, and editing software (check out ProStand by On-Air).”

“A combination of social media, email, text, voicemail, and pre-recorded video sent on thumb drives by snail mail.”

“Make sure to bring in coaches and consultants as needed to ensure that someone is helping your team with their blind spots. Now, more than ever, we need outside accountability!”

“Virtual shows. There are new providers in the virtual marketplace. The technology is improving as they learn from each show. Discipline for leaders to maintain and improve engagement with their teams. Daily health and wellness conversations.”

“Social media has been instrumental to many of our members. A lot of dealers here in Kentucky have linked their Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram accounts to any emails they send out. They have then made regular posts about their yards, retail operations, and just general business practices. Many dealers have told us they have seen a lot of success with this.”

“Zoom is a great way of at least staying in touch so you can see what people are saying.”

“I am actually an insurance company claims examiner handling several dedicated accounts for a specialty distributor. Given the overwhelming number of emails one receives, a regularly scheduled quarterly (or more frequent) video conference with a confirmed guideline for issues which need to be addressed directly would add structure and purpose rather than just a random video chat to address uncertain issues.”

“We developed YouTube training, and hosted a food truck lunch for architects and dealers.”

“The telephone has been a powerful, cost-effective tool for more than 140 years. This is the number one way to stay in ‘front’ of the customer.”

“Using your website for educational opportunities concerning new product knowledge, marketing ideas, or any new selling tools that your customer may find helpful. Simple newsletters directing your customers to your website to locate the above information is helpful as well. Lastly, if you have any company items to send out to your accounts quarterly such as hats, shirts, pencils, pens, notepads, thumb drives, etc. with your name/logo on it will help create a ‘feel’ of having an interpersonal get together when you haven’t!”

“Phone calls and Microsoft Teams meetings. We do have some face to face meetings and wear masks during those meetings but only have them if within driving distance.”

“Continue to reach out to your customers via video (Microsoft Teams, Zoom). Maybe create a virtual happy hour and invite some customers. There are several companies that will mail a mixed drink kit (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) to your customers prior to your arranged happy hour call.”

“We have basically been living on Zoom. I just had to cancel a face-to-face with a big customer and now I have to present to them virtually. It’s been tough, to say the least.”

“We continue to encourage face-to-face meetings. We will utilize whatever safety protocols our customers wish us to follow. If they simply are not ready for face-to-face yet we work toward either phone conferences or Zoom conferences.”

“There is not much more you can do… staying connected via Zoom, Microsoft Teams meetings, monthly newsletters, broadcast emails, and phone calls from time to time. I believe this will be the norm for a while at least until the end of 2021. As a vaccine becomes a reality, you will start to see more and more people venture out and make sales calls but, I do not see any in-person trade shows or sales meetings until 2022.”

“We certainly are using similar tools for work engagements. In addition, we have increased our meeting counts and one-on-ones to ensure those working from home feel more connected. Lastly, we use the technology to have informal happy hour get-togethers on a recurring basis.”

“We have continued to come into our offices, and therefore have created and adhered to protocols to ensure our employees are safe. In addition, we did have meetings with our customers, but they were in open air environments such as the parking lots of their retail centers. We avoided shaking hands and adhered to social distancing. All involved welcomed the opportunity to connect in person. We long for the day when everything is open but with careful planning you can still make a deal in person. This is not possible for everyone, however it has worked for us. We long for a cure and some semblance of normal.”

“We instituted a policy of turning on video cameras for meetings and calls and it has helped us feel more connected.”

“Pick up the phone and have a conversation. Follow up with an email. Make sure your lines of communication are open. Don’t wait for the phone to ring. Be proactive.”

“We are probably conversing three or four times more now (via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, email, and phone) than we did before COVID hit. Our sales force has commented that we should have been communicating with this frequency all along as expectations and overall communications have greatly improved. I’ve heard of companies holding Zoom cocktail hours, Microsoft Teams Bingo, Trivial Pursuit, etc. just to have some fun, but we haven’t tried that yet.”

“With the customer’s permission, we will make an in-person sales call. Our field rep is responsible for masking, maintaining social distance, sanitizing hands, and disinfecting his/her cell phone along with any collateral materials taken into the sales call. In addition, our field reps will follow any specific protocols requested by the customer.”

“We are trying to use the WebEx platform to hold meetings with customers and conduct personal training. At first this was well received by customers, but the shininess of the new tool has worn off and we are finding it more and more difficult to get commitments from our partners to participate. Trying to stay connected is a real challenge. I’m not sure I can answer this with any helpful advice, but I’m looking forward to hearing what others are having success with.”

“Respecting state orders as it fits but not letting fear determine how we connect on a human level.”

Hundreds of readers share their insights for this every-issue feature. Have a Real Issue? Contact Rick@LBMJournal.com.

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