The invisible inside sales rep

Service means completion and getting things done. Every LBM dealer proudly boasts of the service they provide to ensure the satisfaction of the customer. The thing missing is the recognition of the hard work of the Inside Sales Representative (ISR) getting so much done—the “invisible” performer.

The ISR is the front facing representative who contractors value as the fulfillment center for your company. They are the last stop in the chain of command to make sure all orders, fires, deliveries, and quotes are handled. In spite of all they do, they are not utilized as potential leaders, as each one is inside.

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Yes, everyone agrees that the ISR is a vital player on the LBM dealer team. So why would I call them “invisible” per- formers? It’s because you see them, but fail to understand their world. You hear them, but don’t listen for new ideas. Mostly their performance is taken for granted.

The typical day
On a typical day, the ISR arrives at the office and makes the first pot of coffee to start the morning. Before she can get her coffee, the phone rings from a customer wanting information while a contractor is walking in the front door. She signals with one finger that she’ll help the contractor “in a minute” just as a truck driver taps on her shoulder in need of an address or directions to a jobsite. The information could easily have been provided by the outside salesperson, but he figured the ISR would just “take care of it.”

The ISR gets the number and promises to call back the consumer on the phone and lets the impatient contractor know she’ll be with him as soon as she gets the address for the delivery. Her cell phone buzzes with a text from the outside sales representative who wants to know when his customer can expect delivery (yes, the one for which there was no delivery address). She notices her e-mail box filling up and peeks at two new files on her desk, left after she checked out the day before, with material lists to quote. While all this is happening, the branch manager pops his head out his office door with a look and a finger wag that says “…we have a problem.”

She is now fending off serious anxiety, but handles the walk-in, returns the consumer call, gives the driver directions, and addresses the manager’s problem. She returns the phone call to her sales rep, a time-wasting gesture serving only to prove to the salesperson she has done her job since she already spoke to the customer directly.

After these initial 45 minutes of unplanned activity, it’s time to start completing the tasks she had on her plate before the inbound tasks took over her morning. She takes the opportunity to go to the break room and pour her first cup of the day where, don’t you know it, the darn pot was left empty by the person who took the last cup without the decency to make a fresh pot. She feels taken for granted at best, invisible at the worst.

If you think this is an exaggeration, I challenge you to ask your ISRs. Find out if they feel appreciated or dumped on. In countless interviews I have conducted regarding the day de- scribed above, the consistent ISR response is “that’s pretty much my life.” Even though you see the ISR every day, their performance challenges remain invisible to most onlookers.

Air traffic control
The ISR takes orders, enters orders, does take-offs, deals with emergencies, provides quotes, answers phones, greets and satisfies contractor walk-ins, takes service orders from co-workers, deals with emergencies (yeah, I said it twice because there are a lot of them) and a few other things left off the list.

The ISR is busy completing tasks for others, but is rarely invited to provide input for process improvement, sales ideas, or task prioritization. They are seen as the “completion” department, the last stop in the supply chain to get things done while they should be cultivated as informational leaders taught to be part of the improvement process.

The real problem is that constant task bombardment for the ISR creates serious hard costs as well as opportunity costs. Emergencies create extra labor, fuel expenses, product replacement costs, and more. Disorganized communication creates opportunity costs when, for each failed attempt at crisis management, resources are poorly allocated or a customer has an excuse to shop with a competitor.

The world of the ISR is constant ASAP demands from co-workers, consumers and contractors each of whom presumes their task will become the top priority instantly. Much like the air traffic controller must land a non-stop flow of planes as they approach, the ISR is tasked with prioritizing tasks. Unlike an air traffic controller, there is little cooperation and less authority to make decisions. So ASAP pressure mounts.

ASAP is not a timeline
The worst part about the constant ASAP struggle is that your ISRs actually succeed! They meet irrational deadlines, thus reshaping expectations for more irrational demands. No- body is sure how they get it all done (i.e. they are invisible), but as long as they do, everyone just keeps dumping tasks on their plate. So constant emergencies evolve to become standard operating procedure which tax your warehouse staff, drivers and the ISR. The ISR cannot feel anything but emotionally stressed by the non-stop pressure to satisfy undefined, urgent deadlines.

If your company prides itself on telling contractors they can phone in an order and get it out in just a few hours, you either have a communication problem or underutilized delivery resources. Somewhere in the dialogue somebody should be allowed, required actually, to reshape expectations to a reasonable level. The real problem might be cultural because nobody expects the ISR to provide leadership, but instead follow orders

A problem of hierarchy?
The problem was illustrated by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. He described the cockpit communication leading up to the crash of a Korean Air flight to Guam in 1997 that resulted in the death of 228 passengers. It was the culminating event in a long series of airline tragedies that plagued Korean air carriers in the 1990s. The cause of the crashes wasn’t poor maintenance or weather. The culprit was politeness and respect for hierarchy.

The black box recorder of the Guam flight demonstrated that the co-pilot politely noted three times the impending doom with deference and lack of urgency. The pilot, acclimated to his role as the delegated authority in the chain of command, ignored the polite requests. Instead of urgently warning the pilot hundreds of people would die instantly, the co-pilot respectfully suggested, “Honorable Pilot, it is possible we might head into the hill and crash if we don’t raise our altitude…but of course you know best what to…” BAM! Dead passengers because the hierarchy didn’t provide for feedback up the chain, only down.

Korea made major changes by training the piloting team to overcome hierarchal bias of a millennia-old culture and erase ambiguity in communication. The ICAO, the civil branch of the United Nations, ranked Korea’s safety standards by 2008 as the highest in the world. Does your organization encourage open dialogue up and down the chain of command? Are you proactively determining ways to streamline activity by involving all the brainpower of your organization?

Finding solutions
The leadership opportunity: The ISR is expected, while taking care of all the inbound demands, to keep pushing forward to cope with problems without participating in solutions. One of the smartest things an organization can do is to teach the ISR how to become a facilitator of change. This means proactively discussing the common challenges you face in your organization and developing solutions for performance and communication improvements. Call periodic huddles to discuss problem events as the brain- storming opportunity to prevent them in the future.

The “negotiate deadlines” opportunity: ASAP is an opinion, not a deadline. Your customers, as noted earlier, have grown accustomed to issuing constant ASAP demands. The key to customer fulfillment means turning ASAP demands into hard timelines that are negotiated up front. This is a process that must occur not only with contractors and consumers, but between co-workers. It’s a skill worth teaching, specifically to ask, “If I can get that to you by this time, will that work?”

The retain your customer opportunity: There is an old saying that sometimes you need to “break some eggs to make an omelet.” You need to let some bad stuff happen sometimes if you want to re-train your customers for reasonableness. It’s a tough moment, but sometimes the ISR must say, “So sorry that we can’t get that by your deadline. Here is what we can do and how we can help avoid this same situation in the future.”

Your managers, outside salespeople and executives of tomorrow are the Inside Sales Leaders of today. The ISR should be given a voice and not treated as a junior team member designated as the dumping ground for constant emergencies due to the poor planning of others. The ISR is possibly the most productive return on labor investment in the construction industry supply chain and their performance, along with input, must become more recognized. They are the backbone of our industry who complete fulfillment tasks and the people who really know best what is happening in your organization.

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