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TOUGH CALL: A Surly Situation


Online Poll – Read the scenario below then place your vote at the bottom of the page.

Tough Call
You’ll never forget the lessons learned from jobs you held early on in your career. One boss regularly sought out your input on impending changes, and actually listened. That meant a lot. On the other end of the scale, another boss completely shut down your ideas because, and I quote, “that’s not how we’ve always done it.” Back then, you recall very clearly that you swore to remember the positives and the negatives, and keep both top of mind were you ever in the position to run a company.

Thirty years later, you own and operate a one-location LBM company in the heart of a growing metro suburb. Sales are strong and growing, and residential construction forecasts into the next decade are solid. Armed with a well-earned reputation for taking care of the people in your universe—employees and customers—your company is positioned to keep the lion’s share of the business in your market.

Well aware that finding, hiring and keeping good people is the number one challenge for LBM dealers, you and your HR director have set your sights on earning “Best Place to Work” honors in your market. You were feeling pretty good about your chances… until a bad situation with your single biggest customer reared its ugly head, and employee morale took a hit. Here’s the story.

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Fred Surly launched his company, Surly Homes, at about the same time as you. Surly Homes was one of your earliest customers, and with the tremendous demand for new homes in your market, he’s evolved into your single biggest customer. In the early days of your companies, you and Fred interacted a lot. You got along fine then, and you still do today. But you recently learned that Fred Surly shows your team a very different side.

Regardless who it is and what department they work in—outside sales, inside sales, credit, deliveries—everyone at your company who works with Fred Surly uses the same word: “Abusive.” Your people are pros, so they treated it as a joke, at first. But now that it’s been going on for months, and has been getting progressively worse, his abuse is having a negative impact on your crew. “We didn’t want to bother you with this, we figured we could manage the situation. But he’s just getting nastier and harder to work with. Frankly, we’d love it if none of us ever had to work with him again.”

After this eye-opening conversation, you took Fred out to lunch to discuss. “I guess it’s possible that I’ve been a little short with your people sometimes,” he acknowledged. “But even if I do, I buy a heck of a lot of material from you. And your people are grown-ups—they should be able to take a little flack now and then.” A reasonable explanation, you thought, until recapping with your team. Your top outside salesperson said, “If yelling that I don’t know what the #*&! I’m doing is ‘a little flack,’ then….” He didn’t finish the sentence. Didn’t have to.

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It doesn’t matter how much material Surly Homes buys from you, it’s not okay for Fred Surly to verbally abuse your people.

What would you do?

1. IGNORE IT. While you don’t condone Fred’s actions, he is the customer, and he buys a lot of product from you. Time for your team to grow some thicker skin.

2. FIX IT. Surly Homes needs you as much as you need them. Tell Fred that it’s in both of your business interests to put an end to the strong negativity between him and your team.

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3. WARN FRED. Fred seems to think that the fact that he buys so much from you gives him license to abuse your team. Tell him that if it doesn’t stop, you’re done selling to him.

4. STEP IN. Service the Surly Homes account yourself. You always said you’d never ask someone to do something you weren’t willing to do. Prove it.

What would you do?

Something else?

If you’d take a different plan of attack, email your suggested solution to

See how your judgment compares with others in the industry at
Final results will appear in The Buzz section of the January 2017 issue.

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