Tough Call: The case of the side-stepped sales rep

Tough Call July 2020
istock.com/OSTILL

One of your biggest builder customers is bypassing your salesperson and going straight to the vendor rep. What would you do?

Since launching your LBM business in the mid 1990s, you and your team have grown it one builder customer at a time. You knew you’d succeed only to the extent that you helped others succeed, so you made that your mission. That’s why you’ve been very careful with the manufacturers you work with, the brands you carry, and the quality of lumber you stock. You know that success depends on doing enough of the right things each and every day, choosing your battles, and making the best decisions you can.

The challenge you’re dealing with today began as a small annoyance, but it’s been festering for years, so now it’s affecting the relationship between your company and one of your biggest customers. Here’s the story.

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Bob the Builder (yes, that’s really how he refers to himself) started building homes about the same time you launched your lumberyard. He’s a good guy who is easy to work with, pays on time, and has been a good customer for years. Bob has been working with the same salesperson on your team, Abe, for the past dozen years or so. Abe understands Bob’s company and has done a stellar job servicing and nurturing Bob’s business.

All was good until about three years ago, when your primary decking vendor introduced Phil as your new rep. As it turned out, you already knew Phil, who got his start in the industry as Bob the Builder’s protégé. Phil left Bob’s employ on good terms, and they remained friends, so Bob was ecstatic to learn that his former right-hand man was going to be servicing our account.

Almost immediately, Bob stopped talking to your rep about his decking needs, and started working directly with Phil. This was understandable, and at first, it was fine. But as time has gone on, the situation has gotten more extreme. Bob’s decking purchases have steadily risen by double digits since Phil arrived. While the sales are still going through you, the communication isn’t. It’s now common for Phil to request quotes from your team on Bob’s behalf.

“It just isn’t right. I’ve worked with Bob for years, and have always done right by him,” Abe explained. “I can’t tell if he’s trying to work us for lower pricing, or if he no longer trusts me, but I don’t like getting bid requests from our decking rep. I don’t work for him; I work for you. I feel like I’m getting pushed out of the picture. It’s aggravating, and I want it to stop.”

You understand Abe’s frustration with being side- stepped. Yet Abe is still earning full commission on everything Bob buys, and Bob is buying more than ever. Abe is a top performing member of your sales team, and you don’t want this gnawing at him. What would you do?

If it ain’t broke…Your company is still getting the sale, your rep is still earning commission, and your big customer is happy. If it ain’t broke, don’t break it.

Talk with Bob. Explain to Bob that working directly with the vendor rep is creating friction and ask what you and your team could change to get back to normal.

Talk with Phil. As your vendor rep, Phil is responsible for serving you and your business. Ask him to respect the lines of communication, and to include Abe in his dealings with Bob.

Talk with Abe. Talk through the reality of the situation with Abe, help him understand that this has nothing to do with him, and it’s a bonus that Bob and Phil can work together.

What would you do?

Something else? If you’d take a different plan of attack, email your suggested solution to James@LBMJournal.com. If we publish your reply, we’ll send you an LBM Journal mug.

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