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Tough Call: The saga of Cecil’s culls

A longtime contractor customer is notorious for picking through premium material, then sending too many culls back for credit. What would you do?

Unlike most of the materials you sell, each stick of lumber is unique. Sometimes that’s good, but when the differences have names like Wane, Cup, Twist, and Bow, then different can be a problem. This fact of life and lumber is understood and accepted by most of your customers, who find ways of working with all but the most defective boards. Most of them have learned the tricks of the trade that enable them to use imperfect lumber. Then again, most of the aren’t named Cecil.

One of your most loyal contractor customers ever since your yard opened nearly 30 years ago, Cecil has earned a reputation as a true craftsman. He’s not the cheapest carpenter in town, but builders and homeowners who hire him know that they’re getting the best. You’re proud that your lumberyard is his supplier of choice—a fact that he shares freely with his customers. But, you don’t love the fact that he’s extraordinarily picky when it comes to which materials he’ll accept.

What happened yesterday is a perfect example. Cecil ordered a load of premium #1 studs for a project where he’s framing out an unfinished basement. Knowing how picky Cecil is, your crew took extra time to sort through your inventory and send him only the clearest, straightest studs. Their goal was the first-ever delivery where he’d actually accept every single stick.

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As it turned out, their hopes were dashed when he called and reported that about 25% of the material delivered was, in his words, “unusable. I don’t know why your crew delivers lumber that I can’t possibly use in one of my projects,” he said in a terse phone call. “Please have this ‘lumber’ picked up ASAP and replace it with quality sticks.”

You went to the jobsite yourself to see this awful delivery firsthand. It turns out that the defective lumber was, in your opinion, practically perfect. Still, since he’s the customer, and the customer is always right, you did as he asked. Fortunately this time, he accepted the replacement lumber without grumbling. But there have been times when he’s required multiple trips until he was satisfied.

With fuel prices on the rise, labor tighter than ever, and delivery drivers costing more than ever before, you’re running out of patience with Cecil’s demanding ways. Plus, though Cecil shares that your yard has the best lumber in your market—he makes clear that he still sends back a healthy amount. That fact leads other builders to ask if they can buy Cecil’s culls at a discount.

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You value Cecil’s loyalty, but you’re not sure you can afford to keep him as a customer. What would you do?

• SEE YA, CECIL. Enough is enough. Since your lumber clearly isn’t good enough for him, suggest to Cecil that he take his business elsewhere.

• LEAVE IT BE. Yes, Cecil is a high-maintenance customer, but his loyalty makes up for his extraordinary pickiness. Keep him happy, and continue to enjoy his word-of-mouth marketing.

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• NEGOTIATE. Sit down with Cecil and explain how the reality of your costs means that you likely lose money selling to him. Ask him to work with you to find a solution.

• LIMIT HIS RETURNS. Tell Cecil that you’re accepting no more than 5% returns from any customers. That will help him learn to use the less-than-perfect lumber in his projects.

What would you do?

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