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Turning order takers into sales pros

This month’s Real Issues question comes from a dealer who believes the over-abundance of business that happened during COVID-19 has had a lasting impact on his salespeople. In a nutshell, the dealer is looking for insights on how to turn his now expert order takers back into sales pros.

Each month, we ask readers who have opted in to receive our emails one question from a reader who is searching for answers and has asked us to share their concern. Thank you to the more than 100 dealers who offered specific responses to the dealer’s question about…

Turning order takers into sales pros

We asked readers how they would respond directly to the dealer’s question:

“During the COVID-19 era, when business was over-abundant, my sales team became expert order takers. Now that the market is slowing a bit, and the orders aren’t coming as fast and furious as before, it seems that my team sorta forgot how to sell. What are other dealers doing to light a fire under their salespeople once again?”

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Responses from lumberyards, full-line building material dealers, and distributors:

“We’re grappling with the same question.”

“Sounds like poor management. You point the fingers at the sales reps, but what were you doing during this time when business was over-abundant?”

“We have gone back to the traditional practice of setting goals and having regularly-scheduled touch ins and coaching sessions. Also realize this will not change back overnight.”

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“We’ve done bonus programs tied to overall sales. However, we’ve found great success with making shorter-time period goals and a lower, but still solid reward. For example, we set a very high goal for overall sales in the month of February and the reward was a team dinner at a high-end local steakhouse. This excited them, and we set a record for the month. The challenge is acknowledging that it is not business as usual, and additional non-regular motivation might be required.”

“Having them learn more about our products and how to better answer questions on how best to use them.”

“Have not had any problems with selling.”

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“Talk to your customers. Get to know them.”

“As the general manager, I ask them to schedule sales calls for us to make jointly.”

“It isn’t a matter of lighting a fire under people as it is understanding the markets the salespeople are working in. We are constantly being bombarded with salespeople for products we rarely sell wanting to order us quantities that we couldn’t sell in a decade. Know your customers. Know what they need and don’t try to push specialty products for which your customers have no need. It’s about spending the time with the right customers instead of carpet-bombing all of them with ‘offers’ that aren’t really offers at all.”

“Remind them what the LBM world was like during COVID-19. Educate them on ABM [Account-Based Marketing] tactics. Increase the number of networking and relationship building events available to them.”

“We are not having that problem at this point.”

“Start with ME. What am I doing to model the behavior I want from them? Am I giving them good info—not just ‘sales are down’? Ask them for ideas. Ask them what they need to increase sales. Is it tools or training? Ask them if they are satisfied with their performance. Ask them to rate their own performance.”

“Let them feel the pain.”

“We returned to more scheduled ride-alongs with the sales manager and implemented WAR (weekly action reports) to assist in providing direction and focus to the sales team.”

“Make sure they follow up on quotes.”

“We prefer to allow our customers to order what they want. We do try to steer homeowners in certain directions.”

“Force them out to get in front of customers.”

“Work hard. It’s the smart thing to do.”

“Maybe you need to replace some team members.”

“Try to start a competition between the salespeople with a reward that is obtainable with a little effort.”

“Retrain-refresh-reenergize. Review your pay package.”

“Increase incentives/commissions on new accounts. Tie operational bonuses to overall sales performance.”

“Good luck. Be personable and professional. Ask questions.”

“Have a sales pro come in and do a presentation. I have been thinking of the same thing. We also used to do mock sales calls to show the sales staff what to say and do on a call.”

“Communication is extremely important, as is sharing numbers. There are a number of speakers that can help motivate. Rely on your associations to assist with and understand what is going to help. I truly don’t think we are out of the woods yet. Challenges yet to come!”

“Back to basics. Our salespeople are 100% commission based. They need to sell to make a good living. Get meetings with their customers and be part of their problem-solving issues.”

“Reassigning accounts, basing commissions on profit dollar growth, creating sales teams of inside/outside to match skill sets.”

“We’re reminding our salespeople that their sales goals must be met.”

“Remind them that 80% of their business comes from 20% of their customer base. Get back to listening to what your core customers are doing and find out their new needs. Boots on the ground.”

“That’s what I was going to ask you! When things are quiet, we ask them what their customers are up to. We are getting them trained to pick up the phone and call the customer to see what they might need help with when its slow.”

“We are reminding them of what it is like to not have money flowing in.”

“We are considering incentivizing them for new and additional business.”

“Weekly sales meetings as a group and individual weekly account reviews.”

“Not at this point in our sales cycle just yet, but when it slows down, we will do more PK training. Our sales teams will likely feel some hunger pangs and then return to the hunt!”

“Training and prodding them to make calls to check in with their customers and follow up on quotes. A compensation package that leans heavily on commissions is a good incentive for most salespeople.”

“I have not observed that change in individual salespeople. The ‘hunters’ are still hunting and the ‘farmers’ are still farming.”

“We are setting targets that they need to reach. If they do not reach expected goals, it leads to a sit-down meeting to develop a plan to get there.”

“Need to sell and upsell. Ask more questions and give better advice than the competition. Empower them to be experts.”

“Constant reinforcement for the passion of selling.”

“You’ve got to focus on adding value and building that relationship. Spend time talking with customers and talk about more than just material.”

“Everyone (management, salespeople, and customers) was over busy during the crazy doesn’t-matter-what-I-pay-get-it-for-me-now events of the past couple of years. Between the easy sales and the extra workload, it was easiest for your team to pick the low hanging fruit and just roll on. But before you start bringing up improvements they need to make, or sales goals make sure you take the time to check in and reconnect to them as people. Invest some time into your team and see where they might be burned out or what they had to cut out of their sales routines just to keep up with the work on their plates, then work with them to build back the skills and strategies that are needed to be successful now.”

“Explain the difference between a clerk and a salesperson.”

“We started setting monthly sales goals for the sales team in the set of four tiers. Each tier they reach, they get the reward.”

“First off, forget ‘light a fire under them.’ If you want an effective team, you need to lead them. Second, third, and fourth thing: training, training, training. Sales training, product training, building technology training. Your salespeople need to know how to bring value to the customer—knowledge of the customer’s business, how to best serve them, what new products will make your customer’s lives easier. Sales training on the basics of engaging a customer, providing options, and quote follow up. Some of this will seem basic to many, but when business is easy, we often forget the simple things that close the sale.”

“Training, training, training.”

“Increase the number of jobsite visits! Do not ask for orders! Show you care and are readily available. Every supplier will drop the ball some time. You need to be the first person that comes to mind.”

“All the usual things that are under the headline of ‘Better Discovery.’ When do you need it? How are you using it? Delivered or picked up? Is this part of a project? What else is needed? Etc. etc.”

“Providing current, updated training to refresh sales reps’ knowledge. Promote and encourage upselling.”

“Have a meeting and go over sale tools again to refresh what they need to do.”

“This is a management issue. Not a sales issue. Meet with your inside and outside sales team. Inform them that you are going back to basics. (1) Track percentage of quotes turned into sales. (2) Log legitimate (in-person) cold calls. (3) You set quarterly sales goals. (4) Your inside salespeople can log 10 outgoing calls and 10 incoming calls each day. You will review and follow up with each team member. Your old-timers will squeal. Let them. I’m sure you have employees waiting for the opportunity to join your sales team.”

“More frequent meetings to review sales. Have more training and product knowledge scheduled which has been missing for three years.”

“I’ve heard this story before. Our sales team has always been expert order takers. If the customer knows what they want and is familiar with the items they are specifying, then you are an order taker whether you like it or not. The worst problem was pricing and availability of all products. If your salesmen lost their ability to sell it was not caused by this event. They just lost their desire to sell and should be replaced if they can’t pick it up!”

“More sales training and incentives.”

“I think the approach I take is to share real data with them. Let them see the drop in sales and discuss the reasons. At the end of the day, the staff want the business to succeed.”

“Conscious and direct focus on the competition’s customers.”

“Look for new products and ideas for them to promote to the customers.”

“For a period of time we were so inundated that it was difficult to take the time to upsell, speak with customers, etc. We are again back to that model and with six full time employees, retained them all.”

“Salespeople are always hungry for more business but only a true sales professional will continually look for smarter business. Encourage your team to make more planned and cold calls. Sell more profitable products to customers who already buy from you and learn to distinguish suspects from true prospects. Start having organized sales meetings again to help guide the sales team. Some of the best salespeople are made with training and leadership.”

“I encourage my salespeople to focus on add-on sales as well as impulse buys that pertain to the customer’s needs. I also remind my salespeople to remember that our customers are the most valuable asset that we have, so it is imperative that we are innovative in filling customer needs in a market in which some materials are not immediately available.”

“We just had an ‘experience’ with a retired framer turned salesman during the COVID-19 period. From day one we told him the process that we call ‘from cradle to grave’ on all orders taken is how our 77-year-old lumber company has operated. He never got it. He was only expert in taking the orders and collecting his commissions. No order follow-up anywhere through the process. Updating the store to a new store POS culled him out finally. My best advice is to use the downtime between orders to refine the processes in your store with everyone to get on the same page while collaboratively looking at ways to adjust the process to identify any opportunities to improve upon.”

“It’s hard to light fires and hold salesmen accountable. If you ask too much, they quit and go work somewhere else because they know you can’t find the help to replace them.”

“First, remember that not all salespeople are the same. One possible way to re-energize them may be to have a meeting with each individually and discuss their accounts. What projects they have going or upcoming, last time they visited, next step to get the sale, etc. This can have a twofold result: your salespeople will look at it as you have interest in them and their sales, and they may realize that they have been slacking a little and will get back out there and push for sales again.”

“Start bringing in vendors and manufacturers to go over product training. Having more knowledge about what you are selling gives salespeople more confidence in selling rather than taking orders.”

“Great question. We are in the same situation and would welcome any suggestions.”

“Just have to push them out the door and make the cold calls.”

“Sales are picking up with us. My sales team is still working hard to take care of the customer.”


“I have just accepted the general managers role with our company. One of the first details is to stop the salespeople from becoming order takers and not selling. First thing is to get their list of customers and contact them yourself to see how often they see the salesperson. Don’t do their job for them, but make sure you are aware of customer service issues.”

“Get back to managing. Account review, ride-alongs with set agendas, account analysis on product groups, to name a few.”

Responses from wholesale distributors, manufacturers, and service providers:

“I think it’s important to continue to ask questions and listen to your customers. How can we help solve your problems, whether it be lead time, packaging issues, quality, etc.? When you indicate that you truly care about your customers’ needs and want to make their life easier, as opposed to just trying to make the next sale, that resonates with them.

They want to do more business with you. Sales managers would do good to remind their sales team of this important skill. This may also be an opportunity to introduce a new product to them that they currently are sourcing elsewhere.”

“Incentive payouts.”

“Find a refresher webinar on sales. It’s a tough problem, but if they see their commissions lighten up, that should light the fire.”

“Get back to the basics: education and the value of your goods and services. What value do you bring to your customers?”

“Stress the importance of being a partner with your customers by getting the salespeople involved with problem solving and value engineering their needs when an opportunity arises. This helps the customer and also helps the sales force with complacency and boredom.”

“Skill training, followed by reinforcement. Focus more on unit growth vs. volume.”

“Our salespeople were previously on salary. Rather than give them a raise like everyone else got, we started a commission program.”

“Strong times create weak salespeople: I get it. The ease of business over the past couple years has softened your sales staff. To combat this, I have re-vitalized compensation programs I used back in 2009-2011 when orders were tight. Reward Performance. Not Activity. Scale reward upward as performance increases (sell more/make more). Lace in personal recognition from leadership, public recognition around peers, and non-monetary rewards (A temporary seat at the table for leadership decisions that impact sales strategy). Finally: Toughen up your leadership. Go back to forced rank listings (let everyone know who is winning and who is last). Set clear, measurable expectations and immediately have conversations and offer support when/if they are missed. Salespeople want/need/thrive on a goal. They know when they are missing, don’t let them hide behind ‘covid syndrome.’ Strong salespeople need strong leadership. It starts by looking inward and evaluating yourself as a leader.”

“You’ve got to do customer service surveys and pay a sales commission on stuff above a certain number or quota.”

“Revisit the vision as frequently as possible. Engage conversations. Get them excited about talking about the business and they will quite naturally seek out people to talk to. Engagement breeds engagement. Keep everyone informed on activity. Activity breeds activity.”

“I would first question what makes him believe they forgot how to sell? Is it because the orders are not rolling in at the accelerated pace that they were during the COVID boom, or that orders are more than 10% below pre-COVID numbers in unit sales? What positive tools does the dealer have at his disposal to motivate his team and build excitement around what is a far less exciting market environment?”

“Ask salespeople to gather market information as much as they can and analyze it. Salespeople will find out new chances as well as they find out what’s going on the market, and set up a new strategy and sales direction.”

“Reaching out to existing customers— in person—to get re-connected, and to ask them how their business has changed, how their role may have changed, and reminding them that we are here to provide the best solutions for their business. Show up, listen, remind our customers why we are the best value…rinse and repeat.”

“As a manufacturer, our territory sales managers were instructed by our customers not to make sales call on their retail stores during Covid. This policy extended over a number of months. In an effort to stay in front of the customer, we utilized Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and other means to supplement face-to-face calls. Now that we are able to see our customers face-to-face, we are receiving comments that they are not seeing our salespeople. It appears our territory sales managers are in still in Covid mode. We need to make sure our sales team understands the importance of ‘hunting’ for new business, as well as calling on existing customers to support efforts in growing their business.”

“Offering a bonus plan for new business.”

“Establish a written and documented sales process. Conduct one-on-ones every other week to review and define areas to work on. Understand the pipeline each month.”

“I have only one salesman and we always talk about how to get more business.”

“I started from square one with low-hanging fruit. We analyzed every customer and what items we have seen a drop off in. I put in place call reports which I have never done before. They get daily tracking on new business dollars. We are tracking all outbound phone calls. I’m doing a weekly one one-on-one and discussing their weekly activities around new business.”

“I would suggest if you don’t have a commission-based structure, you start looking into it. Salary-based salespeople are not focused on selling. You are paying them to be order takers.”

“Tell them the story of California’s Pelicans! During WW2, fishing companies canned a lot more tins of fish for men fighting overseas. Pelicans hanging around these canning facilities got fat on the ‘spoils’ cast back onto the sea from those canneries. After the war, these canneries went out of business and the pelicans and subsequent generations did NOT know how to go out and fish for themselves! Many starved! But an enterprising individual brought in some pelicans from Florida who taught the ‘locals’ how to fish again! That saved California’s pelicans. And if a sales manager can teach his young pelicans how to fish, they will be okay too!”

“Bring your vendors in for PK. Have meetings with mini courses to stoke their fire for sales. Look at your CRM and make sure it fits their needs.”

“Review the basics; knowledge is power. Make sure your staff is up to date on current products. Value proposition is going to be important with prices rising, so make sure staff can explain the features and benefits. Be the source with the answers.”

“Get belly-to-belly with the customers.”

“We have adjusted our management team into ops and sales to better focus the team going into uncertain economic times. One team is focused on operations and efficiency, the other team is focused on SALES and GP$. Combined, the two focused groups keep a strong bottom line.”


The reader who suggests the “Real Issues” topic will receive an LBM Journal prize pack.

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