Tips for Building Material Sellers

Tips for Building Material Sellers

“You don’t understand what it’s like to sell building material supplies in this market,” a sales rep recently grumbled. I replied that his company is a smaller supplier in the market. “The best customers are doing business with your competitors. And when you do price a project, they turn around and shop your quote to everyone online.” “Exactly!” the sales rep said. Whether you are selling lumber, shingles, or wire, this article explores how building material sales reps can improve their sales performance.

Early in my sales training career, I worked with an electronic distributor. This was a mid-size residential and commercial low-voltage distributor with a solid regional presence on the east coast. They faced direct competition from three large public suppliers with more distribution centers and more extensive inventories at each location. Their top sales rep outperformed the next best representative by double digits based on monthly gross margin. When I asked the VP of Sales what made this rep, his name was Rick, a high-performing sales rep, the VP of Sales replied, “He’s been with the company since the beginning. Plus, he’s the brother-in-law of the owner.”

I knew from experience two things about high sales performance. One, the length of time selling for a company does not ensure high sales performance. It’s often the opposite. Long-tenured sales reps often plateau, not outperform the rest of the sales team. Second, hiring a brother-in-law is not a best practice and is more likely to create family drama than sales records. My instincts told me something else was going on, so I committed to investigating and finding out the facts about Rick’s sales success.

What I learned surprised me. The attributes that made Rick a sales superstar were the polar opposite of what the VP of Sales thought. In fact, Rick explained, he couldn’t stand his brother-in-law-owner and barely spoke to him. Second, when you took the time to review his annual sales growth, he averaged a 15-20% increase yearly. In other words, his consistency made him a superstar, not nepotism or tenure. When I asked how he consistently grew at 20 percent a year, he replied, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?” Here’s how he did it:

Building Relationships

Shadowing Rick for a few days, I noticed he spent 90 percent of his time on the phone talking to prospects, customers, or manufacturer reps. It did not matter their title or position; Rick was having conversations. When selling building materials, you likely have thousands of products in your product line but a much smaller number of suppliers and customers—one thing I noticed Rick did more than the other sales reps was leveraging his relationships.

To be accurate, he was asking questions and listening more than talking. For instance, I remember when he asked one of his customers how his son did in his football game the week before. Then he was quiet for a few minutes and listened. His style was so non-salesy and conversational that you would have thought he was talking to his neighbor, not a customer.

Another time, he was on the phone talking to a manufacturer rep, asking how to best position their product against a specific competitor. Manufacturers are constantly innovating and creating new products, yet they will only update their catalog or website once a year, at best. For sales reps with extensive product lines, it’s impossible to stay updated on every product. But manufacturer reps can provide the Cliffs Notes version that sales reps need to win new business. Every conversation becomes an opportunity to be a sponge, not just a sales rep.

Being a sponge means absorbing information from everyone and soaking up their knowledge. The construction industry ecosystem offers a variety of information sources from architects, engineers, skilled trades, manufacturers, and suppliers. Becoming a sponge for knowledge is how you grow the most. The best sales reps are building relationships and sponging knowledge to add value to their customers.

Perpetual Nurturing

The market is constantly changing, regardless of if you are selling residential or commercial supplies. New companies are being formed, employees are changing jobs, and new projects are being approved. For example, I asked Rick how he landed one of the biggest electrical contractors in the state as a client. He said, “Funny story. Their senior estimator was once a project manager for a smaller company. He applied at the bigger company, was hired as an estimator, and introduced me to his new company.”

The lesson for sales reps is that we are continually building relationships. We never know who will change jobs, launch a new company, or win a big project. The construction industry is a small community, and word travels fast. Being a skilled relationship builder is more than managing data in the CRM or sending an email asking if they have anything to quote. That’s being a pest. Instead, ask yourself, will a small client who goes on to work for the largest contractor have a reason to introduce you to their new team? Relationship building is all about giving your prospects a reason to do business with you.

Daily Sales Discipline

There are two types of sales reps in building material supply sales: order takers and order makers. The order takers wait for a project to quote, provide their numbers, and hope for the best. The order-makers have daily outreach and constant communication and are winning business when no one expected them to. High performance does not happen by being a brother-in-law with the owner or seniority.

This is a cold reality of sales high performance: underachievers make excuses. Where others are quick to call it luck or connections, sales superstars know it is their daily process. Sales success is about mastering the basics, including prospecting, relationship building, and negotiations. But learning the basics requires deliberate effort and discipline. Order takers would prefer to call it luck before admitting that others have more discipline.

I’m a firm believer that success leaves clues. Sales success is not something a sales rep achieves. It’s something they attract with their daily sales habits. Good sales habits produce consistent sales results. Poor sales habits produce inconsistent results. Do you need to be perfect? No. But high sales performance is mostly an exercise in discipline, not perfection. Maintaining sales discipline over time is not easy, but sales leaders in all industries understand the benefits.

Having a daily sales discipline gets you from point A to point B faster. It brings new sales hires up to speed more quickly. It produces more sales consistency. A fundamental aspect of sales discipline is not making excuses for sales results. For example, the VP of Sales of the electrical supplier believed the excuse he created for Rick’s sales success, instead of finding facts about his sales success.

Mastering sales basics and daily sales discipline are exercises that deliver massive advantages to sales reps who prioritize them. The three questions sales leaders can ask themselves to hold themselves and their team accountable are:

  1. Do we know what to do?
  2. Do we have the skills to do it?
  3. Why are we getting these results?

Whether you are selling lumber or electronics, knowing the cause-and-effect relationship between your sales rep’s behavior and their results is fundamental. I’ve yet to meet a sales leader who wants a low-performing sales team. Yet, every sales team has underperformers. The sales leader’s job is to figure out where the sales breakdown is occurring.

In Conclusion

The building materials market will continue to have robust demand with a tight supply environment in the coming months. Freddie Mac stated that the United States has a housing supply deficit of almost four million homes. This means the companies that can serve customers in the way that brings them the most value will win. Sales reps who make it easier for customers to do business with, build strong relationships, and maintain daily sales discipline will outperform the competition.