Surviving "The Great Recession" was one of the toughest things I've ever gone through. And I'm sure all of you who are "back on the other side" feel the same way. Through our very "creative ability" based on being entrepreneurial “Lumber Folks,” we pulled out all the stops and did it. And although we witnessed the demise of quite a few of our contractor customers, there were those that did make it through.
As survivors, during the last few years we've had to face a new problem...Some of our customers, in their zeal to “Ink” new business, started taking on jobs that they’d priced out “too cheap.” And the first downside of that is as we were all recovering--the real costs were going up! “Bad combination.” So at an early point, some of these folks that we'd done business with (in some cases) for many years started to have problems...Dawned on some of them that they were probably going to run out of money before they completed the job. Often starts with pay habits that were good, beginning to trend slow…fifteen days late...then thirty days…you get the picture. And this is about the time that the builder is finding fault with your product, service, whatever, and now starting to blame you (us) for his situation. I'm sure we all could all write a book of stories about how we succeeded in causing problems that this customer now can't manage. Kimal has a couple of these going on now that will very likely wind up in lawsuits, and of course the only winner in lawsuits is the attorneys. (I can hear an attorney say now: “Kimal just made my next ‘Beemer’ payment!”)
So, following are some simple rules we follow in these recovery days:
- If a Builder is beginning to “pay slow,” don't wait for him to catch up…Have a meeting. And I've found the face-to-face meeting is still the best, ‘cause then you can read "body language."
- If you're calling a customer and suddenly he doesn't return calls in a timely way, or maybe not at all, it’s a sure sign there something is going on.
- We train our Sales folks to keep their eyes and ears sharp while in the field…Things like a block mason grumbling that his last check "bounced" twice before he cashed it, another is just the "Grapevine" in general...Not that you want to always take this talk as "Gospel" since it's often likely where there's Smoke, there's Fire! Or, something as simple as this good customer and friend bending your ear about "How bad you're doing, and how much your messing him up, causing him problems.” Or setting you up for hearing things like, "My customer is so upset, he's holding up a draw, that you caused by your ‘X’, so I can't pay you.”
I could go on, but I'm sure you can add a few more signs that indicate this customer is trouble and the next thing is, he/she can't pay you. A good sum up would be: At these points communicate well....Very, very well, and even if you've known good old "Ben the Builder" for the last twenty years, you fish together, etc. now it becomes strictly “Business,” and you must deal with it that way. (A builder friend of mine from the past was hassling me over something, and kind of brought me up short when he sagely said, "Al, friendship ends at fifty dollars”…I got the message real fast.) The anomaly going on--as described above--will go away in time, as bidding, etc., gets more realistic, but now we are in that period where we have to be on top of our situation, more than ever. Stay sharp, and run your business, well, like a business!!
A quick story. About fifty years ago, our Booker Rep, Stu Davis, had set us up with a new product called “Gel-Stain.”. When you popped the lid, and held the can upside down, it would kind of "bubble" down, but didn't come out of the can…and it was a great stain. So anyway, I'm proudly demonstrating this to a builder’s customer. Actually a very attractive women dressed to the nines...Anyway, I was extolling the virtues of this great stain, and then I "popped" the lid, turned the can upside down, and yup! Half of the can "burped" out, hit the floor and stained our feet and legs a nice walnut wood grain color! I was beyond mortally embarrassed, but she had a sense of humor, laughed, and we both got through it. The footnote to the story, I'd put the display right in front of the store front window, and the afternoon sun had warmed the cans quite a bit…You get the picture. I soon moved the display away from the hot storefront window!