Meaningful relationships

Even the best-looking building is only as strong as the materials it’s made from. In the same way, savvy rural builders know that good relationships with quality suppliers are a key to the strength of their businesses.

“Sure, price is part of it,” admits owner Tom Wolford of WC Buildings LLC, a post-frame design/build firm in Newark, Ohio, “but, first, the materials we use must be proven products. And in meeting our own customers’ needs, we’ve got to get great service from our suppliers. Also, as people see the longevity and benefits of the products we use, that creates upsell opportunities for us.”

In return for quality and service, WC Buildings is willing to offer its loyalty.

“We’re loyal to suppliers who work with us,” Wolford affirms. Yet loyalty isn’t just a virtue, but a necessity. Because delivery times are often critical to the success of a project — and because material prices and availability can be volatile — having a good relationship with a sympathetic and knowledgeable supplier can make a real difference.

President Tim Little of Little Construction Company agrees. “Although initially I might bite on price,” he says, “what a builder needs to look for is a relationship.”

Based in Mount Holly, N.J., the company has specialized in post-frame construction for 26 years. “Our type of business requires teamwork with our suppliers,” he explains. “It’s give and take, where we trust our suppliers and they trust us.”

Helping each other

For their part, suppliers realize they can only grow by helping their builders grow. Jerry Johnson, national marketing coordinator for CannonBall:HNP, points out that builders must set themselves apart from the competition — and are looking to their suppliers for ideas.

“The bottom line is that, first of all, builders want quality, trouble-free products,” Johnson notes.

At its plant in Beloit, Wis., the company makes doors and hardware, door track and sliding door systems, equine doors and stalls, and window and ventilation systems.

“But we realize our products can also help you sell buildings. So we give you something to talk about with your customers — like, say, sliding doors that are maintenance-free and guaranteed for the life of the building.”

Rural builders also set themselves apart by providing superior service to their clients. “So we’ve got to provide solutions for our builders, which is especially true in tough times,” reports general manager Todd Carlson of AJ Manufacturing in Bloomer, Wis., a nationwide supplier of metal insulated doors and windows to the post-frame building industry.

“As a supplier, we help builders resolve issues quickly and accurately. To do that, we’ve got to be responsive and flexible. And our products must deliver the performance that builders expect.”

Supply and demand

Carlson and his firm are mindful, he says, that “there is an end user or consumer behind our customers. Just meeting the builder’s expectations isn’t the last step. When we supply you a door, we realize there’s nothing more important than the moment when that homeowner or commercial building owner puts his hand on the knob — and that knob functions reliably, feels solid and makes a quality impression.”

Though Carlson believes that rural builders have a responsibility to periodically shop around and measure the value of different products, he says AJ Manufacturing has — like the builders it serves — prospered by cultivating good relationships. “Some of our relationships with contractors go back more than 30 years,” he notes. “But that doesn’t happen by resting on your laurels. We had one builder who needed to start a big project two weeks in advance and wanted 40 custom windows shipped in two days — even though it was during the busy season. But because it was important to him, it was important to us.”

Builders, however, can facilitate solutions by tending their own side of the relationship.

“Be clear in communicating your needs and concerns,” Carlson advises. “If you’re uncomfortable about contacting us, that’s a problem on our side. But otherwise, if you call us for help and show that you’re committed to making it work, then our job is to work with you and find a solution.”

At Cannonball:HNP, Johnson agrees that builders can do their part to cultivate good relations. “We’ll do everything we can on our side to fix a problem,” he states, “but we have to know all the details of the problem. We have to know what you’re thinking and what you want.” Just as suppliers strive to see the needs of their customers, he adds, “Builders must understand our side as well. We always try to alert them immediately to a potential problem. But it’s a two-way street.”

The payoff for good two-way communication can be substantial. Johnson recalls one incident where a builder was inadvertently sent “a few doors that were not the right product. But because the customer had been clear in communicating his needs, we knew he needed the right doors by Monday. Knowing his requirement allowed us to find a solution. So one of our sales reps got in his pickup truck, drove to the plant—200 miles away from his house—and got the correct doors, and then delivered them to the customer on Sunday.”

But even if the builder is at fault, Johnson continues, “For us, the important thing is to make things right for the customer.”

He cites the example of a builder who “wanted to know why the door he ordered three weeks ago hadn’t arrived. After checking our records, we saw the door had been shipped two weeks earlier. But we made him another door immediately and shipped it right away.”

Sometime afterward, the builder found the original door which he had misplaced. Yet because of the supplier’s quick action, the project stayed on schedule.

Of course, there are times when a problem is beyond both the builder’s and supplier’s control.

“The price of steel in recent months has skyrocketed, so that builders are paying more than they’re used to,” reports Johnson. Yet his company has cushioned the blow by being proactive and giving customers 30 days’ notice.

“That way,” Johnson says, “you can order at the old price and beat the increase. And if we get a question about a price, we give an upfront and honest explanation.”

Building productive relationships “means building trust and being empathetic to the customer’s needs,” he continues, “especially in a competitive market.”

Building relationships

Practicing the advice that rural builders can “do their part” to cultivate supplier relations, Tom Wolford of WC Buildings decided one day to take the lead.

To educate the public on the possibilities of residential post-frame construction, his company hosted an open house at a custom post-frame home it had just built. More than 300 attended, including invited bankers and realtors from out of state. In addition, Wolford permitted nearly a dozen of his suppliers to set up displays in the 24×24 garage.

“They were advertising everything — insulation, windows, lumber, stone, even columns,” Wolford remembers.

Because other local builders were on hand to learn more about post-frame construction, the suppliers were able to reach a number of potential customers. And the event proved a winner for WC Buildings.

Wolford sold several more post-frame homes, even while strengthening his supplier relationships.

“We have a tremendous rapport with our sales reps,” he says, “and that’s important, because we want to be on the leading edge of products. When we partner with our suppliers then, as we grow our business, we’re also growing theirs. It’s a win-win. Of course, things happen. But we get together and fix it. Even when some of our suppliers have been purchased by other companies, we sit down and work out the transition.”

During past boom times, Wolford testifies, he learned who was really dedicated to customer service and who was not.

“We went through busy times where it seemed that, to some suppliers, every builder was just a number,” he recounts. “But today, when things are tight, more manufacturers are being conscious of our needs. At the same, I need to know their needs so that we can understand each other.”

It’s not always about price

Tim Little of Little Construction knows that the cheapest price is not always the best value.

“Whenever you start shopping, you ask a supplier about a product and get the price,” he notes. “But if you do a thorough search then, generally, you’ll find that everyone’s price will be close. So price isn’t always the most important thing.”

For his part, Little has likewise discovered that some suppliers’ customer service can be related to the economic cycle.

“A lot of suppliers are taking extra steps now to keep their builder customers,” he reports. “When the market is less busy, certain suppliers seem more dedicated than they were in the past.”

But Little takes a long-term view of his supplier relationships — some of which have lasted for more than two decades.

“I’m loyal to the ones who look out for my business,” he states.  “The best suppliers keep in contact, really get to know what’s going on in my business, and follow up to see if they’re doing a good job.”

Little Construction is “looking for long-term committed team players” in its suppliers, Little explains. When he finds such team members, then he knows it can be counterproductive to switch suppliers for only a few pennies per unit. Word gets around when builders go price-shopping and summarily drop a supplier that has gone the extra mile on past jobs.

“The right type of builder is totally committed to his customers,” he maintains, “and appropriately loyal to his suppliers.”

And sometimes it’s personal

Personal contact is vital. “With every supplier, make sure you’ve got someone in the company who is your specific contact,” Little advises. “You need someone you can interact with, someone you can always get a hold of, should an issue arise. And that person should be knowledgeable about your business.”

Little cites the example of “one sales rep who notices if our order seems to be off, and then alerts us. Those kinds of suppliers, the ones who know our business, can save us time and money. We also have suppliers who can help us with estimating or engineering. A long-term supplier is really a partner in your business, which means they can contribute to your success or your failure.”

Put another way, Little strives to enlist suppliers he can treat as allies rather than adversaries. “That kind of attitude makes a real difference when problems come up,” he believes. “We’ve had issues that happened on our side and were willing to make adjustments in order to fix the problem. And we’ve had times when the supplier made the mistake. But if you’re both willing to own up to things and fix them, it leads to a productive relationship.”

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