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8 Things to Do Now to Keep Going Through the Pandemic

By Craig Webb

Urge Customers to Send in Orders Online, via Email or Over the Phone, Then Come Pick Up the Goods

It's time for March Madness, but nobody expected it to look like this. And nobody has a complete, battle-tested game plan to survive and advance, either. The coronavirus pandemic has forced building material dealers and distributors to change plans on the fly and improvise solutions they never thought they'd had to create. I don't have all the solutions, but I do have ideas and tips on how you should respond, plus a few warning flags you should be thinking about now. I also hope you will see this list as just the start of what dealers can do. Write to me at so that I can post even more ideas.

1. Communicate Early and Often

It's better to send messages detailing what you're doing now and then update them as conditions change than to wait until everything is settled. You can reach out to customers and employees separately, but assume that whatever you send workers could reach the general public. Need ideas? Check out the eight letters I've compiled from dealers. And don't be surprised if reporters come calling on you. This guide from Ken Dunham, a longtime journalist and PR exec who's now executive director of the West Coast Lumber and Building Material Association, can help you get ready.

Hardware Stores Could See Their Business Surge

2. Prepare to Stay Busy

I'm getting reports from around the nation that orders and shipments have been rising as the COVID-19 crackdown became more pervasive. This might be because of fears there will be shortages later, or because builders know they can't leave jobsites until the homes are closed in. Likewise, there is speculation that DIY work could increase because everyone is forced to stay at home and confront projects they had long intended to do.

3. Send Some People Home ...

Outside sales reps are among the members of you team best equipped to work outside of the office. Credit and collections people also should be able to do their jobs from home. Depending on your computer system, the same may be true for accounting folks and other back-office jobs. Will you be closing your showroom? Again depending on your computer system, your designers might be able to access the software they need.

.4. .. While Increasing Space Around the Remaining Staff

Unlike OSRs, odds are that inside sales reps will need to stay in the office, because they're the ones who input orders. Buyers likely can reduce the time at the yard they spend conferring by phone with vendors, but they also will need access to systems. If possible, try to move these remaining staffers into spaces normally occupied by the people you sent home. Distancing is one of your best ways to keep employees healthy.

5. Promote BOPIS

That stands for Buy Online, Pickup In Store. If you have some sort of electronic catalog, it's time to promote that option. But even if you don't, make sure people know they can buy from you via email, website message, or phone call.

6. You Have More Tech Than You Might Think

If you use an Apple smartphone, you have videoconferencing capabilities. Ditto if you've signed up for services like WhatsApp or Skype. Most smartphones let you do three-party calls, and there are plenty of low-price conference call and powerful videoconference services available. Also, check out free, shareable offerings like Google docs and spreadsheets, and team-sharing software like Slack.

7. Teach People How to Work Electronically

I've suffered through countless conference calls in which people forget there are folks on the phone line and thus start saying things like "as you can see here...." Remind people to identify themselves as they begin speaking. Send discussion documents ahead of time, and then be specific when pointing to a particular item in the document. Practice using videoconferencing software. You're going to need this technology, so you might as well learn to use it well.

8. Fasten Your Seat Belts; There's a Bumpy Ride Ahead

A few years ago, after a series of massive winter snowstorms finally gave way to spring, National Lumber's Manny Pina told his executive team, "We're going to have to figure out how to make 12 months' worth of revenue in just nine months." We don't know for sure when the COVID-19 crackdown will end, but odds are good we can expect two things. One is that the slowdown will hurt the economy to the point where we won't record any growth at all this year. But the other is that the Federal Reserve's rate cuts are setting ourselves up for a ton of refinancing and scads more opportunities for people to buy homes. Both trends bode well for the remodeling and homebuilding markets. So if any part of the economy is going to recover first from the pandemic, it'll be construction.

What's your advice on what dealers should do? Tell me at

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