AFTER A RECENT COMPANY SALES meeting, many of our top performers told me that they were spending less time with the purchasing agents at our home builder clients. Our cabinetry specialist said she'd been given a desk where she could set up meetings with the builder's home buyers to go over specs, meet with customer service technicians, and be close to the accountants when billing questions arose. Our window expert said he was spending an increasing amount of time with his builder's home buyers, providing hands-on instructions on how to install screens, adjust patio doors, and plan window treatments. The component rep was working in builders' architectural offices, offering ideas on creating a design aesthetic with the least costly structural plan.

Welcome to a new world of possibilities, where vendors' sales reps actually work with their home builder clients, creating a productive, profitable, and long-lasting partnership. Builders should no more accept a pesky, pushy, ill-informed “messenger” from their suppliers than they would substandard materials. The best sales reps should be a valuable addition to the team, saving builders money on products, turning up useful competitive intelligence on what's selling, and speeding up the construction process through timely ordering and delivery.

MARKET INTELLIGENCE Need more evidence of the growing value that vendors can provide? Look no further than last year's Builder purchasing survey (see “Power Purchasing,” April 2004, page 86), which found that knowledgeable sales reps are as important as price. And reliability—timely delivery, plenty of inventory—though very important, is no longer enough. Builders are raising the bar, as they should, on what they expect from their suppliers.

Successful builders mine their suppliers for increased value in addition to competitive prices. Leading builders pepper their sales reps and even many vendor senior executives for “best practices” information: Who has the best models? Which options—cabinets, say, or wood colors—work best in the city, which in the suburbs? Builders want to make sure that they're on top of trends when they make purchases.

This is just as it should be: Builders should expect both service and market intelligence from their suppliers. Today's most successful sales reps are integral to a builder's decision-making. But how to identify the best sales reps? There are some unmistakable and common characteristics: The best combine persistence, energy, and a sense of urgency to return a call or get out to the jobsite to resolve a problem. Yet they are even-tempered, able to handle rejection. Not surprisingly, the best sales reps bring direct market experience—an earlier stint as an estimator for a home builder, perhaps, or selling cabinets at retail.

The most effective salespeople succeed by offering winning design ideas, new-product information, and savvy value-engineering cost savings. Roof truss salespeople can remind builders to design their roofs in even, 2-foot increments to avoid extra trusses and labor. And knowledgeable salespeople should be able to coach builders on lumber-buying strategies that are sensitive to market conditions, to avoid locking in high prices. Top performers always suggest “equal or better” products than the established brand names when substitutes come on to the market at lower cost than the current favorite.

Cabinet salespeople can provide builders with both cost-savings and style savvy. They might suggest offsetting wall cabinets to create visual relief in the kitchen at no extra cost. Builders could be offered the option of false drawers or doors on cabinets. Why not save up to $70 per cabinet? Or how about saving $150 per window by installing vinyl windows on the sides of townhomes that have brick fronts but vinyl sides? In the short term, such options lower the supplier's revenue. But it should be more important to build long-term trust and repeat business with the builder.

SUPPLY AND DEMAND Ask yourself: As builders, are your managers in the field getting their money's worth from your building material rep? Experienced sales reps watch jobsites carefully, closely monitoring their deliveries and ensuring that their products are installed per specification and safe from the hazards of other trades. “You should have read the installation instructions” is not what builders want to hear.

Up and down the product chain, sales reps and builders can forge a true partnership. With the right training and through close association with trade groups such as the Wood Truss Council, component salespeople can make a big difference. They add value when they participate in builder safety meetings on issues such as proper truss bracing and crane operation safety. With every truss delivery, salespeople should ensure that the right safety literature comes with the truss layout drawings. More important, salespeople can check discreetly to make sure that builders' carpenters are not shortcutting the temporary and permanent bracing essential to a safe, durable truss system.

And vendors should work as closely with the builder's customer service department as they do with the purchasing department. The nastiest calls vendors get from builders usually involve neglect of the builder's home buyer. A missed service appointment, out-of-stock components, and wrong measurements all conspire to frustrate the customer. The top salespeople should spend as much time with the customer service specialist as they do in preconstruction planning with the jobsite superintendents. After all, the more homes that a builder sells through customer referrals, the more business there is for the vendors.