Action-Packed Agenda at C.H. Briggs

It's been nearly 10 years since Bob Spangler accepted the role of chief sales officer at C.H. Briggs--one of the country's largest independent distribution companies--and, boy, was that a challenging time. The year was 2008, smack in the middle of a rough patch for the building materials industry and for the economy in general. Spangler is being facetious when he swears he didn't trigger the slump, but he couldn't be more serious when he talks about the firm's focus in these kinder years.

Today's industry is full of opportunities, he insists, not the least of which is the chance to beef up the customer experience. That means, among other steps, sharing more information with customers--including sales data--and improving communications. It also means doing business faster, having product in stock, and figuring out how to get it to customers quickly if it's not in the inventory. "You really have to have a better customer experience because customers have lots of choices, not just traditional distributors but online players and others moving into the same product categories," Spangler says.

C.H. Briggs is already working hard to kick things up a notch, he confirms, pointing to its new culture of "Take Action!" All company co-workers are expected to act in a manner that positively impacts the customer experience. Co-workers are encouraged to put their personal mark on everything they do, which in turn ignites a positive outcome that thrills the customer with each and every interaction.

For truly outstanding sales service, Spangler emphasizes, distributors must also balance the business of supplying products with the need to be more solution-oriented on the customer's behalf. Caring about their issues--and helping to resolve them--is a huge aspect of the new customer experience paradigm; and this distributor is not shrinking from that. Sometimes, as Spangler sees it, providing solutions-based care is as simple as bringing together two different customers with symbiotic needs in a common place and time. As an example, he says the distributor might facilitate a relationship between one customer experiencing a lull in business and another that is overwhelmed with orders, with the former taking on a subcontracting role with the latter.

Although they might also be perceived as challenges, other areas of opportunity for wood products companies stem from the dwindling pool of skilled craftsmen as well as the lower level of industry participation by younger generations and women. "At the end of the day, as a distributor to people who manufacture commercial cabinetry, residential cabinetry, millwork, and countertops...there are laborers who have to build that," Spangler says. “It’s an aging workforce, both at the distribution level and at the manufacturing level, and there are opportunities as an industry to go out and recruit the next generation of cabinet makers, countertop makers as well as sales professionals and leaders in this industry.” As for women, he believes C.H. Briggs already sets the bar high for the rest of the industry, as one of the few women-owned distribution firms in operation. The third-generation family business has been owned and run by Julia Klein, granddaughter of the company founder, since the early '90s. Spangler praises her leadership, noting that she was one of the first in line when it was time to launch NBMDA.

With Klein involved from the very beginning, C.H. Briggs has forged a solid relationship with the association over the years. In fact, using his 18 consecutive years of tenure there as a benchmark, Spangler reports that the firm has had representation on the executive committee or the steering committee for as long as he can remember. Right now, the distributor’s face within the group is Mike Strauss, chief supply chain officer, who currently occupies a seat on the steering committee. "C.H. Briggs is always going to be in the NBMDA, and we're always going to be in a leadership position," Spangler declares. "We're always going to have somebody there because we're interested in what's going on in the market--not just our market, we want to get a broad picture--and we're interested in being part of the solution to many of the issues that face our industry.”

Another benefit of being part of NBMDA, Spangler continues, is the ability to engage with vendors on a level like no other. Like so many others, he and his C.H. Briggs colleagues eagerly anticipate the organization’s national meetings and roundtable discussions that allow them to accomplish so much in a condensed period of time. The speed-dating-like environment of meeting with manufacturer after manufacturer is fun, he says; but more importantly, “we’re able to achieve in one day what normally would take weeks or months of travel.”

Moreover, Spangler adds, the value that comes with being in tune with vendors just can’t be underestimated. “You have to be close with your vendors, you have to understand what their outlook on the marketplace is, what their marketing programs are, and how those work directly with what you’re doing,” he explains. The magnitude of that importance became painfully clear in his early years as chief sales officer, Spangler says. During that formidable stretch, he admits that—like many other distributors who turned their focus inward, a sort of survival mechanism for riding out the downturn—C.H. Briggs put vendor relationships on a back burner for a time.

“We neglected vendor relationships, and I think it hurt us,” he reflects. “Most businesses became very internally focused versus externally focused during that time; I think that was the norm rather than the exception. But those that didn’t pivot and go back and put the time and effort back into it after the slump” will likely regret it. Vendors have many options; and Spangler warns that if they are left guessing whether a distribution partner is truly committed, truly understanding, and truly supportive, they just might choose a different one.

So pivot C.H. Briggs did. For the past three years, it has been aggressively and proactively rebuilding those relationships with manufacturers. That campaign also extends to customer relationships, who, Spangler points, it is also prudent to know and understand and nurture. The distributor is reaching out to former customers and introducing a stellar customer experience to first-timers, with a lot of help from salesforce.com. The CRM system gives members of the sales team huge insight into individual customers and what’s important to them, while also informing their interactions with the distributor. “So instead of being product-focused, the sales professional can really take a look at what the customer is doing with the company—what they’ve ordered, what they’re quoting—and have a conversation based on that, rather than just coming in the door with a door slide or a hinge or a sample of Corian®,” Spangler explains.

C.H. Briggs sells both—hardware and surfacing products—as well as wood. And, in a huge flip from its focus historically, the distributor now does roughly 70 percent of its business in the commercial marketplace. The Architectural Products Group, which operates independently from the building materials group, has its own tactics for driving demand for the distributor’s products. The team works with architects, interior designers, and end users to get products specified; those products then become territory exclusive to C.H. Briggs. “We think it’s incredibly significant that we can create the business and then have a sales process to make sure we maintain the specification right to the millwork house,” Spangler concludes. “The best thing you can do is create opportunities for your customers,” and we really pride ourselves on doing just that.”

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