While conducting research for a book, I uncovered two dominant supply house personalities. To best illustrate my point, I will begin by describing the actions of two supply house employees.

Adam is a smart supply house counter salesperson with a wonderful smile. He enthusiastically greets his customers, listens attentively, makes good eye contact ,and is proactive in meeting their needs. Adam loves people. He likes to help others and does not mind extending himself and going the extra mile. However, there are times when he becomes so involved with his customers’ issues that it slows him down, resulting in diminished productivity. Adam craves the acceptance of others in order to justify his sense of accomplishment and self-worth. He wants to be liked. Adam is what I characterize as a sensitive customer service personality.

Bruce is an astute, efficient young man with an uninviting and aloof demeanor. He sternly announces, “Next,” when ready to serve his next customer at the supply house counter. As a contractor approaches his counter, Bruce looks at his computer rather than at his customer and views each customer as a transaction rather than a person. Bruce knows that he is very good at his job and does not need the acceptance of his customers to validate his identity. His supervisor has asked Bruce to smile more often so that he will appear friendly and approachable. But, at the same time, his supervisor appreciates the way Bruce always follows the standard operating procedures. Bruce is what I call a pragmatic customer service personality.

Both Adam and Bruce have a business style that suits them well — Adam is sensitive, and Bruce is pragmatic. However, each technique has an advantage and disadvantage. For example, a contractor once asked Bruce for credit on an obsolete part that was bought almost a year ago. This type of credit return is against the company’s policy, and Bruce clearly and accurately conveyed this to the customer in an uncompromising and resolute manner. For Bruce, policy is sacrosanct.

Conversely, if the same customer asks Adam about taking back the plumbing part for credit, Adam might invest his time researching the customer’s account only to discover that the customer buys more than a half-million dollars in supplies annually. This prompts Adam to approach his supervisor and inquire whether an exception might be in order. For Adam, a little empathy and extra effort help retain a good customer.

While these personality styles seem at opposite ends of the behavioral spectrum, we ought to agree that the ideal would be a balance between the two. Most managers know that since this is not usually the case with their staff. Much of the time they invest in a representative is focused on maximizing their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses, regardless of the behavioral style. My research indicated that a sensitive service representative was 36 percent more likely than their pragmatic counterpart to become upset when dealing with a difficult customer. As a result, the very behavioral trait that makes a sensitive representative inviting, empathetic, and personable may also put him at a disadvantage. It is a double-edged sword.

I have also learned that during peak supply house cycles, such as the first heat wave of the summer when contractors line up at the counter, each style reverts back to its core behaviors. This means that a sensitive representative will invest too much emotionally, which might lead to burnout, while a pragmatic representative too often becomes thick-skinned and perfunctory in the performance of his duties. Unfortunately, sober judgment is usually absent when customer service representatives become stressed.

A supervisor’s role during times of peak activity, therefore, is to become as visible as possible and lead rather than manage.

Maximizing the strengths of your counter staff is easier to accomplish when directed by a strong and capable leader. During stressful customer service situations, a good leader conveys a simple and clear vision of a “better place.” When those around hear this message and believe that it is attainable, they inevitably respond with support for those in leadership. Good leaders naturally attract good followers. This better place has to be achievable so as to diminish the “promised land” syndrome in which people — in this case, the customer service representative — wander from one location to another, never seeming to arrive at the better place. Uncertainty has a tendency to harm morale and cause a manager to lose his credibility.

Therefore, it’s best for a supply house manager to know his counter salesperson’s behavioral styles, offer training to maximize productivity, and provide a sense of balance during peak activity cycles.

Publication date: 10/11/2017