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February, 2004

How to Sell to Architects and Design/Builders

Hungry for a slice of the design/build pie? Need some practical ideas on how to go about it? Read on for some seriously useful information.

By Mary Shafer

In a nutshell, architects and design/builders are looking for the same thing that sets pro dealers apart from the big boxes: product knowledge and excellent customer service. In some instances, they also need some technological help. It's all there for the doing, if you're willing to commit to the extra work.

Customer Service: Always Number One

Eiron Schofield, director of Business Development for Living Architecture in Ketchum, Idaho, has definite ideas about what he and his colleagues expect from their LBM dealers. The "green building" design firm wants "suppliers who are going to follow up," he says. "Too many times, salespeople come in, drop stuff off, and then we never see or hear from them again. Customer service gets our business."

This should come as no surprise to those whose main positioning in our industry is built on customer service. The difference here is a real need to be proactive in going the extra mile. Clearly, the passive "drop-off" approach is no longer cutting it. Dealers need to add value to their sales presentations and be something more than a product representative. The winners will be those who figure out how to add that value, and then actually do it.

Like everyone else these days, designers are time-starved. A great deal of their time is already spent researching products and specifications. It stands to reason that a dealer willing and able to do some of this research will get serious face time, a willing ear, and very likely, an order.

Road Trip

One of the most productive ways for dealers to pitch to architects and designers, according to Tom Hurd, principal of Mason City, Iowa's Spatial Designs, is to set up "very quick and to-the-point product reviews at our offices." These harried professionals are more than happy to hear about new products and technologies that will make their designs more successful, as long as you keep it brief and information-packed. And don't leave out the all-important pricing information. "Give us some kind of price guidelines with our information," Hurd continues. "If we don't know the prices going into design, how can we meet the budget? If it's over budget, then everyone looks bad. This is extremely important!"

Remember sound rules of business etiquette when prospecting for this kind of pitching opportunity. Make an appointment ahead of time, and then send a brief confirmation letter stating the agreed-on parameters of your visit. Then, the day before your visit, make one final confirmation call so you don't waste a trip and your potential new client doesn't get caught feeling embarrassed by a scheduling conflict. And of course, make sure you and your colleagues dress appropriately for the formal office setting.

The More, the Merrier

Schofield also believes a more encompassing effort, when appropriate, might be more cost-effective. "A bag lunch presentation to several designers or firms at once is a good approach. Then [dealers] are targeting several potential clients, and the designers can ask questions and learn from other people's questions, all in one shot. Often, if they see other firms have an interest in a product, it will spark an interest with them to look at it again."

This competitive mentality can work quite well in the dealer's favor if carefully thought out. The creative discipline of architectural design is, by nature, a showy and competitive profession. There is much grappling for visibility and recognition, whether for daring visual aesthetic or pioneering use of cutting-edge materials and technology. The dealer who can keep a designer aware of The Next Big Thing without becoming a pest becomes a powerful ally in this never-ending pursuit.

Little Things Still Count

Sometimes the dealer's contribution isn't about the big things, but a small puzzle piece that, otherwise missing, would change the look of the big picture. Frederic Zonsius, principal of Frederic Zonsius Architectural Design in Briarcliff Manor, New York, recalls just such an instance. The firm, which specializes in high-end residential buildings, was going over plans for a modern Prairie Style house with Joe Esposito, owner of Country Lumber in Cheshire, Connecticut.

Esposito pointed out to Zonsius that the Douglas fir he had spec'ed for exterior siding was quite expensive. He suggested that imported 5/4 mahogany, usually used as decking material, be substituted. It offered better durability, as well as strength and good looks, for substantially less cost. On another job, Zonsius asked Esposito for a better-looking alternative to black membrane for a flat garage roof. The dealer recommended a CertainTeed product that shared the granular surface and color with the pre-existing shingles on the house, tying the whole design together. "Sometimes these guys who work with the stuff every day become a real fountain of information for us," says Zonsius.

Possible Pitfalls

Not all dealer suggestions have turned out so well for Zonsius. On a recent job, his vendor suggested the substitution of ½-in. roofing board for the specified ¾-in. "I wouldn't go with that again," he says. "It's up to code, but it felt spongy to me. On a $350,000 house, someone's going to expect better than that."

This illustrates the potential problems inherent in going off-spec with dealer suggestions for cost savings. "[It] only works if they keep in mind the real design parameters," Hurd cautions. "We can save money, too, if the owner will allow us to cheapen a design parameter. Occasionally, [we have saved money with] substitutions not known as well, but that perform the same."

This is where exceptional product knowledge comes into play. Schofield expresses his dissatisfaction with a lot of the factory reps that come to see him, and advises dealer reps not to make the same mistake: "If you get a rep that's knowledgeable, they can show you how their product could be integrated to save money. But 90 percent of the time, they only know a small amount about the product they're selling, and almost nothing about building technology," he laments. "Only if they really understand how to put a building together" can the reps' advice realistically cut costs or save time.

It's a strong incentive for dealers to make sure their salespeople are thoroughly grounded in the features and benefits of the products they sell. Architects can't afford the time to research new products as thoroughly as they would like, and they certainly can't afford to take risks on something unproven at the suggestion of someone who clearly doesn't grasp their needs. Schofield continues: "If companies really educated reps on their products and how they can be incorporated into the buildings, they would sell more product. When someone comes in with something new and is not able to tell you why it is better and how it can save you money, you're going to use [the products] you already know."

Fish in a Barrel

Without exception, the architects interviewed said the best places to look for them and their colleagues when searching for pitching prospects are the places they congregate: the larger, annual trade shows. Some shows they mentioned include the national American Institute of Architects (AIA) Conference, the CSI show, or the NAHB Home Show. Schofield adds, "For 'green' products, the USGBC Green Building Show and the Green Festival are two big ones."

Certainly, the annual shows are important and draw a large attendance, but don't discount smaller regional and local shows. After all, you're more likely to meet professionals who actually do business in your area at a nearby event, as long as it is a high-quality, well-run show.

Fine-Tune Your Pitch

Schofield emphasizes selectivity and preparedness in your pitch. "When you're at a show like that, we expect to be approached by any and everyone, so that's when it is especially important to know your stuff and be able to quickly sell the client. Knowledge is power. If you can walk up and tell me what your product is, how it is better than what I am using, and how it can save me money, I will listen to you. [As an attendee,] you get bombarded, and only a few really good products are going to stay with you at the end of the day."

It's for times like this that dealers should perfect what marketers call "the elevator pitch." This means boiling down all pertinent information to its essence, which can be articulated in the fewest words in the least amount of time, based on the face time you might have with a decision-maker sharing an elevator ride.

As with any marketing, you should have certain products in mind to discuss with certain target "audiences," in this case, the architects you'd really like to sell to. Remember the "one message, one target" rule of effective marketing, and don't go in with a vague, general pitch such as, "We're your best choice." In these situations, bait the hook with the most attractive morsel of targeted, relevant information, and then reel them in. You can always show them the rest of the store later.

Use the Right Bait

So, what is effective bait? "Budget," Zonsius says, unequivocally. "That's a hook." And find out how you can take away their pain. "Ask me what my biggest problem was on my last five jobs. Then come back later with a 15-minute presentation [to address that]. Become a part of the problem-solving team."

Timing is critical to your trade-show approach as well. Zonsius says, "At the beginning of a show, the architect needs just a cursory new-product overview. Potential vendors should hand out a pamphlet or other literature. The middle of the show is the best time for hardcore presentations. We all have our things to do during the day, so approach us early in the morning or in the evening. The best way [to get our attention] is to make appointments. By the end of the show, we're exhausted," so that's not the time to try to appeal.

Hurd adds that savvy dealers will set up seminars at the tradeshow that help design/builders keep up their professional certifications. Go to the trouble to develop informational presentations that help them earn Continuing Education Units (CEUs), and you will have turned your product pitch into a value-added educational opportunity. Schofield suggests preparing good visuals and some take-aways for the presentation. "Good literature is always helpful. Have some easy-to-read charts we can quickly glance at to compare it to other products."

Outside the Show

In everyday business, dealers can add serious value to their services for architects and design/builders. However, here is where dealers may hear something they don't necessarily like: "Everything is driven by money and budget," Zonsius states, "but I've never seen a dealer offer weekly delivery reports. I can only pick lumber vendors based on unit cost. Dealers are the only vendor [on my projects] whose contract is open-ended.

"We need budget control from dealers," he says. "We're on a project right now that had an upfront lumber budget for $35,000. It's now over $95,000. You have to really control your cost. If it creeps ten percent, that's almost half the [builder's] profit. We allow for a learning curve, but we'd like an accounting on one job so we can anticipate real costs for the next."

Asked how to accomplish this, Zonsius has very specific ideas. "Based upon the plan, we would appreciate the lumber costs being broken out by floor, and then by interior and exterior. We need accounting for changes, too, so I know what has come onto the site and what is leaving."

Customer Set the Schedule

Another thorn in current dealer/builder relationships is timing of deliveries. It may be easier and more cost-effective for the dealer to deliver a whole load at once, but it's not necessarily what's best for the builder. "You don't want everything delivered at the same time, because you don't want it all just lying around until you need it," Zonsius says. "It becomes a liability." Dealers might do well to take a page from manufacturing's "just-in-time" (JIT) delivery practices to alleviate this problem.

Long lead-time items can cause serious delays and consequent cost overruns, too. According to Zonsius, "We need to know what those items are ahead of time, so we can order accordingly."

One specific area to concentrate on to become a valued partner with design/builders is joist design and roof framing. "The process could be more complete," says Zonsius. "If the lumber company could spend more time pre-engineering things like where posts go, that would be very helpful. If you have questions after framing starts, efficiency goes away." Architects especially look for this kind of engineering help, because their licenses are for design; their attorneys discourage them from getting involved in anything that increases liability.

Good News

The good news is that all of these issues-budget accountability, delivery schedules and truss and joist design-are readily addressed through knowledgeable staff and the right software. Software for these specific applications is abundantly available, and knowledgeable staff can be developed through ongoing training. It's all a matter of dealer commitment to excellence.

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