Satisfy architects’ cravings for product literature

 After several years selling engineering materials, I recently accepted a position with an architectural products manufacturer. Architects seem to have a stronger appetite for product literature than my previous customers had. They don’t want just my catalog, but product data sheets, test reports, installation manuals, and all the rest. But it seems as if they don’t really read the three-ring product notebooks I give them; they just want another binder for their shelves. Why are architects so keen on product literature?—L. R., District Manager

Architectural selling differs from other types of industrial or technical selling in many ways. Understanding the reasons for this will help you in your new position.

Typically, architects cannot buy your products; they can only “buy” your ideas. You are not selling them bricks or formwork but information and concepts. Architects generally are better at manipulating symbols, such as words and drawings, than people or objects. The idea of a product expressed on paper can take on a reality greater than the actual material or installation.

Architects are trained to borrow ideas and often look to product literature for inspiration. Because of their visual orientation, they are strongly influenced by your literature’s graphic design and visual image.

Your engineering customers could focus on mastering materials used within their specialized discipline. Architects, however, must work with products from all 16 specification divisions. They are generalists who must rely on external sources for the product knowledge they lack. But most architectural firms cannot afford to purchase even basic industry standards and references for all the disciplines. Instead, they depend on a reference library contributed by manufacturers.

Architects spend their days in an office and rarely visit construction sites or product showrooms. Catalogs give them a glimpse of the outside world. Further, buildings are increasingly assembled from proprietary products and systems instead of basic materials, forcing architects to rely on your literature as the basis of their specifications.

With thousands of product decisions to make on each project, architects don’t want to wait for your information. Sales reps may be unavailable or unable to answer design questions, but a catalog is always on duty. Your perception that architects don’t read product literature is accurate to some extent. Architects treat their library like an encyclopedia — something they don’t read cover to cover but can quickly research for solutions or browse for new ideas. To justify the cost of your product binder, think of three-ring notebooks as strategically located billboards. They reinforce awareness of your brand each time an architect looks up. They are at the “point of purchase” whenever an architect searches his library for a design solution.

Product literature should create awareness, interest, and preference for your product. But your product literature remains in use even after your product has been selected. An architect may ask for additional copies to use as ammunition to sell your product to the design team or to a client. Copies must be available when architects evaluate shop drawings and for use by draftsmen, specification writers, and consultants. And many architects try to cover their decisions with a trail of product literature in the hope of defending themselves against professional liability claims.

When an architect asks for a catalog, it often signals that you are progressing toward a close. But be aware that the statement, “send me your catalog and I’ll look it over,” is sometimes just a polite rejection used to end a sales presentation.

Today, the quality and accessibility of information about your products are as important as your products’ performance. Good product literature is a valuable part of your sales collateral. I empathize with your frustration that architects demand too much product literature, but it would cost far more if they requested too little.

My firm’s product literature is seriously out-of-date. We’ve updated our product line and are shifting our market positioning and our distribution channels. In addition to revising our printed materials, I am considering electronic catalogs. Most of our customers have computers, and I have heard that a competitor is preparing an electronic product information database. How do I know when to take the leap into electronic media? Should I produce both print and electronic versions of my literature? Which should I prepare first? —J. T. D., Vice President, Marketing

In the construction industry, computers are common enough to justify including them in your marketing mix. Many manufacturers have already recognized this and added product software to their kit of selling tools, including computer- aided drafting (CAD) details, engineering programs, guide specifications in word processing format, online customer services, and expert systems for product selection.

For several years, I have informally surveyed construction product manufacturers to determine how many have been using computerized sales tools. Three years ago I counted 10; the following year, more than 100. Last year I estimated 1,000 manufacturers had product software; nearly half the firms I contacted had computerized sales tools or were preparing them.

Until recently, computer media have been used to supplement traditional media and have been limited to specific computerized functions such as CAD or word processing. But new developments make it possible to envision electronic catalogs replacing printed media. For example, affordable CD-ROM laser disk technology makes it economical to produce large electronic catalogs with memory-intensive illustrations.

Electronic catalogs can benefit specifiers and builders by reducing research time and simplifying shop-drawing communications. For manufacturers, electronic catalogs are less expensive to produce and distribute, they allow product information to be updated more frequently, and they enhance a firm’s image as an innovator and leader. The experience you gain from developing your electronic catalog now will enable you to benefit from continuing industry automation.

While some manufacturers are developing their own electronic catalogs, various database developers are competing to establish their systems as the new standard for the construction industry. Eclat, a leader in this area, is already distributing electronic catalogs on CDROM for several dozen building product suppliers.

Your firm still needs printed literature. Most design and construction firms are computerized, but many people within these firms have not switched to computers. Also, retraining your sales force and distributors so they can make the transition will be a gradual process.

But the direction of the industry toward computers is clear. A marketing manager who recently overhauled his technical manual told me he expects the latest edition to be the last hard-copy product binder his firm will ever do.

You should design your electronic catalog before you design your new printed literature, even if you can’t produce the electronic catalog right away. Thinking through an electronic catalog can give you valuable insight. For example, one manufacturer preparing an electronic catalog realized the organization of its printed literature was an accident of history. Every time the company introduced a product it added a catalog. In time, this piecemeal approach prevented the firm and its customers from seeing individual products as parts of an integrated system.

Another advantage of preparing the electronic catalog first is that the text and graphics you develop for it can then be used with a desktop publishing system to improve the design and production of your printed catalog.

Since your company is changing its marketing strategy, this is an excellent time to consider an electronic catalog. If you have established competitors in your new markets, you won’t beat them with marketing communications that are only as good as theirs. You need superior information resources.

Your existing customers already know how to use your print presentation to write a spec or place an order. You may have to sell against yourself to win customers over to an electronic catalog. But new markets may produce a better incremental return because you’ll be selling new customers instead of reselling existing ones. This also applies to the new generation of designers and builders who are growing up with computers. They will form life-long relationships with the suppliers that speak their language.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1991