‘Detailing’ specifiers to stimulate sales: Personal introductions generate product awareness and save money

This is an encore posting of an article Michael Chusid wrote about 20 years ago. The prices and players have changed, but the need for detailing services remain higher than ever as many manufacturers cut back their field sales forces.

My company used to have sales engineers who called on architects to get our products specified. We dropped those reps a few years ago to cut costs. I am concerned, however, about losing personal contact with designers, and sense we are losing ground in the specifications. Is there a more affordable way to make sales calls on specifiers? C.B., vice president

The most effective way to present a building product to a specifier is through a personal sales call. A good sales rep can uncover customer needs, shape a presentation to address those needs, identify and defuse objections, respond immediately to questions, recognize buying signals and make a close. No advertisement, product binder or Internet site can do all this—at least not yet. But a personal sales call can cost several hundred dollars when you consider compensation, training, travel and other costs.

It appears that many building product manufacturers have reduced or eliminated their architectural sales force during the past decade. Just like you, these manufacturers have turned to alternative promotional programs, including direct mail and telemarketing. Yet there is another marketing option that delivers most of the benefits of a traditional sales call at a fraction of the cost.

Architectural detailing service
“Detailing” is a term I have borrowed from the pharmaceutical industry; it should not be confused with the preparation of architectural drawings. The manufacturer of a new drug sends out representatives to explain product details to doctors and urge them to write prescriptions—specifications—for it. These detailers frequently introduce several new drugs per call to reduce costs and make the most of doctors’ time.

A handful of companies do the same for architectural products. Leading detailing services include Architectural & Engineers Service Co., serving 11 western states plus two western Canadian provinces; Architectural Sales Service, Ontario, Canada; Designer Information Service, covering the West Coast, Arizona and Nevada; Blank & Associates, calling on specifiers nationwide; and Specifier Services

Inc. in New England.
While each detailing service is different, the typical detailer travels a circuit of architectural and specification offices. Meeting with each specifier once or twice a year, the detailer presents eight to 12 products per call, representing a range of noncompeting manufacturers. During face-to-face presentations, the detailer briefly introduces each product, explains its important features, delivers samples and updates product binders.

Detailers are trained to generate product awareness and motivate specification by stimulating discussion about how the specifier could use the product. They are often design professionals or other individuals knowledgeable about construction and comfortable conversing with architects. While most detailers do not possess in-depth product knowledge, they are prepared to answer the most frequently asked questions about a product. When specifiers require more technical information, detailers make referrals to manufacturers’ in - house experts or local distributors.

As an architect, I value detailers because they provide a crucial conduit to the product information I need in my practice. Detailers make efficient use of my time, since I can learn about several products in a single call instead of disrupting my work to receive a whole string of salespeople. When I ask a detailer for additional information, I know my request will be followed up.

While detailers are similar to manufacturers reps or company salespeople in some regards, there are important differences. Detailers do not provide quotes, take orders, maintain inventory or handle merchandise. Because they concentrate on building relationships with specifiers only, a manufacturer still needs a sales force to work with contractors, distributors and dealers.

Information flows both ways
In addition to making product presentations, detailing services can gather market feedback. Services typically file weekly call reports to clients, identifying whom they called on, level of interest, current design projects where the product may be useful, and requests for additional information or samples. If a specifier has an urgent need, the detailer immediately informs the manufacturer what follow-up is required. Detailers can also ask specific questions and provide, in effect, market research surveys.

The feedback collected by detailers can answer questions such as:

  • Which specifiers’ names should be placed in a database for direct mail or telemarketing campaigns?
  • How much activity is going on in a region ?
  • Are distributors doing the job in their territories? Such feedback can be used to forecast future sales and provide insight into which new products will be hits or flops—and why.

Detailers fill the gap
There are trade offs, of course, between the broader brush offered by an independent detailing service and the focused attention of your own full-service sales force. But for many marketers, detailers provide an effective merchandising tool. Using a detailing service avoids staff recruiting problems, or layoffs should promotional strategy change. This makes these services ideal when launching new products.

Detailers can fill territory gaps or support entry into new markets. The ability to select specific markets makes detailers a viable option for local or regional manufacturers and distributors. You can test the effectiveness of a detailing service by using the service in selected territories and comparing the results with control territories. In designing a test, give the detailer at least a year, to allow enough time for a new product to work its way into the specs and produce sales.

Detailing services are one of the least costly ways to make personal sales calls to the specifications community. While the cost of services varies with the number of territories to be covered, the length of service commitment you make, the nature of the presentation and the time it requires, the cost to a marketer can be... less than you might pay to ship a binder directly to the specifier.

Have a question you'd like us to answer?
Send an email to michaelchusid@chusid.com 

By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1998