A Look Back for the New Year

I wrote the following Q+A column in 1992. A lot has changed in the intervening years. 

For example, Sweet's catalog files no longer exist, although the brand name lingers on in cyberspace. Now, it's hard to imagine a marketing campaign that doesn't include electronic media.

Other things, however, are timeless. Switching from selling contractors to working with design professionals is still a challenge. And for many building product sales reps, the Construction Specifications Institute can still open doors for you.  

As 2010 year draws to an end, perhaps this piece of nostalgia will help you reflect on the ongoing changes in our industry, and those things with timeless value.  

Happy New Year. MC 

Is Sweet’s Catalog File still a valid medium for distributing building product information? What is the best way to use it?— H.K., marketing manager

This column has spoken frequently about the potential of electronic media for distributing building product information, but design and construction still take place primarily in a “hard copy” environment. And though several new directory and catalog services are challenging McGraw-Hill Inc., its Sweet’s Catalog File is still a vital marketing channel for many products.

That point was driven home recently when I visited the offices of a major Chicago-based architect. The firm’s library of manufacturer catalogs was on another floor in the wing farthest from the production areas, and some of the binders had not been updated in 10 years. A current set of Sweet’s catalogs, however, was readily accessible in each design studio.

As an encyclopedic directory, Sweet’s is an essential reference for designers and builders. While advertising in Sweet’s does not guarantee product acceptance, staying out could make a specifier wary that a brand is not a serious player in the construction industry.

There are as many philosophies about advertising in Sweet’s as there are advertisers. Since it is usually on hand when product selections are made, some advertisers use Sweet’s like a “point of purchase” display. They insert their entire catalog so information is available immediately for detailing or specifying.

Others see Sweet’s as a tool to create awareness and to generate inquiries. That strategy may be appropriate for firms with limited advertising budgets and for firms that want their sales reps involved in making the sale.

Some designers browse through Sweet’s for ideas or inspiration. Your catalog must be well-organized and designed to be noticed above the competition.

Specifiers often use Sweet’s to look up products and brands they already know, but sometimes they use the index to find suppliers of the products they need. Many manufacturers, however, do not take full advantage of the index of product types. For example, a manufacturer that furnishes doors and frames as part of its prefabricated walls is indexed under wall systems but not under entrances. A little creative indexing can increase your citations and build traffic through your catalog.

My company has asked me to become its architectural sales rep. Until now I sold mostly to contractors and dealers and avoided calling on specifiers. What’s the best way for me to learn my new territory?—B.D., district manager

Calling on architectural offices can be a tough adjustment for sales reps used to the plan room or jobsite. Contractors want to know what the price is and when they can get it, but specifiers ask a bewildering range of questions. A call on a contractor can produce an order, but even the best call on a designer may not yield any tangible evidence of success.

At first it may seem that architects speak a foreign language and are aloof or even hostile to your advances. But persevere and you may find architectural sales to be a fulfilling career.

The best advice I can offer to get you started is to join the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). CSI can open doors for you at architectural offices and help you earn your stripes as an architectural sales professional.

Not all CSI members are spec writers, but they all share an interest in how building products function. That makes CSI a fertile ground for communication between design professionals and building product sales reps.

Being a CSI member is like belonging to the same club as your customers. Repeated contacts with architects at CSI meetings can help you cultivate useful relationships. Some reps even coordinate their travel with CSI meetings in various towns. That way they can make contact with 10 or 20 key specifiers during a single lunch or dinner and learn about current projects.

Your job may also require you to become an associate member of American Institute of Architects, Associated General Contractors, or another industry organization. In CSI, however, sales reps are full and equal members. That helps many reps feel more comfortable selling to architects because they learn to see themselves as members of the design team and not just as peddlers.

CSI educational programs will explain construction contracts, specifications and technology, and will put you in touch with a network of building industry experts. As you gain confidence, CSI’s Construction Document Technologist exam will enable you to demonstrate your understanding of the CSI format for organizing construction documents and product information. The advanced Certified Construction Product Representative program, to be introduced in 1993, will attest to your ability to advise designers in preparing construction documents.

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 © 1992