Building product salesmen can make an important contribution to an architect's practice. While they must tout the benefits of their products and take orders salesmen also offer valuable services: providing information with which architects can evaluate, select, and specify products; introducing architects to new materials and techniques; helping assure that contractors understand the specified products and that the products are installed correctly; and providing trouble-shooting assistance to avoid or resolve problems during design and construction. By understanding building product salesman and the work they do, an architect will be able to make better use of the resources they may offer.

It takes a special type of individual to sell building materials. A salesman must have a professionalism that matches that of his architectural clients, a complete grasp of his own products and at least a basic understanding of design and construction technology.

Building product sales require a much longer time frame than do many other types of sales. A building product salesman must often make repeated sales calls before gaining the trust of an architect, and then must wait until the architect has a project for which the salesman's product is appropriate. And after getting his product specified, the salesman's "sale" might not be completed until many months later when a contractor places an order. Because the salesman must promote his product to each of the many decision makers involved in a typical architectural project, from designer and engineer, to specifier and job captain, to contractor and building owner, a salesman who expects to turn a "cold call" into "cold cash" in just a single sales presentation in not likely to find satisfaction in construction product sales. Recruitment, training, and motivation of salesmen is a constant challenge for all building product manufacturers.

There are several types of business relationships into which most building product salesmen can be categorized. These categories affect the range of products and services a salesman offers, and his style and motivation for doing business.

The company salesman is an employee of a manufacturer. Obviously, this type of salesman is limited to promoting the products of one company. A company salesman may be commissioned or salaried, but in either case is expected to promote his company's reputation and long term goals in addition to making immediate sales.

By comparison, the manufacturer's agent is independent and usually represents several manufacturers. Agents typically do not stock materials, but place orders with their manufacturers and provide local service to customers. Frequently, they are paid a commission only on sales delivered to customers within their territories. This means that if an agent in Chicago, for instance, helps an architect specify his product on a project in Dallas, there may be no commission for servicing the architect.

Distributors are also independent, but usually maintain an inventory of selected products. instead of getting a commission, distributors generate income by purchasing materials at a wholesale discount and marking up the price. One reason many manufacturers use distributors is to pass to the local level the onus of providing contractors with goods on credit.

Architectural catalog services are becoming more common in some parts of the country. These services are retained by a number of manufacturers to periodically "detail" the architectural offices in an area by updating their catalogs and making brief presentations about new products. The salesmen also collect information from the offices they visit about the types of projects on the boards and whether an architect would be interested in more information about a product.

Frequently, architects will also rely on trade contractors for product information. Contractors can add the extra benefit of knowing how products actually perform in the field can include installation costs in the prices they quote.

Not all building product salesmen are trained to service architects. Many "countermen" for example, inside salesmen who process orders, do not know how to respond to the design and engineering-oriented questions typically asked by an architect. To provide recognition to building product salesmen who have demonstrated an understanding of specifications and other construction documents, the construction Specifications Institute started their certificate Program last year. The written exam for this program is similar to that taken  by Certified Construction Specifiers.

By cultivating relationships with good salesmen - salesmen who are both knowledgeable and responsive - an architect can avoid countless hours of costly product research, assure himself of an up-to-date catalog and sample library, obtain assistance in detailing and specifying, and call upon their experience and product knowledge whenever help is needed. 

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Progressive Architecture, Copyright © 1988