Customer Service

Identifying Prospects

The best predictor that 
someone might use your product
is if they have used it before.

Telephone is a most social media

Tweet, text, post, email -- all have applications in building product sales. But the sound of a voice, with the ability to sense tone and inflection, to listen and share, in real time duplex communication, fosters connection not available in other social media.

I am reminded of this by feedback I got from "Tim", a client of mine. 

Tim called last week and asked for my advice on the pricing he charged a long-time customer. Tim had bought his way into the customer's vendor list by underpricing his services. The pricing strategy made sense, at first, since Tim had excess capacity and was seeking an entry into a new market segment. But now, Tom was operating at full capacity, was firmly established as a preferred vendor in the segment, and had even improved the product.

We reviewed his options and agreed that a significant rate increase was justified. But when Tim said he would send the new rates via email, I stopped him.  You see, Tim had never had a face-to-face meeting with his customer. In fact, had never even spoken with him by phone. Their only relationship was based on price. I told Tim, "If you send it by e-mail, all your customer will see is the price increase.  You need to speak with him directly.  Tell him how much you have appreciated his business and ask him if he is satisfied with your work and what improvements you could offer. Only then can you explain why a price increase is necessary and point out how you have been providing extra value not offered by other vendors. By being in conversation, you let your customer express any concerns about the new costs so you can look for a win-win situation."

Tim said he felt awkward about speaking with customers -- that is why he had built his business service model around internet and email instead of direct selling.  I understood, but urged him to work outside his comfort zone to see what would happen. Since the customer is on the other side of the country, making a face-to-face meeting impractical, I urged Tim to phone the customer.
 Tim wrote me today, saying:
"Your seat-of-the-pants insistence (or so it seemed, to me) that I not send an email but instead talk on the phone with my guy in NYC surely made this a different process from what it would have been, had I done things from "my will." Changed behavior led to improbable outcomes: For the first time in memory, in a significant way I have asked for what I need, and I got it."
I found these dictionary definitions of "social":
1. relating to or involving activities in which people spend time talking to each other or doing enjoyable things with each other
2. liking to be with and talk to people: happy to be with people
So be social and pick up the telephone. (My number is +1 818 219 4937 and I would love to hear from you.)

Photo is public domain and accessed at Wikimedia Commons.

Following the LEED

Suppose you want to determine how LEED, the green building rating system, effects marketing opportunities for your product. This used to be fairly simple to determine, as there was just one version of LEED and you could quickly scan the list prerequisites and credits to see which related to your product.

It is a bit more complicated now:
  • There are Multiple Versions of LEED for different types of projects, including New Construction, Existing Buildings, Core and Shell, Schools, etc. Many of these versions have the same or similar credits, but there are differences that have to be understood.
  • Then you get to look at the Pilot Credits, credits that can be incorporated on a trial basis into projects so USGBC can test new ideas. This list is updated frequently.
  • Regional Priorities give extra credit to some LEED credits for addressing especially sensitive regional concerns. This would be useful to plan regional sales efforts, but the data has to be teased out Zip Code by Zip Code.
  • And there are Credit Interpretation Reports, responses to questions by LEED users that can expand upon or change the scope of a credit.
  • (Don't forget to check the Errata.)
If you have a question about LEED, don't bother calling USGBC. Their "customer service" people are totally unfamiliar with LEED. When I finally got a phone number for the corporate office, the switchboard there immediately connected me back to customer service.
To where does all this LEED? (Pardon the pun.)

If you have difficulty understanding LEED, don't worry; in less than a year the next edition of LEED will be issued, and you can begin your LEED attempt to understand the system all over again.

Illustration from Daily Journal of Commerce.

Should you add chat software to your website?

Do prospects leave your website with unanswered questions?

Many times they will. Hopefully, they will be intrigued enough by what you offer to call or email, but there can be a substantial drop-off in interest if people have to leave your site in order to reach you. And another drop-off if they have to wait a day for your reply.

Website chat programs aim to bridge that gap, preventing interest drop-off by allowing prospects to contact you immediately, from your website, to get assistance.

We see this as an increasingly important opportunity:
  • Once you have attracted a prospect to your website, it is a way to deepen the connection.
  • Many individuals now use texting with the same ease, or more, than phone calls.
Here is one building product website already using the capabililty:
Clicking the icon in the lower left corner opens the dialog box. After signing in (a nice way to gather names for your prospect list), the user gets to exchange text messages with a representative.

Here is a live chat I had with LiveChat:

Match your sales approach to the project phase

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote almost twenty years ago. It is still applicable today.

My sales manager is urging me to make more architectural sales calls during the design phase. But experienced sales reps tell me I’m wasting my time if I make a call before the construction documents phase. What do they mean by project phases? And which phase is the best time to make sales calls?—J. P., sales trainee

Architects typically provide their services in a series of phases described in American Institute of Architects document B141: Owner-Architect Agreement. The sales assistance an architect needs may differ from one phase to another. Understanding the following seven phases will enable you to adjust your sales style to each.

1. The sales process begins even before a project is identified. The pre-design phase is not just for prospecting, it provides an opportunity to form relationships with architects and their staffs and to position yourself as a valuable resource. Ask about the firm’s experience with and attitude toward your product and have the staff explain their product selection process. These kinds of questions will put you in the role of a consultant and not merely a vendor.

Architects deal with thousands of products in a typical building. The pre-design phase is not the time to overload them with data that has no immediate use. Instead, concentrate on creating positive impressions of your product’s primary benefits. Give the architect enough background to make intelligent product decisions.
In-office lunch programs are an excellent way to do this. The lunch format reaches individuals in the back office who make many product decisions but whom you can’t call on individually. Rather than fill your presentation with product facts and figures, discuss areas of broader concern. If you sell waterproofing, for example, don’t talk about application technicalities. Discuss ways to construct a building that minimizes the potential for leaks.

2. During schematic design the architect establishes a building’s concept, size, appearance, overall quality, and budget. Decisions about major building systems may be made, such as whether a steel or concrete structure will be used. And “single line” drawings will be produced showing the building’s general layout.

Your goal at this time is not to sell your particular product, but to assure that your product type is the basis of the design. If you sell metal roofing, for example, pitch the aesthetic and functional benefits of sloped roofs compared with flat roofs. Become part of the design team by asking questions about design criteria, project schedule, and team members.

It is hard to find projects in schematic design because only a few people may be involved at this point and because many projects, particularly commercial ones, are kept quiet to give clients room to maneuver.

3. After schematic design demonstrates how the building will satisfy the owner’s needs, design development determines how the building will be put together. The design team becomes more complex as engineers and consultants get involved. Designers will refine floor plans, size the building systems, check building code requirements, and address coordination problems.

Many products are selected at this time, especially where the selection affects the design of other systems. Some brands may be specified, but most product decisions are still generic. For example, if brick was indicated in the schematic design, the architect will now determine whether the walls are thin brick cladding, brick veneer, or load-bearing masonry. If you have already established yourself as a resource, you may be invited to help make these decisions.

4. The construction documents phase completes the design and preparation of detailed drawings. Products are selected by brand or performance and specifications are written. The architect expends at least 40% of his effort is during this phase, and additional staff and consultants become part of the project team.

You must be able to speak to each team member in his own language. Discuss details with the job captain, pricing with the cost estimator, warranty and delivery with the project manager, energy efficiency with the mechanical engineer, finishes with the interior designer, and product performance with the spec writer.

5. The team that worked on the construction documents begins to break up as soon as a project enters the bidding or negotiation phase. The individuals who chose your product may be reassigned to new projects or even laid off. Just a core group remains to take questions from bidders and to prepare addenda. It is very important that these individuals understand how your product contributes to the job’s success because they are in a position to accept or reject substitutions proposed by bidders.

Bidders are now part of the design process and bring issues like pricing, delivery, and installer preference into sharp relief. I have seen salespeople struggle to get named in the specs but lose the sale because they neglected to sell the bidder. Be aware of the project’s bidding instructions regarding bid submittal, substitution procedures, and other requirements.

6. Contractors require your primary attention during construction contract administration because they can actually write an order. But do not forget the architect. He can still accept substitutions or negotiate your product out of the job should a budget overrun occur.

The architect’s contract administrator or construction observer may not have been a part of the design team until now and may not know why your product was selected or how it is expected to perform. Try to enlist him as an ally. Tell him what to watch for in the shop drawings and on the jobsite. Remember, too, that the draftsmen who detailed your product do not have many opportunities to see construction. Arrange jobsite visits so they can see and handle your product in person.

7. A satisfied customer is your best advertisement. So use the post-construction phase to consolidate your relationship with the architect and to lay the groundwork for future sales. Also, be sure the building owner or occupant understands how to use and maintain your product. Be responsive to complaints.

Do a six-month or one-year follow- up inspection and report your findings to the architect. Contact design team members who have lost touch with the project. They will appreciate learning about problems encountered during construction and how you helped solve them.

Take job photos and put them in your three-ring binder in the architect’s office. This will remind the staff that their firm has used the product in the past and can confidently consider it again.

As a project moves from phase to phase, the architectural personnel assigned to the project may change. Projects are often handed over with little communication or documentation about product selection decisions. You must be alert to these changes and make sure that new team members understand why your product has been considered. Be on guard, too, for fast-track construction or other scenarios that affect project phasing.

So when is the best time to make sales calls? There is no one best time. Each project phase presents sales opportunities. A useful exercise would be to analyze the types of decisions made in each phase and how they can affect your product. Get used to asking architects, “What phase of architectural service is this project in?”

It would be ideal if you could call on an architect before a project is identified and then shepherd your product through each phase. This may be practical if you can justify frequent contacts with a particular architectural firm, but most salespeople have to target more selectively.

Your strategy will depend on many factors, including your personal style, the opportunities at a particular architectural firm, and your company’s marketing plan. Some suppliers use salespeople just to answer questions or take orders. But others want them to establish stronger relationships with architects. By doing so, you can shape your prospects’ attitude towards your product and guide them through design and construction to assure a successful sale.

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By Michael Chusid, Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, ©1992


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

The Computerized Jobsite

Contractors use metal containers to store their tools on a construction jobsite. This practice has been updated for use with the newest tools on the jobsite, computer and other digital communication tools.

For example, the BIM Kiosk from Modulus Consulting takes the computer out of the job trailer and puts it into the middle of the action. Instead of using large tables stacked high with a printed set of water stained and wind blown plans, the crew can refer directly to digitized versions of all the project documents and access all the resources on the web.

For the building product manufacturer, this is yet more evidence that your product literature, shop drawings, technical data submittals, Material Safety Data Sheets, and other information has to be ready for digital use in the field. For example, it becomes more practical then ever to use video instead of print for installation instructions, and for your customer service and technical advisers to use Skype instead of relying on phone calls.

Pick up your sales to contractors

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid published 14 years ago. There have been dramatic changes during the intervening years. Now, many contractors are as connected in the field as they are in the office, thanks to mobile computing and wi-fi.

Technology, timing, and training are the keys to reaching busy contractors

Many of our customers are small contractors. They spend their days out on job sites or running around town in their pickup trucks. Because they are rarely in their offices, it's very difficult to make sales calls. Can you suggest ways to reach contractors like these? - G.C., marketing vice president

As you have discovered, the key members of contractors' staffs are usually out in the field, picking up materials, visiting plan rooms, and running jobs. Few small contractors keep regular office hours.

Technology can offer solutions. The growing use of cellular phones has made it possible to locate contractors in the field or in their truck cabs. Portable computers with fax modems are another means to reach contractors on the go.

Technology can also help building product makers deliver product information when customers need it, even if salespeople aren't available. Most small contractors are so busy during the day they have to plan projects in the evening and on weekends. Online services can give contractors information, including product literature and order status, during these off hours.

There are other ways to reach contractors in their pick ups. A major roofing company recently distributed a series of audio tapes on managing a roofing business. They suggested that contractors put their driving time to productive use by listening to the educational programs in their vehicles. The tapes gave general advice on marketing, safety, and other management topics, but also told their captive audiences about the manufacturer's promotions and customer service programs.

While your customer may not keep bankers' hours, most contractors do have a predictable rhythm to their work schedules. To reach them, your salespeople may have to make calls early in the morning, before contractors leave for job sites, or keep a pair of boots in the trunk to call on prospects in the field. Part of salespeople's jobs is to get to know contractors' work habits and identify the best opportunities to make calls.

Hilti, a manufacturer of construction grade fasteners, has made a specialty of calling on contractors in the field. Bypassing independent distributors, Hilti's salespeople deliver inventory on the spot and demonstrate the latest in tools and fasteners. Their bright red vans are familiar on job sites.

Leveraging distributors
Lacking sales fleets like Hilti's, other manufacturers have discovered a valuable alternative for reaching small contractors. Many contractors start their day by stopping at a distributor's warehouse. With such frequent customer contact, distributors can play an important role in promoting your product.

However, most distributors are geared toward taking and filling orders, not selling. If you want sales leverage from your distributors, it is up to you to motivate them. And you must train them so their staff can speak authoritatively about your product.

One strategy is to bring key personnel from each distributor to your plant for training. If you can't justify this expense, bring training to them with seminars, videotapes, and hands-on demonstrations.

Besides technical presentations, include sales training, so distributor staff know how to ask for an order. Davis Colors, a leading manufacturer of concrete pigments, trains counter salespeople at ready mix dealers to ask, "What color do you want?" to encourage customers to get pigments added to their concrete.

After you have trained the distributors' staff, offer to train the distributors' customers. Most leading distributors will let you use their warehouses or yards to train local contractors. Such after-work sessions are great opportunities to build goodwill for you and your distributor. If you include a hands-on segment, make sure your demonstrator is a top notch crafts person who will earn the respect of your audience.

Support your training by providing merchandising materials for your dealers. Co-op money can put your logo in local advertising, on the dealer's stationery, and on exterior signage.

Develop attractive point-of-purchase materials, such as freestanding displays and posters for distributors' showrooms, and combination show cards and literature racks for sales counters. Just in case contractors still don't get the message, encourage the sales clerks to wear shirts with your company logo.

Finally, use your sales time strategically. Time spent getting your product specified for a job means many contractors will be familiar with your product when they prepare their bids. And in every community, certain contractors set the pace for the rest. Concentrate your sales efforts on reaching these leaders, and leave the rest to word of mouth.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright ©1997

Reps who Write Specs can Ring up More Sales

By being able to lend a hand to architects, reps can lose the stigma of "salesman" and be recognized as an integral part of the design team 

This article is an encore of something Michael Chusid wrote nearly 20 years ago. It remains true today.

Q. Getting our products named in an architect's specifications is an important part of our sales strategy. What would the advantages be if our reps knew how to write specs themselves? And how can they get the training they need? - C.B.F., sales manager

A. Let me answer your first question by relating an experience I had once while working at an architectural firm. 'Joe" was a building product sales representative who carried a roofing system I had never used. He called on me several times to introduce his company and explain the benefits of his product. I became interested in his product, but, like most architects, I couldn't devote the time to research and write a spec for it.

Then one day a storm destroyed the roofs of several local schools. An emergency school board meeting was held and my firm was awarded the contract to design the re-roofing. The next morning, Joe showed up at my office asking how he would help. Since I had a pressing deadline, I asked Joe to write the roofing spec while I assembled the rest of the bid documents. He took a seat in my conference room and several hours later presented me with a well-written specification section.

If Joe had not been able to roll up his sleeves and write an effective spec Tor his product, I would have been pressured by time constraints to use another roof I was already familiar with. Joe's spec was written in the style used by my office, the format recommended by the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). It was properly cross-referenced to other specification sections, and it showed an understanding of bidding requirements and the conditions of the construction contract. I was able to put Joe's spec into the project manual with a minimum of editing. And I saved the section in my computer to use as an office master specification.

Joe's spec was written around his company's products, of course. But because the client was a public agency that required competitive bids, Joe named several other suppliers as acceptable substitutes. By spelling out exactly what was required, Joe made sure that his competitors couldn't cut costs by bidding a lower quality product.

In my mind. Joe had ceased to be a roofing salesman and had become my roofing consultant-part of my design team. In this new capacity, he was invited back many times to bid other projects and was able to roof many of my buildings.

Why reps should know specs
While opportunities like this don't happen every day, it demonstrates how important it is for a salesman to understand spec writing. Another roofing salesman might have merely referred me to his technical manual for the specifications. Joe's product may have been no better than the alternatives, but the advantage he had was that he knew the language of the industry and was capable of using it to service a customer.

Sales reps who can help with specs and detailing are a valuable resource. Architects are typically under tremendous time pressures and cannot possibly be expert in all building materials, so they frequently rely on sales reps for assistance. In some trades, such as elevators and door hardware, specification writing is an established part of the sales rep's job. The ability to write specs is also crucial when promoting maintenance projects or other work for which an owner has not retained an architect or consulting engineer.

While it's easy to feel intimidated by 500 pages of project specifications, a rep who understands how specs are organized and prepared is likely to have a greater sense of self-confidence and professionalism. Even if the opportunity to write a section does not arise, these reps will have many chances to suggest specifications or modifications that will improve a building's design or ensure their product is used correctly. By working with the specifier, the rep has a better chance of getting his product's proprietary advantages included in the specification. And his understanding of specs will help him prepare more accurate bids and deliver projects with fewer problems.

Where to learn
I recommend taking one of the introductory classes offered by many CSI chapters or by industry groups such as the National Concrete Masonry Association. Such classes can also be presented as part of a company's sales meetings.

These classes introduce the CSI, Manual of Practice [now called Project Resourse Manual] which describes organization of construction documents, principles of effective spec writing, and CSI's recommended three-part format. The manual's latest edition has chapters on product presentation techniques, product literature, and effective technical assistance. The classes also prepare you to earn CSI's Certified Construction Product Representative designation. (Call 703-684-0300 to order a copy or to get information on classes and certification.)

It also helps to read as many specs as possible, especially the sections that apply to your product. Also, familiarize yourself with bidding requirements and conditions of the construction contract. Keep a reference file of good specifications and sections that address special conditions.

When calling on a new firm, meet the specification writer and find out how he prepares specs. Give him copies of your specs on the type of computer medium he uses. If he has an office master specification, offer to review it for technical accuracy and compliance with the latest standards. The more you know about how the specifier works, the better equipped you'll be to render assistance.

Specification writers will usually respond favorably to your interest. Consider how Joe learned to write specs. As a novice, he would write a specification and then ask experienced specifiers to critique it. He would revise the spec to include their recommendations and then give it to them to use as part of their office master specifications. In addition to helping Joe learn to write specs, this process got the specifiers involved with Joe's product.

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By Michael Chusid. Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, ©1994

"Please be considerate of his time"

I requested information from a vendor about one of their key products on Monday. On Wednesday I got a call from one of their reps. I asked several questions he did not know the answer to. He offered to give me the phone number of their in-house expert; I asked if the expert was available to talk now. The sales rep put me on hold - after getting my permission, but I swear he just put the receiver down on his desk; I could hear his in-office conversation - for several minutes before informing me the expert was not available.

Alright, said I, please ask him to call me later. Absolutely, said the rep. But when his follow-up email arrived that afternoon it contained instructions for me to contact the expert, closing with this line:

"Please be considerate of his time."

Seriously? Isn't that Day One of sales training? Especially since this sales rep was in no way considerate of my time (two day delay on call-back, placing me on hold, making me do the follow-up).

I can only conclude from this statement that their in-house technical expert is attempting to defuse explosives or perform neurosurgery and cannot afford distraction. I cannot confirm this, though, as I will not be having further contact with, or sending money to, this company.

Stop Substitution Abuse

Develop strategies to convince specifiers to 'just say no.'

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote nearly 20 years ago.

I work closely with architects to get my products specified. I don't mind when they take "or equal" bids, as long as I'm competing apples to apples. But most of the time, contractors use cheaper products that don't meet the spec, and the architects let them get away with it. Does it make sense to call on architects when they allow so many substitutions? - UH., sales rep

Once upon a time, architects thoroughly researched building products and specified only those promising the highest performance for the lowest price. Contractors then dutifully furnished and installed the specified products, fearing that to deviate from the construction documents would incur the wrath of their clients and increase liability. At least that's the mythology of the construction industry. In the real marketplace, architectural specifications are frequently challenged by contractors and vendors hoping to make product substitutions that put them in better financial or competitive positions.

Occasional substitutions are a sign of a healthy competitive marketplace. When the substitution process is not abused, it makes buildings more affordable, stimulates product innovation, and responds to fluctuating market prices and availability. In fact, most bid documents even spell out procedures that encourage the orderly submittal and review of substitutions.

Frustration like yours, however, is very common. Every sales rep has horror stories about projects they lost because architects did not enforce the specifications. Indeed, many architects have assumed an unprofessional stance on substitutions. By doing so, they undermine the authority of their profession, increase the likelihood of product failures, and diminish their firms' stature to little more than that of contract drafting services.

But focusing your attention on the few architects who abuse substitutions will not help you increase your sales. Specifications remain an important key to selling many types of building materials, and most architects make a conscientious effort to enforce them. Furthermore, it is your responsibility, as a professional building product salesperson, to guide your specifications through the treacherous shoals of substitutions.

Your marketing strategy
Excessive substitutions could be a sign that you need to re-examine your marketing strategy. If yours is a commodity-type product, it may be especially sensitive to competitively priced substitutions. In general, commodity items are sold based on price, availability, or dealer service, not a designer's brand-name specification. While you may still have to call upon architects to provide support for your distributors, the onus of presenting commodity products to designers should generally be left to manufacturer's associations or industry promotion councils.

Products that are the most resistant to substitutions typically have proprietary features and benefits that differentiate them from other products in the field. One of my clients calls these "spec-locks," and prepares sales-training aids identifying the features his competitors can't match. By attempting to get these spec-locks written into the specifications, he has been able to lock many of his competitors out. Developing new spec-locks is an ongoing process, since successful proprietary products are soon copied and may eventually become commodity products. An increase in the frequency of substitutions may be a warning sign that your products are losing their competitive lead.

But even products with unique features will have substitution problems promoted on the basis of features that were of questionable value to me as a specifier. So before pricing your product, you may want to conduct market research to find out how specifiers assess your product's worth. Remember that specifiers are less concerned with your product's unit price than they are with the cost of the product in place in their building.

Gain allies where it counts
By blaming substitutions on weak architectural enforcement, you may be overlooking weaknesses in your distribution channel. Make marketing allies out of your contractors and distributors since they have access to lower priced fines and are frequently the ones initiating substitutions. Be sure they stand to gain by using your product instead of offering a cheaper one.

One way to strengthen their commitment to your product line is to make them part of the team selling to specifiers and owners. For example, invite contractors to join you when making major architectural presentations. Many contractors will appreciate the exposure and will be less likely to break the spec if they understand why an architect chose your product.

Make sure your pricing and promotions enable your client to make more money by selling up to your product. I remember one project where the HVAC contractor proposed a more expensive air-conditioning system because it was more efficient. And the roofing contractor took advantage of pricing changes that allowed him to sell a better grade of roofing for just a few cents more per square foot. In both instances, the architect persuaded the owner to accept the substitution upgrades. But on that same project, an electrical contractor missed an opportunity to increase his sale when he submitted substitute light fixtures of a lower quality.

In addition to assessing your product and your customer and dealer attitudes, you must also look at your own strength and limitations. Specification selling does not offer the instant gratification of other forms of selling, and many companies and individuals do better with a different approach. some vendors play offense: They keep possession of the ball by finding and developing good prospects, getting specified, and becoming well-positioned to make a sale. Others play defense: Their strategy is to intercept a sale during the bidding or purchasing process.

By knowing your company's game plan you can field a sales team trained to play like winners. But if you do initiate a substitution, remember that the principles of fair play should still govern your efforts.

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By Michael Chusid, originally published in Construction Marketing Today, ©1994

Does your documentation suck?

Beyond features & benefits, beyond good relationship building, beyond even budgetary restraints, sometimes your customers choose a product based on a single reason: they go with the company that offers the best documentation.

Over at the Mindtouch blog, Mark Fidelman suggests It’s Not Your Product, Your Documentation Just Sucks.
Do we really have to wade through your 400 page text-based manual you’ve posted online in order to find out why an error keeps us from using your software? Worse, when we finally find the answer it’s incomplete. So what do we do? A Google search and find the answer elsewhere.
Great advice, and a well thought-out post (although the end turns a bit into a sales pitch for "customer experience" software). And especially important to remember in the construction industry.

Mark makes the case that many companies will blame every department for the problem (It's a sales problem! No, marketing! No, tech support!) before looking at their documentation. Based on what I've seen in the building product industry, I would agree. Just last month at World of Concrete, a dozen companies told me they were having trouble reaching architects, but they knew it wasn't their guide spec because they've been using the same "tried and true" document for over three decades!

Fine, but is it possible that in the past 30 years your product has changed a little bit? Or the way people search for information is slightly different? If so, then maybe it's time you update your technical documentation for the new millennium.

Even many companies that have good, meaning functional, documentation miss some important opportunities. Starting with a simple one: did you make it possible for clients to include your documentation in their specs, or easy? Did you provide data or answers?

From Mark's post:
Most organizations are optimized for short term revenue growth not in building a sustainable relationship with their customers.

That may have worked in a pre-internet world, but it’s not going to fly now. Why? Because your prospective customers are going elsewhere for support. That elsewhere may be your competition.
The move to digital by the construction world has been slower than the mainstream business community, but it is happening. There is a real perception now that finding the information online is "faster" than a phone call or email. And that's true, if your site is structured well enough that the first search finds the needed information. If not, then your client is going to waste a lot of time finding it. Or they will call, but only after they've become frustrated.

Which means that having good documentation does not mean just print documentation. It means posting it online, and understanding that digital media is used differently than print. Posting that 400 page pdf Mark describes is functionally the same as posting nothing at all.

Unbinding the power of binders: Know how a product binder functions for an architect, and design yours accordingly

This is an encore of a column Michael Chusid wrote nearly 20 years ago. While the use of three-ring binders has decreased as more information goes online, binders still have their place. Further, some of the concepts used to organize hard copy sales literature are transferable to your internet-based presentation.
When I send a catalog to an architect, I put it in a three-ring binder, accompanied by product data sheets and other technical information. As a cost-cutting measure, can I send the literature without a binder? And if I do use a binder, how should it be organized and presented to have maximum sales impact?—G.B., president

A sign in my dentist’s office says, “You don’t have to brush all your teeth, just the ones you want to keep.” Similarly, you don’t have to put all your literature in a three-ring binder, just the pieces you want an architect to keep.

If your primary purpose is to generate brand awareness or stimulate the recipient to make an inquiry, you can send your literature in a plain envelope or simple folder. But if you want the designer to keep the literature and refer to it in the future, then you should consider binding your materials.

Though there seems to be increasing use of paperback binding systems for building product sales literature, vinyl-clad (Update: Consider a more environmentally sustainable material instead of vinyl) three-ring notebooks are by far the most frequently used system. They can be assembled at moderate cost in small quantities, and offer flexibility to add to or modify a presentation. They also allow designers to remove pages as required for copying, tracing (this was important in the era of pencil-aided design), or distributing to design team members.
More importantly, notebooks address architects’ storage needs. Few architectural offices have an organized system for storing and retrieving individual brochures or product data sheets. Most loose literature pieces quickly become lost in the flood of information that flows through design offices. At best, a loose brochure may be stuck in a project file for use on a current project. But once there, it is unavailable for future reference. Binders, on the other hand, are too big to misplace in desktop clutter.

Bookshelves filled with product binders are important to the image of a design office. When prospective clients visit, the binder libraries help reassure them that the firm has the requisite technical expertise. Binders enhance your image, too; sending a binder instead of loose sheets shows you understand how architects work. It also communicates that your products have technical backup and your firm has the resources to support your relationship with designers.

Your binder gives you presence in a designer’s library. Think of it as your billboard on an architect’s shelf. While it may not have strong impact, it does have a high frequency of exposure. Every time an architect researches something in his library, or even just walks past the bookshelves, this billboard-on-a-binder exposes your brand name. Furthermore, your binder gives you visibility when the architect goes to the library to pick a product.

Building a better binder
The spine of your binder is the part most exposed to the traffic through an architect’s library, so pay special attention to its design. Most architects organize their libraries according to the MasterFormat 16-division (there are more divisions now) indexing system, so label the spine with the appropriate MasterFormat division or five-digit (six now) section numbers. Select an attention-getting color scheme that sets your book apart from other manufacturers in the division or section.

While your company or brand name should be on the spine, this may not be the most important text. For example, a water-repellent manufacturer with low name recognition realized that putting its company name in big letters on the spine would not motivate architects to pull the binder off the shelf. Instead, the company printed its product category prominently on the spine to appeal to specifiers trying to solve moisture problems.

Your next consideration is the binder’s front cover art. Most covers just repeat the company and brand names and product category. This may be acceptable in some instances, such as when you have to use the same binder in several market segments. But in general, you won’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so use the cover art to reinforce your product positioning or provide an overview of the product line.

For just a few cents more per piece, a binder can be fabricated with a pocket inside the front cover. The pocket is a useful place for shipping and storing samples, computer disks, catalog update sheets, and other items that don’t readily fit onto the binder rings. The pocket also encourages designers to store notes and sketches they make while studying your materials. This personalizes the binder and makes it more likely the binder will be used again.

Also, the inside front cover should have sleeves for business cards. Get two business card sleeves so you can insert a card from a local dealer or rep and a card from someone in the corporate office.

One further comment on the construction of your binder concerns recycling. To make room for new binders in their libraries, architects remove obsolete binders. Environmentally conscientious designers will attempt to reuse old binders. You can contribute to their environmental efforts by using binders with clear plastic covers and printed inserts instead of opaque vinyl with silk screened art. When the printed insert is removed (and recycled), the remaining binder is as good as new. In addition, the printed inserts allow you to use four-color art and to produce different cover art for each market segment you service.

The cover letters sent with most catalogs say little more than, “here is the catalog you asked for.” You can keep the letter brief and still recap key product benefits, explain your company’s strengths, list where your material has been used in the recipient’s community, identify your local distributors, or offer a promotional incentive. The letter is your chance to put a personal face on your company and further your relationship with the recipient.

Include a registration card or reply device, such as a postage-paid card or a fax-back survey. Use the reply device to build and update your mail list, to ask about current projects, or to get customer satisfaction feedback. If you depend on sales people or dealers to distribute your binder in their territories, code the reply devices so you can track whether your rep is actually getting the binders into circulation.

After the spine, the next most visible spot in your binder is what the recipient sees when he opens the front cover. Too often, this space is wasted on a drab table of contents or company history. Instead, bring some color and life to this page. Possibilities include your firm’s overview brochure, an ad reprint, or another piece of literature designed to build the reader’s interest, support your positioning, or explain your product line.

Finally, the key to an effective binder is a well-organized product presentation that allows a designer to find information quickly. Tabbed dividers are helpful. Some successful binders have a tab for each product line or model number (for example, residential windows, commercial windows, architectural windows). Others are organized by the type of information presented (for example, design guidelines, technical references, case studies, installation instructions, costs). Before determining how to organize your binder, review your marketing strategy and analyze the process a typical designer uses to select and specify your product.

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By Michael Chusid, Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, © 1995

Maybe your sales rep shouldn't be local?

New research suggests that you may be more successful if you conduct your negotiations over long distance rather than nearby. If further research validates the findings and shows broader applicability, it could suggest new strategies for conducting sales negotiations. For example, it may be better negotiate via long distance instead of from across town.

Note that this research does not compare distance negotiations to face-to-face negotiations. However digital technologies are increasing the amount of negotiation done at a distance. 

According to a press release from The University of Texas:
Adding physical distance between people during negotiations may lead to more mutually beneficial outcomes...  Psychologist Marlone Henderson examined how negotiations that don't take place in person may be affected by distance. He compared distant negotiators (several thousand feet away) with those who are nearby (a few feet away) in three separate studies. While much work has examined the consequences of different forms of non-face-to-face communication, previous research has not examined the effects of physical distance between negotiators independent of other factors. 
"People tend to concentrate on higher priority items when there is more distance between them by looking at issues in a more abstract way," says Henderson. "They go beyond just thinking about their pursuit of the options presented to them and consider higher-level motives driving their priorities."
Stay tuned for more developments.

Fax speed can propel you to competitive edge

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote more 20 years ago. We can look back at the introduction of fax technology for clues about how best to adopt newer communication technologies.

It seems as if I now send and receive more letters by facsimile than by U.S. mail. How can I make better use of the fax machine in my sales and marketing program? —T.M.J., vice president, sales and marketing

The phenomenally fast spread of fax machines throughout the industry leaves us wondering how we ever got along without them. Time is money; even overnight delivery of orders, sales directives, or product information can be too slow.

When writing a construction specification recently, I called two competing manufacturers for product information. One responded by overnight delivery. Not only did it cost the firm more than $10 for shipping plus the cost of the printed literature, it also cost the firm the chance to be specified. While I was still waiting for that manufacturer’s information, the second manufacturer responded by fax.

In fact, the fax arrived while I was still on the phone with the firm’s salesperson. We were able to clarify immediately which product met my requirements. By the time the competitor’s overnight package arrived, I had completed that section of the specification.
Increasingly inexpensive, fax machines are now ubiquitous in architectural and engineering offices and are becoming more common in jobsite trailers. For overseas work, fax may be the only way to quickly and reliably send written or graphic information. Many firms have more than one fax line to avoid busy signals.

A “shoe shine and a handshake” once epitomized face-to-face selling. Now we routinely buy over the telephone from faceless voices. But the need for graphic information in design and construction limited the use of telemarketing in building product sales. Salespeople and customers still had to meet to exchange drawings and sketches.

Fax machines have turned the telephone into a more useful tool for building product sales. Along with other new technologies, such as online computer communications, fax machines will enable manufacturers to reduce their field sales forces. A salesperson who could visit only five customers a day before can now contact dozens in the same time frame. Telemarketers should have fax machines on their desks so they can send and receive drawings while on the phone with customers.

Make fax a part of your field sales automation program, too. Salespeople should have access to fax machines wherever they work to avoid delays and to cut down on telephone tag. Salespeople who work out of their homes should have fax machines in their home offices. Those on the road can have a fax in their cars thanks to cellular telephones. Traveling salespeople can use a compact fax modem with a laptop computer to send and receive faxes without lugging around a separate fax machine. They may also want to consider an “electronic mailbox” at which to receive fax transmissions. Electronic mailboxes, offered by online information services such as CompuServe, store fax messages until the recipient can download them from a hotel room or even a pay phone along the highway.

Fax machines will change your marketing communications, as well. While “junk fax” should not be encouraged, you can use the fax judiciously to notify customers of special promotions or buying incentives.

An innovative maker of expansion joint covers recognized that most specifiers did not need complete information on each of the firm’s several hundred designs. The manufacturer also felt that as technology and testing status of its fire rated joint covers changed, printed data sheets would rapidly become obsolete. The solution was to distribute a summary catalog with an offer to fax full, updated information on products of interest. The firm offered a toll-free phone number for inquiries.

To make a program like this even more efficient, consider using the new computer-based fax servers. These systems store product data sheets, test reports, article reprints, and other sales collateral on a hard disk and are linked to your customer database. When your salespeople receive an inquiry, they can call up or enter a customer profile, record the nature of the inquiry, and select appropriate product literature from a menu. The materials can be faxed directly from the computer before the conversation is over. Similar fax fulfillment services can be obtained from outside vendors such as McGraw Hill Inc.’s Product Facs program.

Make sure your product literature is readable by fax machine. Background colors or patterns that look good in print can be illegible when faxed.

Direct mail bounce-back cards and magazine reader service cards should be large enough to feed through a fax machine. Include your fax number and those of your reps on your product literature, advertising, stationery, and any form asking customers to submit information.

When shopping for a fax machine, look at those that can store the phone numbers of your sales offices, distributors, and others you communicate with regularly. A machine that can transmit to pre-programmed routing lists is a valuable time-saver when you have to communicate price or policy changes to many salespeople or customers across the country.

Emerging technologies promise to make the fax an even more important sales and marketing tool. Large format machines can transmit drawings as wide as 24 inches. Machines with high-resolution color capabilities give good reproductions of color photographs or images. Pay-for-use 900 numbers enable trade associations and others to automate fax delivery of standards and other documents they normally charge fees for.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1992

Holiday Gifts for Architects & Clients

December is here again and it's time consider holiday gifts and greeting cards for clients!

Here are a few creative ways building product manufacturers can create holiday gifts that promote your business while spreading holiday cheer:

Miniature Bollard Reproductions
Christmas Tree Ornaments - Companies that manufacture decorative materials can craft ornaments from their materials, cutting them to shape, and then etching or engraving a design onto them. I have seen Christmas trees in designers' and builders' offices decorated with nothing but product samples.

A variation on this theme would be to make miniature reproductions of your products to hang on a tree.  Imagine, for example, the decorative potential of the bollards below if reduced to just three-inch height and made in bright colors.

Custom-produced luminaria.
Showcase your Capabilities - One of our clients uses very sophisticated, automated CAD/CAM machinery to produce ceiling and wall panels. They were able to showcase their capabilities by sending customers luminarias made with their own processes.

Creative Packaging - When Sweets Catalog Files were still published as a collection of thick, hard-bound books, Michael Chusid used to transform the old year's volumes into candy boxes; cutting the catalog pages to create a hollow space within. For other clients, we have packaged holiday cookies or other treats inside their regular product packaging.

Mary on Christmas card.
Customized Holiday Cards - Sometimes a photo from a project you worked on makes a great image for a holiday card. This is a technique that architects and builders also use in their holiday missives. Classic images include the illuminated Christmas tree mounted to a topped-out structural frame, and the newly completed building adorned with holiday lights for the first time. The text of the card can describe your connection to the project without being crassly commercial.
Several years ago, one of our clients was a supplier to the newly completed Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles. The haloed Mary over the main entrance to the cathedral was perfect for the season.

Other Ideas:
Decorative concrete coasters, envelope openers with your company information, product-shaped chocolates, etc.

Happy Holidays from all of us at Chusid Associates!

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

Finding Specs Without the Plan Room

To sell a product line that I recently began distributing, I must get it written into specifications. I am used to finding jobs to bid by checking the plan room and staying in touch with the contractors I serve. But these methods don’t identify projects still in the design or spec stage. How should I prospect for architect/engineer work?—M. T. Humphrey, distributor

Successful prospecting depends on understanding your strategy and on having a good plan. Answer the following questions to determine whether it makes sense to depart from your traditional business to call on specifiers:

  • What is your competition? If other products are established in your market, success at the specifier level will be difficult unless your product offers significantly greater value.
  • Does your contract with the product manufacturer assure that you will be able to keep the line after you have developed its market?
  • Will specifiers take an interest in and be willing to make a commitment to your product? Do some market research before you launch an all-out initiative. This can be as informal as making a trial presentation to several dozen prospects and asking for feedback. Or you can use a marketing consultant to conduct an independent, objective survey or focus group.
  • Do you have the time, talent, and money to support the new venture?
  • Will calling on specifiers strategically benefit your other product lines?

Next, you need a sharper focus on who your best prospects are. Does your business plan require you to take a project-oriented approach, calling on firms with jobs on the drawing boards regardless of their potential for repeat business? Or can you pursue a relationship-oriented approach, targeting individuals and firms with the best long-term prospects regardless of the work they have today?

Assume, for instance, your product is used in hospital surgical suites. In a project- oriented approach, you may want to subscribe to a construction news service that reports on health care facilities and to go after immediate business by calling on designers of current projects. You would not be concerned with how often they do surgical suites. Alternately, the relationship- oriented approach requires you to identify designers and firms with a long-term involvement with hospital design and who, as industry leaders, may be in a position to influence others.

Once you understand whom you want as a prospect, you can define sales tactics and select the prospecting technique that best fits your target. There are, in general, three methods for locating prospects:

1. Construction news services gather information about proposed and actual building projects and make it available to subscribers. The largest and best known service is the F. W. Dodge division of McGraw-Hill Inc. (800-541-9913). Dodge has an international staff of reporters to collect project news, and it delivers information in a variety of formats, including microfilmed bid documents.

Another nationwide news service is Construction Market Data (404-449-0566), owned by Southam Co., Canada’s leading construction industry publisher. Southam recently acquired R.S. Means and Co. and has launched several other U.S. construction publications, suggesting that Construction Market Data is an organization to watch.

The Clark Reports (800-222-0255 or 708-234-6665) searches for projects by scanning thousands of magazines, newspapers, and other documents every month for news suggesting a company is considering a new facility. Clark also prepares customized reports.

There are many local and regional construction news services that sometimes do a better job of covering their specific communities. Check the Yellow Pages or ask a local contractor for help in locating these services. Other news services concentrate on specific industries or types of construction. Many services are now available through online computerized databases.

2. Networking not only identifies projects but also helps to build relationships. Your customers are watching what their competitors and customers are doing, and they may be glad to share their insight with you, especially if you reciprocate. Referrals from satisfied customers are among the best leads you can get.

Many salespeople take established customers for granted and make no effort to stay in touch with them. Your prospects are not only design firms, but individuals within those firms. Architects and engineers often change firms as project workload dictates. Try to maintain your relationships with these migrant designers; they can get you in the door at a new employer’s office. Keep track of their home addresses so you have another way to reach them.

Building owners, developers, real estate brokers, chambers of commerce, and economic development agencies are other sources of news and referral. In many cities, there are “breakfast clubs” where noncompeting contractors and material suppliers gather monthly to share information about prospects.

3. Advertising and other promotional activities such as trade shows and public relations can also be used to build your prospect list. The proper measurement of the effectiveness of an advertisement is not how many inquiries it produced, but the number of inquiries it produced from people fitting your prospect definition.

Finally, give your strategy enough time to work. When you bid to contractors, you usually know a construction schedule and delivery time. Calling on designers, however, requires a much longer fruition period. Allow time for the designers to get to know and trust you. Remember that design projects are often placed on hold while owners re-evaluate financial or other considerations. Along the way, you must guard against substitutions and be alert for new members who join the design team.

A project may take months or even years to get through design to the point where you can actually bid the project. But if your strategic plan is solid, keep with it, and you will find selling at the specifier level to be worth the effort.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1992

Motivate specifiers to change their habits

To gain market share for my company’s new product, I must displace well-accepted products that have been used for many years. How can I get architects to change their specifying habits?— D.W.F, marketing vice president

There are only three reasons why building designers change their product specification habits:
  • Boredom with existing products
  • Rational evaluation of building requirements
  • Stress
Boredom is an especially strong motivation for designers who constantly strive to create an original look or design solution. You can capitalize on this if your product offers a new look or makes a fashion statement.

It may be easy to get those designers to try a new product, but how long will they stick with it? Tomorrow they’ll be bored again and ready for something else.

Some designers’ habits change as they search for products that meet a project’s criteria. Specifiers who take this rational approach to selecting products are valuable prospects. They will be interested in your product’s features and benefits and the data substantiating your claims.

Most product launches should be directed at meeting the needs of rational specifiers. If you survive their evaluation you can be confident that other customer groups will also find your product acceptable when the motivation hits them.

Unfortunately, few architects and engineers fit the rational specifier category. Most specify products out of habit. Products used successfully tend to find their way into a firm’s master specifications and standard details. Draftsmen are told to follow the example of previous projects. Habits like these change slowly because most designers and builders are reluctant to take risks with new products or suppliers and because evaluating new products takes time.

Changing product habits often creates stress for the building team. But stress can also be an agent for changing old specifying habits. Stress from product failures, unsatisfactory suppliers, changing technology or regulations, and fluctuating prices all can force designers to accept new products whether they want to or not. Stress, I believe, is the primary reason designers change their habits.

The current recession has put plenty of stress on construction markets. Take advantage of these stressful times to reshape your customers’ buying habits and to build market share. Doing so will position your business for growth when activity does increase. Consolidate your efforts to refocus on your company’s strengths, and take advantage of niche opportunities you overlooked during more prosperous times.

In the long term, your success in converting customers depends on offering products or services with significant cost-to-benefit advantages for clearly defined market niches.

I plan to prepare a display panel or boxed set of samples showing the range of products made by members of my association. Would architectural firms be interested in receiving samples? Is direct mail an effective way to distribute them? —C.C.P., association director
Samples are an important part of a building product promotion. Because they can be manipulated, samples communicate with recipients at multiple levels. They stimulate product awareness by cutting through the marketing hype to get noticed.

Architects generally are interested in receiving them. Samples help them in product selection, detailing, and specification by answering questions about product performance, assembly, compatibility with other products, and ergonomics. They are especially important for evaluating products exposed to view or touch.

Manufacturers frequently submit samples to the designer before materials are ordered or manufactured. Samples can demonstrate compliance with specifications, expedite color selection, serve as templates for coordinating work, and establish the standard against which later construction will be compared.

Though samples may have a favorable impact when first presented, few architects or engineers have the space or the inclination to organize sample files for future reference. Instead, designers expect fresh samples to be available whenever needed. Then they usually discard the samples, relegate them to some out-of-the-way shelf, or donate them to architectural schools.

There are exceptions. Interior designers maintain well-organized sample rooms to facilitate matching colors and textures. And most design firms keep samples of materials they consider essential to their work, such as an often-specified item.

Direct mail can be used to distribute small samples, but it is not cost- effective for large samples or sample kits. A better use of direct mail is to offer to send a sample kit in response to a phone call or bounce-back card. That will increase your direct mail’s readership, reduce your costs, and assure that samples are sent only to prospects with a bona fide interest in your product.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1992

Why bother selling to architects?

Should I continue advertising to and calling on architects? My products have gradually become commodity items and aren’t very different from my competitors’. So even when architects specify my brand, they usually accept any substitutions contractors propose. Wouldn’t I be better off targeting contractors and dealers, the people who really make the buying decisions?–F. O., general manager

Generally, your sales and promotional efforts should concentrate on reaching those most likely to benefit from your product’s unique features or sales propositions. Promote special performance characteristics, for example, to building owners or the architects who represent their interests. Promote installation advantages to contractors and installers. If your product is essentially similar to your competitors’, you must make it attractive to dealers and contractors by offering favorable pricing, availability, terms, packaging, promotion, and service. But even in this instance, you may still be justified in directing some of your marketing attention toward specifiers.

Even with commodity products, getting specified does increase your product’s likelihood of being used on a job. Being named in the specification helps to grease the product submittal path. Contractors try to follow the path of least resistance while doing a job. If a Heckmann wall tie is specified, it is usually easier to call Heckmann for a price than to figure out who else makes a similar product. Even if the contractor knows of an acceptable alternative product, the potential that the substitution may require extra administrative effort will get factored into the contractor’s view of the substitute’s cost advantage.

Most contractors also figure in the extra risk they assume by using a substitution. Overall, there are fewer problems when the job is built using specified products. And if the contractor uses a substitution, he assumes some of the designer’s liability for ensuring the product is fit for its intended application.

Also, consider the alternative: Would you be concerned if your brand name was replaced by a competitor’s brand in construction specifications?

Brand name awareness
It may be frustrating when specifiers name your brand even though they obviously have no intention of rejecting substitutions. Architects often do this when a brand becomes a convenient synonym for a product type. But that doesn’t mean being specified has no value.

A trademark like Dryvit, for example, is easier to use and possibly more recognized than the generic term, “exterior insulation and finish system.” Hilti is simpler to say than “powder-actuated fasteners.” Though they must guard their intellectual property rights to their brands, I suspect that Dryvit and Hilti are delighted whenever their names appear in a specification. For even if your brand is used as a generic term rather than a specification, your name is still in front of contractors and distributors who make the purchasing decisions.

One building product manufacturer I know calls specifications the best form of advertising he can get. Inclusion in a specification is a form of testimonial, reinforcing your image as a leader in your product category and implying that the design community has confidence in your product.

Beyond the link between specifications and sales, there are other strategic reasons for marketing to architects. What is the real nature of your business? Does your long-term success, for example, depend solely on how many units you sell? Or do building and maintaining market access and brand identity also contribute? At some point, most businesses replace existing products with new ones. New performance features may require missionary work to convert specifiers. Product introductions will be easier if you already have an established presence in the specifier’s office.

There are other long-term reasons to maintain marketing contact with architects. Dealing only with contractors and distributors may isolate you and prevent you from recognizing design trends that may be important to your product’s future.

Sometimes, promoting to specifiers may be the only remaining cost-effective way to grow your business. For example, if you already have the lion’s share of sales among contractors, each new customer you pick up costs marginally more than your existing customers. But promoting your overall product category to specifiers can increase the overall demand for your product type.

An example of this is the concrete block manufacturer who sold more than his local competitors. The cost of winning over additional masonry contractors and building materials dealers reached a point of diminishing returns. So the firm initiated a marketing program to persuade architects and engineers to use concrete masonry instead of wood framing and other building materials. While its competitors also benefitted from the firm’s investment, the firm gained most from the rising tide because of its dominant position in the market.

Such advertising can also make your firm more valuable to your distributors. What would it do to your dealer relations if your specifier advertising generated attractive leads that you passed along to them?

Reality check
Consider this when deciding whether or not to pitch to architects: Can you afford to overlook any part of your marketing environment? In industrial sales, you wouldn’t ignore engineering or operations just because the purchasing department signs the order.

Though working with specifiers is sometimes frustrating, they do influence what products get purchased. They play a crucial role in negotiated work, often deciding who gets invited to the table. Design projects often move quickly, and contracts may be awarded before news of the job hits the street. By keeping in touch with specifiers, you can often have a job in the bag before your competitors even know it’s out there.

An established relationship with a specifier also can lead to more cooperative attitudes when problems arise on a job. Specifiers are in business for the long haul and can generate repeat business for the vendors who service them well.

You complain that architects don’t enforce their specifications, but are you presenting your features and benefits in a way that would motivate specifiers? A plastering accessory manufacturer I am currently working with initially claimed that its product was pretty much like the competitor’s. But we have been able to identify a long list of unique characteristics that may be attractive to specifiers. Getting these characteristics written into the specs will go a long way toward leveling the playing field by pressuring competitors to match product features and costs.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1993