Ask the Panel: Selling Commercial Architects

How can you win the spec in today’s highly competitive commercial architectural community? In Interrupt’s latest Industry Insight Panel, we sought some answers — speaking with Rachel Hepner Zawodny, a manufacturer's sales rep for Technical Glass Products (TGP).

INSIGHT ONE: The Digital Divide

Rachel shared with us that selling to today’s architects is a multi-dimensional challenge in terms of how they prefer to receive and best respond to product education. As we have seen in other product categories, the industry is evolving from print to digital. Different audiences (and age groups within those audiences) have different rates of adaptation to the digital world.

We like to think about these different audiences and segments of the industry in terms of their use of "traditional" print vs. “digital.” Rachel told us that out of the commercial architects (in the glass industry) who she calls on daily, the breakdown is about 20% traditional and 80% digital. Of course, the newer generations of commercial architects, coming out of leading university architectural programs, are very savvy within the digital world, as it was integrated into their education and use of software, etc. We have not seen a company in building materials who has successfully switched entirely to digital marketing materials. To do so would sacrifice a portion of its customer base.

When you take a step back, we are really asking people to change their behavior within an industry (building materials), which does not adapt to change quickly. In order to get someone to do things differently, the new alternative really needs to have relevant value to them. This value can come in many forms:

  • Make it faster for them to find what they need
  • Supply a more detailed level of information
  • Provide a portable format to someone who is mobile
  • Include a better selling tool for consumers

From a manufacturer standpoint, being proactive is always better than reactive, as we feel confident this change to digital will only increase.

INSIGHT TWO: The Marketing Mix

Because of the diversity of audiences involved in the specification and selection of commercial glass, the mix of marketing tools is diverse as well. TGP, like many manufacturers, doesn't do many trade shows anymore. Greenbuild is a strong show for them and primarily attracts the older generation of architects who love hands-on experiences and still enjoy the trade show experience. Even if attending a trade show is free, it still involves travel expenditures. Because of the current economy, we have seen many manufacturers focus on marketing efforts that reach the audience right in their offices.

For architects, Rachel agreed that Lunch and Learns, with continuing education credits to help them maintain their accreditation, are a powerful means of staying in touch and positioning a manufacturer as a thought leader. Rachel leads 3–4 different architectural presentations per year, with changing content. She gives the presentations multiple times per month and impacts anywhere from 300–400 people.

Of course, TGP is also in all relevant trade publications. For a new product, they may use direct mail or e-mail, but they try not to bombard customers so that when they do send something, their customers know it’s important. There is more new technology being forced into the environment because it’s so convenient, but more experienced architects have a difficult time transitioning into digital. For that hands-on interaction, TGP offers a “look book,” which covers all of the materials they offer with inspirational images of the product in use. They also have a slide-rule tool that allows the architect to input certain product needs and see what products meet the requirements. This interactive tool is fun for the customer to use (think stocking-stuffer for an engineer) and gives them instant feedback on how to align products for their projects. It’s been well loved in the field.

Finally, since today’s new generation of architects often conduct product research online, Rachel mentioned the importance of strong search engine optimization (SEO). This involves making content and technical enhancements to your website to ensure you appear in relevant searches at the top of the list. Rachel's company, TGP, offers all the newest software — BIM modeling and more — on its website to help lead its customers into the new generation of commercial architecture.

INSIGHT THREE: Friends Forever

No matter what your marketing mix is made of, it is still a relationship business. People are key. With less closed specs than ever and multiple products to choose from, the final decision can easily be a judgment of who the architect prefers and trusts. Who does the architect have confidence in? Availability of product and trust can make or break a project. You get what you pay for, both in terms of products and the members of the sales team.

For the sales rep, Rachel reminded us that just because a product is technical and dry (and perhaps sometimes the customers as well) doesn’t mean the sales presentation has to be. Throwing in humor and jokes can make you memorable (if it comes off naturally). You need to demonstrate that you love your job and that you’re a person they can feel comfortable calling with any question. Also, don't ignore the architectural interns. They are doing the grunt work, which means they are conducting the research and gathering of information. They want to be knowledgeable about your products for their internal team, too, because they want to look good. They are great influencers in the process, so if you help them they may help you, and you may both benefit in the long run.

Lastly, in Rachel's words, “Do everything by the book. Use eye contact, be believable and never ever badmouth the competition.”

INSIGHT FOUR: There Is an Upside to a Recession

While no one is excited about a recession and its possible effect on the building materials industry, Rachel noted that every cloud has a silver lining. A recession may add clarity to the bid process.

You have to consider why a bid is the lowest. Generally speaking, something is being left out of the process. That’s where the upside comes in. The contractors (installers) in the Midwest region who were underbidding jobs to get them only lasted so long under a stressful financial market. After a recession, there are fewer contractor companies, but they are healthy and more reliable. Manufacturers don’t have to be just bill collectors, and they can instead spend their time on more important areas for their customers.

INSIGHT FIVE: The Role of the Sales Rep - Education and Service

Just as the Interrupt MarketPath™ illustrates, the commercial path to market is complex and has many touch points. With the measure of success for the commercial sales rep being to maintain the spec or flip it from a competitor’s to their own, there are two primary audiences the sales rep focuses on, with a balance of relationship and education.

The architect wants to maintain his or her vision for the project. It’s not the rep’s job to tell the architect what to do, but instead to explain what the architect can and cannot do while still following the spec per the International Building Code. This is a challenge, as codes continue to change. Adding to the complexity, Rachel covers a four-state territory, and different states are operating under different codes, so the architects are looking at different sources. Clear communication is key. Ensuring the architect understands the differences between TGP’s product and its competitor’s can also mean securing a first position spec placement, ensuring a design is not dictated by a product limitation (size limitations, appearance, etc).

Though Rachel calls on architects, her customers are actually the glazing contractors. The contractor (installer) wants the job and needs to be able to get product to fill the order on time and without hiccups. They want to get on and off the job quickly. When preparing their bid, the installer can choose what product from the available options to quote. The sales rep relationships can add value to the process here as well. The installer can be a powerful gatekeeper in maintaining a specified product, or they can be a driving force in a general contractor’s decision to change out to another option they prefer from past experience.

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