This is a guest post from Susan Milne of Epiphany Studio, an agency that focuses on helping building materials companies grow their sales to architects and designers. Susan and I frequently debate the best way to sell architects. We both learn something from each other in these conversations.
I would describe myself as being focused on the business of building materials sales, with a secondary emphasis on the creative side. I’ve worked with Epiphany on several projects and I love the way they have a keen understanding of both the business of building and the mindset of specifiers – especially architects and designers. As designers themselves, they appreciate the importance of aligning product brands to the brands specifiers seek to build.
Susan has also been a regular presenter at my Whizard Summit events.
As Susan sees the architect and designer from a different perspective than I do, I asked her to write this article so I could share it with you. The more knowledge you have, the more successful you will be.
If you follow me, you know that I like to challenge your thinking and get you to rethink your approach so you are not being left behind. Susan’s thoughts in this article opened my eyes to some areas I had not thought about. I hope you find as many new insights from this article as I did.
Susan and I love a good debate. I’ve added my comments throughout.
If you find this valuable, I recommend sharing it with others on your team. Many sales managers use my articles to kickstart discussions during their weekly calls with their sales teams. If you sell to architects and designers, this is a great article to discuss with your team.
Here are Susan’s insights into how to sell architects and designers.
No matter where you stand on what is happening in the world today, no one can deny we have entered into a new era. Things have changed – some for the moment, some for the foreseeable future and some forever.
As we look at the world with fresh eyes, it’s also a great time to take a look at specifiers with the same sense of curiosity – who they really are and what about them doesn’t match up with our assumptions.
There are roughly 115K Architects in the US specifying hundreds of billions of dollars of materials annually. Getting a specification is a unique and complex sale. While specifiers make the selection, they don’t buy the product, install the product, or live with their decision.
Companies who understand who architects and designers are and how they think have a distinct advantage over their competitors.
If you want to gain more architectural specifications, a new approach is needed. It’s time to drop your assumptions and take a fresh look at your customer.
Specifiers have a new face. 50% of architecture graduates are women, up from 36% in 2014. We expect that number to continue rising as a result of efforts that are being made in public education to put more girls on the STEM track. Globally, we’ve seen female political leaders outperform their male counterparts in the response to COVID-19 due to the way women think – we put a focus on the long-term greater good rather than immediate personal satisfaction. Women speak the language of detail and nuance. We want to see how things will work in harmony. How do products and materials work together to create something better than they would alone? Women are more flexible than men, natural networkers and believe it takes a village to make something successful.
Mark Says: I knew the number of women was growing but I had no idea it was this high. You need to make sure that your salespeople understand the values and objectives of female specifiers and how they differ from their male counterparts.
Specifiers don’t know the (old) rules. In the last downturn, we lost the highly experienced middle layer at A&D firms and this current crisis is shaping up in roughly the same way. We now have a new specifier: Gen Z. This is someone who grew up at a time that always had the internet. Young specifiers don’t know the rules – no one has told them they can’t learn about and source building materials from Amazon, TikTok, or Instagram. For this group, everything is fair game. They are experts at searching, novices in building. They also know how to work the system by providing misleading information to get what they want online wreaking havoc with your CRM. And finally, they learn through storytelling.
Mark Says: Your online presence is now ten times more important. You need to have the best website, SEO, marketing automation, content, and social media programs. You have to meet your customer where they are even if it doesn’t seem logical or “right” to you.
Specifiers spend hours on details, but they don’t care about yours. Specifiers choose hundreds of products for a single project. While your engineering team is hard at work improving the performance of your products, the features are falling on deaf ears. That’s because specifiers are experts at design, not at product performance. They live and die on benefits. They care about keeping a building moisture-free – how your product does that is not important to them. Their focus is on the whole picture, not the science behind every single product.
Mark Says: You need to communicate the way your product benefits the specifier and not your product features or the benefits to the owner.
Specifiers have to like it enough to want to sell it. After your sales team sells the architect on a product, the specifier has to turn and sell it to the owner or the GC. If you’ve been selling on features, you are leaving it up to the specifier to come up with the sales pitch as to why your product was chosen for this specific project and how it will benefit the owner or GC to use it. Unless the product has a high profile benefit, either structurally or visually, they are not going to craft a defense for a spec. Quite frankly, they don’t have the time or the investment in your products and often take the path of least resistance.
Mark Says: You need to give the specifier the story they can share with the owner that sells your product and makes the specifier look smart for choosing it.
Specifiers are tired of overtime. Your customer is in a constant state of discovery, learning, sampling, specifying, and selling hundreds of materials for a single project. It’s a lot to manage. Once designs are approved and the project goes out to bid, there will be sticker shock (there always is) and the process of value engineering begins. Lunch-and-learns have to be compelling, email campaigns insightful and timely and trend reports well researched to cut through the clutter. Marketing to specifiers has less to do with showcasing products and materials and more to do with helping them work efficiently, effectively and successfully.
Mark Says: Everything you do to reach architects needs to be the best you can do. The old style lunch-and-learn or a sample that just looks good enough won’t cut it today. Everything you do needs to stand out and be memorable.
Specifiers aren’t looking for products, they are looking to solve problems. When culling materials or products for a project, specifiers start with a challenge and then look for as many materials that will solve it. When they start to whittle down the choices or are considering making a change to a new product, they look to the manufacturer to tell them why their product is superior over its competition. They will not do a side-by-side comparison to figure it out. If all things seem equal, they will go with what they know, who they know, or the company whose brand is better aligned with them.
Mark Says: The architect doesn’t have time to consider every product that goes into a building. They will cut and paste specifications for many products from past projects. If that’s what happens to your product, you have to put in extra effort to get the specifier to see the benefit of changing products when no one is asking for a change.
Specifiers are redefining product categories. There are multiple ways to cover a floor, build a wall, or put a roof on a building. If a specifier is looking for a single product, the competitive product for that project may not be in the same category. Think wood vs. poured concrete vs. carpet – it’s all flooring. While it’s important to show product comparisons within your own category, often you must help specifiers critically think through comparing solutions in multiple categories.
Mark Says: Most building materials companies view their competition as companies who make the same product instead of any product that can perform the same function. For example, fiber cement siding companies consider other fiber cement companies. Another important but often overlooked competitor is all the other siding and cladding companies that use different materials.
Marketing to specifiers isn’t about more, it’s about smarter.
Here are actionable steps that you can take right now to gain more architectural specifications.
1. Go on a blind date with your specifier.
Marketing and sales can often be a closed-loop conversation. It’s human nature to only ask the questions we want to hear the answers to. As good as it feels, that approach does not help you understand your customer’s world and better position your product to solve their problems.
It’s time to start at neutral and pretend you are meeting your customer for the first time. This isn’t about assumptions, it’s about asking with genuine interest what is going on in their world, what are their challenges, likes, dislikes? As in any blind date, the goal isn’t for it to end in marriage (a sale), it is to get a snapshot into their life.
Mark Says: It’s like a marriage. What starts out as loving each other transitions into a relationship where you take each other for granted. Don’t let this happen with your architect relationships.
2. Map out your unique specification journey.
Every product or material goes through several gatekeepers from the initial specification to the final install. There are a number of weak points along the way where products are eliminated, substituted, or replaced. You can’t protect your sale if you don’t fully understand where the vulnerable spots are.
Mark Says: The owner and the GC have much more power today. You need to have a story or sales message for each of them and to make sure you deliver it to them if you want to avoid being value engineered out of the project.
3. Create personas that convert.
Note all the people on the sales journey and develop personas for each one. Forget putting time into a general ideal customer persona – we want accurate, relevant, authentic, genuine and dare I say gritty ones.
If you want to market to someone, it is paramount that you tap into their psyche. Understand their values, the deeper “why” behind what they do. It is only from this complex and rich perspective that marketing can be truly a powerful conversion tool.
Mark Says: This is a very effective tool to make sure your sales message is aimed at the real needs and desires of the architect.
4. Leverage your brand.
Now more than ever, having a strong differentiated brand matters to specifiers because they are inundated in a sea of digital choices. Everything starts to look the same and feel the same. The only way to tell one product from another is by the manufacturer’s branded experience.
Specifiers want to be a part of your brand. This is particularly for Gen Z and millennials. The “experience” or feeling they get from a digital ad to a lunch-and-learn to the website and everything in between is creating a signature brand for them. A cohesive brand approach becomes more important than price for specifiers.
Specifiers can type a query into Google and receive hundreds if not thousands of materials and products in response. As your competition has increased exponentially, so has your need for a clearly articulated brand. Most specifiers start at your website, and they will decide in 8 seconds whether or not they connect with your brand. If the answer is yes, they will look at your product. If not, they bounce.
Mark Says: Your brand image is very important. Larger companies who have been in business for years have an advantage over newer and smaller brands. Most building materials companies think of themselves as a company or a product rather than a brand.
Successful companies in other industries, like Apple or P&G or MasterCard, think of themselves as brands. As a brand, they think beyond the product and think about the overall customer experience.
Whether you are large or small or a new business, think of yourself as a brand in order to grow faster.
5. Let old habits die.
Your specifiers are changing. There are more women and Gen Z is on the rise. Look at your website, campaigns, sales team makeup, sampling system, and so on through this new specifiers lens. Are trade shows still where your leads are? Are your sales reps speaking the right language?
Whether you agree with their methods or not, these folks are your present and your future. It’s not what you know that should guide your decisions, it is also what you don’t know that you don’t know.
Mark Says: Rather than listening to the most experienced (oldest) people in your organization, make sure the women and younger people in your company have a voice and are being heard.
6. Perform a marketing audit.
A successful marketing program must include a strong brand positioning (differentiation), a way to generate awareness and leads, an easy way to facilitate sales from repeat customers and, in the very best case scenario, marketing should help streamline operations. Most don’t. A marketing audit is crucial to align your investment so you can meet your specifier wherever they are with whatever information they need.
Mark Says: If your marketing isn’t helping your sales in a measurable way, you are wasting your money.
If you want to gain more architectural specifications now is a great time to forget what you think you know and take a fresh look at the changing world of specifiers.
If you are looking for a new agency to help you grow your sales to architects and designers, I highly recommend that you talk to Susan. You can reach her here.
If you like how Susan and I discuss issues affecting the building materials industry, you should listen to this podcast where Susan interviews me about the link between sales and marketing.