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Guide to Architectural Office Hierarchies

  |  Posted in Architects

Guide to Architectural Office Hierarchies

This is a guest blog post from Neil Sutton who is an architect, a copywriter, and a marketing strategist.

The other day, Mark and I were talking about different challenges you — the building product marketing and sales professional — are facing every day. And, as you know, those challenges are always shifting and evolving.

You have to get good at adapting and shifting with those changes.

After noodling it over, Mark and I found one area where you could use my help. A better understanding of the hierarchy of various architecture firms you are trying to sell.

In our industry, you or your sales team are likely on the phone, or face-to-face with architects almost every day. Your marketing team is developing website content, lunch and learns or trade show booths to reach architects. But, do you really know that person you’re talking to?

  • What’s their role on a project?
  • Where are they in the office food chain?
  • What influence do they have on specifying or designing around your product?

That’s what we’re digging into today. So, let’s get right to it!

Digging Deeper

Go ahead and Google the phrase “architecture office hierarchy.” You’ll see a plethora of helpful descriptions of different job titles for architects.

Maybe even a nice org chart.

Just study those, and you’ll be ready to take on the architectural world, right?

Not a Chance

If you truly want to understand how an architectural office is structured and who the key decision makers are, it takes more than that.

For every architecture firm you find in the phonebook or AIA directory, you could find a different office structure. And the job titles can vary widely from the AIA’s job descriptions. It all comes down to how the firm evolved from an idea into the business it is today.

Or what business guide they read…

You’ll need to do more digging and research to get a better understanding of each firm or individual architect you plan to meet with. If you really want to connect, that is.

Who’s on Your List?

Are you working from a raw list of prospects you pulled from your local manufacturer’s rep or distributor? It most likely includes Registered (or “Licensed” in some states) architects. Or it might include interior designers if your product is an interior finish product.

The architect will either be the Project Architect or a Project Manager.

Now, the roles of those two positions will vary in each firm. It can also depend on what country you’re looking at.

You’ll have some small- to medium-sized firms where every architect in the office does all things: Project Management. Contracts. Design. Construction documents. Specs. Coffee. Taking-out-the-trash, fixing the toilet… Everything.

But, if you’re looking at larger firms, they can be more compartmentalized. You could have a separate person filling each of these roles:

  • Project Manager
  • Planner
  • Team Leader or Studio Leader
  • Office Manager
  • Design Architect
  • Project Architect
  • Production Architect
  • Specifiers
  • Architectural Associates – or – Design Professionals, (don’t call them “interns” anymore)
  • Draftsman, or Technician

This post isn’t long enough to list every combination of office hierarchy, title, and responsibility. And, even if I did, you’d have to guess which firm had which structure.

So, let’s look at a couple of rules you can use as a guide to avoid some missteps and get to the right professional a little faster…

Rule #1: Just because someone’s title is “Architect” does NOT mean they’re your ideal prospect.

How so? In every office I’ve worked in, there are at least a few licensed architects who have decided they only want to work on drafting or detailing projects. They have no interest in actually selecting or specifying the products they use. Or managing projects or clients.

They leave it to the project’s designer or lead architect to figure those parts out. Once a product decision is made, they may reach out to you for typical details or product spec sheets. But they’re not the main decision-maker.

What to do instead: To figure out who the decision maker is, start asking better questions.

When someone requests product details or specs, try to engage in a conversation. Find out why they’re choosing this product.

I’m not sure why, but some architects (including me in the past) are hesitant to share too many details about the project. They’re possibly afraid of giving you an advantage that may come back to bite them during bidding.

Or they’re worried you’ll start harassing their client to get a leg up.

So, don’t push too hard for project specifics. Just see if there’s a way you can provide value to help make them look good. And during that process, you can drill down to determine if they’re the key decision maker. Or if there’s someone else you can connect with now or in the near future.

Rule #2: Get a clear understanding of what YOUR goal is

Before you worry about possible hierarchies, you need to be very clear on why you’re making that call to an architectural office.

Why is that so important? Because you need to know what problem the architect is having that you’re going to solve. Once you know that, you can whittle down the list of who you need to talk to. You need to have the end in mind, so you can map out your strategy.

Let’s look at a couple of scenarios…

  1. A) Scheduling a lunch-and-learn

If your goal is to set up a lunch-and-learn with a small- to mid-size office, it’s often the youngest design professional in the office you’ll want. They’re in charge of taking calls from vendors and setting up lunch-and-learns.

(HINT: As I mentioned above, don’t call him or her an intern — that’s not cool anymore.)

These younger architects are usually eager to learn about new products and systems. So, you might take a different approach with them than you would a more experienced architect.

If it’s a larger firm you’re getting ready to call, your ideal contact could be someone in charge of their specification department. And that’s a different cat, altogether.

A dedicated specifier is usually an older, more experienced architect. And they’re often a bit more cynical about products and manufacturers. So, you’ll need a different game there, too.

  1. B) Project-specific, one-on-one calls

Are you reaching out to schedule a one-on-one discussion with an architect about a specific project? For our example, let’s assume you got this architect’s name from contact information they gave on your website to download product data.

You know they’re looking at product X for some reason. Most likely, it’s for a current or upcoming project. That means you’ve got a great opening to reach out and see if there’s anything else you can do to help them solve their problem.

(But, whatever you do, make sure you don’t do this…)

Use this “red-carpet-invitation” wisely and focus on them. On their needs and problems. Ask what they liked about your product. If they’ve used it before. Do they have a special condition your typical details don’t cover?

Don’t force it. Don’t rush it. Don’t just go through the motions.

Let me know you really care about helping solve my problem. Then I might open up and start seeing you as more than someone-selling-something. That’s where you want to be.

As the marketing legend, Dan Kennedy puts it, “You want to go from being an annoying pest to a guest.”

“And you want to be my [go-to building product] salesman?”

How are you supposed to reach this coveted position of welcome guest?

This really does take your “boots on the ground” sales team and product reps to provide you with this type of intel. Or getting out there yourself.

If you’re a marketer, you’ve probably read some of Mark’s thoughts on getting out there on sales calls and lunch-and-learns to gather as much intel as you can.  Here’s a link to some of Mark’s most popular articles on selling to architects.

I agree. Get out there whenever you can.

What I’ve seen work best are reps who actually come to the office to help with specific projects. They roll up their sleeves and help architects work through their design details to find the best solutions.

How often do I see this? Not as much as I used to.

At a large firm I worked at, there were two or three reps I’d frequently call or see around the office to help on projects. They had an “in” that can only come from building trust through a giving attitude.

They were trying to help the architects succeed. With only a hope their products make it through the contractor selection and bidding process.

But they were always in the specification as the base manufacturer. And would be the “No substitutions” manufacturer if the specific project allowed.

And that’s where you want your products to be. Right?

Why should you listen to me about all this?

I’ve been an architect for over two decades.

I’ve worked in (almost lived in) or visited many different architectural offices over the years. So, I’m intimately familiar with which architects or designers are the best ones for you to connect with and meet with.

If you go here,  you can even read a short story about the time I learned the importance of knowing the different audiences within a firm. And asking for the right ones to speak with.

I’ve pulled all that behind-the-scenes knowledge together to help you succeed.

How? Over the last several years, I’ve focused my efforts on developing better ways for you to reach the right architects. Through better marketing messages, applying the right strategies, and, most importantly, having the right mindset.

If you’d like to hear more, check out my website at

Thanks for your valuable time and make it a great marketing day!

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About The Author

I am the leading sales growth consultant in the building materials industry, I identify the blind spots that enable building materials companies to grow their sales and retain more customers.  As I am not an ad agency, my recommendations are focused on your sales growth and not my future income.

My mission is to help building materials companies be the preferred supplier of their customers and to turn those customers into their best salespeople. Contact me to discuss your situation.