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How Architects Select Products

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How Architects Select Products

This is a transcription of my podcast on how architects select products. You can choose to listen or read this.Blog Google Play 3

Hello, this is Mark Mitchell from Wizard Strategy. I’m glad you joined us for another episode here on our podcast. Today I’m in Richmond, Virginia, with Susan Milne from Epiphany Studios. Susan, welcome.

Susan Milne

Susan Milne

Thank you. Glad to be here.

Susan, tell me a little bit about Epiphany and what you do.

Well, Epiphany is a marketing agency, and we’re focused on helping building material manufacturers be more successful with architects and designers.

Great. This is going to be a great session. You know one of my focuses is working building material manufacturers and talking to them about how they can sell their products to architects. And you and I have started a discussion in which you talked about a new study how architects buy and I thought, “Yeah, that’s an interesting juxtaposition.” I like that different view of the situation. So tell me your mindset when I said architecture designer. Tell me about this weird person.

Understanding Architects

Well, it’s funny. I have such a love for architecture, but the way that architects and designers think is very different. They’re extraordinarily creative people, but I tend to think of them as being both left-brained and right-brained.

They love the mechanics. They love to pull things apart and really understand how they work. I guess I would say that they’re the ultimate user experience architects. Everything that we do, how we live our lives, they shape. They shape communities, how we interact, being in certain buildings can make you feel a certain way. And I definitely say that the way that they are able to understand how you’re going to feel in a room by looking at a piece of paper just astounds me.  I think it’s magic.

Yes, okay. And so maybe that’s one of the challenges that building material manufacturers have continually faced. I think most of the time they’re very more down to earth, rational, practical business people. I make a window; you can see through it. Would you like it in blue or purple or gold?

And they were practical. And they’re used to dealing with distributors, contractors, dealers, people who are more into a business proposition. And I will sell you this. It works. I’ll make a profit. You will make a profit. Everyone will be happy. And then we enter into this world of architects and designers and those things kind of change.

Absolutely. Well, part of the thing is why are they specifying a certain product. So there are two very important variables to apply. One is what can the product do? So what are the benefits of it? It’s a window. I can get it in blue. Can I get in cobalt blue to match the setting that the building is in? Is it going to be highly functioning? That’s all one side of it.

And then the second side is especially when architects are really teamed with interior designers. How does that window fit into the user experience of the building? So how would I feel when I’m sitting in an office in that building looking out that specific window? Does it mimic the shapes that we are pulling through the entire projects? So part of that is continuity.

When you go to a hotel, you’ll notice there’s a certain feeling of a nice high-end hotel that feels very peaceful. And that is because they’re using a limited palette. And everything is maybe five shades of gray. And every time we’re going to have a hard surface it’s going to be marble. So eventually your eye starts to see that. It feels very comforting. It feels very oh I was supposed to say logical but all of a sudden you feel like, “Wow, the choices that have been made and paired down gave me a feeling of peace.”

So that’s what your interior designer is working on. And they want to work in tandem with the architect to make sure the inside of that building feels like the outside of that building. So when they look at a product, they’re not looking at it always just on technical benefits.

So you have to appeal a lot to what is going on, what problems are they trying to solve and what is the flexibility of that material. So sometimes it sounds like I’m just talking about furniture. But that’s not the case. A lot of times interior designers want to talk about what kind of brick is going to be on the outside of the building because that’s what you’re going to see when you first walk in and that’s still on your mind that you’re passing through that door. So they want that to work with what’s going on on the inside.

Okay. That’s it. That’s very helpful. I’m still, how am I going to put this, you’re talking almost like somebody that I would love to walk in an art museum with you because you enlighten me.

We can do that.

Finally, let’s go back. I’m this very practical building material manufacturer. And now you’re walking me into this and are now trying to sell an art museum or something. And if it’s a different idea so if I am not that aesthetically attuned, I have a product I’m trying to sell, how can I do a better job? How do you learn to speak that language maybe?

How Architects Find Products

You know, first of all I think it’s important to figure out how or to understand how architects and designers are finding products and specifying them. So the first thing is a lot of them are going online. They have a project that they’re working on. And every site is unique. So that has certain limitations. And within those limitations they need to find products that are going to work.

So a lot of times they’re going online, and they are searching. You have to think about what are they typing into Google. So they may not be searching Anderson windows. They may be searching windows for high-humidity environments. So part of that is understanding where they’re going to go and what they’re going to search.

They’re still using sales reps. They are still the number one way that they’re finding out about products. So for manufacturers, your sales rep needs to be able to do two things. They need to understand the product inside and out. But they also need to fit into the architects’ and designers’ world.

So things that are critical and crucial to the manufacturer may be irrelevant to the architect or designer. So sales rep really acts as that translation piece. So I think they’re looking online, and they also hear about products from sales rep.

They’re going through traditional media, print such as – some very technical print, I’m sorry not technical, trade publications like construction design and build. “Dwell” is still a big one for architects and interior designers even though it is very consumer-focused. They still read that as an industry magazine. “Interior Design,” “Architectural Records,” so they’re still looking there to see what their peers are doing and what’s new in products. So manufacturers would do well to be in those types of magazines.

So Susan, thank you. I understand the importance of these publications that you talked about in ways, online and in print to reach the architects and designers. What other things should manufacturers pay attention to?

Your Product is Not a Commodity

Now I think there is a general misconception among manufacturers that something like stone and brick is a commodity. So they start getting down and competing on price. One of the things that we like to do is interview as many architects and designers as possible and to know that you can build a brand for this.

A brand is going to protect the specification through the sales chain like nothing else. Because architects and designers get extraordinarily loyal to brands. And they are okay with pricing. Manufacturers typically think pricing is the tipping point. And it’s not, which is interesting.

I interviewed an interior designer who has a fondness for a local stone dealer. So you can get any kind of stone from crushed gravel from these people to granite marble, anything you want out of this one manufacturer. He lead-specifies with this company. And I laughed when he told me that. And I said, “Why would you always lead-specify?” I said, “Because stone is stone is stone is stone. What’s the difference between this slab of granite and this slab of granite? Not much that I can tell.”

And he said, “Oh my gosh, this stuff is just better.” And I was curious to find out why and it turns out they’ve done a publication where they tie what is going on in fashion to what is going on in stone. So this gentleman lead-specifies and sometimes it doesn’t even make sense, just the location of the hotel he’s packing for, that he would be trying to use a quarry in Richmond, Virginia, rather than someone in Tennessee or Florida. And they’re priced higher than everybody else but he goes to them over and over again because they speak to him on an aesthetic level. And they’ve built a brand for themselves.

Okay. And so that’s an important point I think you just uncovered and that is I think about customers whether it’s a home builders or an architect as being people that have to be experts in a thousand things. You think that how many components go into a building or a house and they have to have knowledge of all of these and it’s impossible for them to be experts in all of those areas.

Educating Architects

And to me if you were some of the most effective manufacturers or people who come in before a sales call are coming in to, if you will, like an educational call in which they’re coming in to say, “Let me teach you about stone,” or “Let me tell you the latest trend in stone, where it’s going on…” And that leads to a tight relationship. What’s your experience there or thoughts on that idea of educating?

Absolutely. I think one of the things that is happening in the industry right now is that architects and designers have been typically doers, but they’re being asked by their companies to become doer-sellers. So that means they are being asked now past this big recession that we went through, and they were hit extraordinarily hard. A lot of companies went out of business; it’s quite devastating to the building industry.

So they are now being asked to look at, to work with clients and try to grow accounts which is not something they have to do in the past. Clients, in turn, are saying that they want an evidence-based design. They want to be able to prove that the building that they are constructing is going to be measurable. The impact is going to be measurable. They want hard data.

So manufacturers who are going in and just talking about, “Here’s the latest in stone” are going to lose to manufacturers who are going in and talking about, “This is the latest surface that you can use for health care that helps reduces the spread of infection.” So this is the kind of evidence-based design that a lot of designers and architects need to arm themselves with to then get the set, not only to get the sale but to grow the client base. Does that make sense?

Of course. You lost me there from doers to sellers and now I understand, you’re talking about the architect now needs to do. It can’t just be doer if he’s going to have a successful practice.

Architects Specializing

Yes. And it’s not just an architect who owns the practice. This is being translated all the way down through agencies or through firms. So designers now will be asked if they have say a hospitality client or a healthcare client. They’re asked to really try to grow that portion of the business. Not just do the work.

So are you saying more specialization within architectural firms as opposed to being a generalist? Like they become known for doing hotels, hospitality, or where else or whatever?

Yeah, I think that it’s interesting because architects in general, architectural firms are led by what I would call reluctant entrepreneurs. They are people who did not go to school for business. They usually, have a love of what they do. So they’re trying to run these businesses. And they have a fear. There’s been a big fear of specializing.

But now they are starting to see that you can have five firms competing for the same multi-million dollar hospitality project. But a firm that can actually show how the way that they design a hotel means that you’re going to have higher occupancy rates. They are actually going to win.

So they’re generating a lot of thought leadership. They’re talking about their process. And they’re really putting it down to data, proof, and deliverables which is something that I think is different than the way architecture firms have operated in the past.

Yes. I think that makes sense. So if you were a manufacturer of a product and you wanted to grow more sales to architects, with that a new specialization, is there anything that you would do differently if you would tell the manufacturer to do differently in their sales approach?

Absolutely. I think that manufacturers have to come up, they have to be doing a lot of the research themselves. So they should be generating white papers and reports. I think, and a lot of them are if you look at some of the top stars, just puts out amazing white papers and research reports on how their products can actually help reduce pain for patients.

Because the way they design, their products work in hospitals means that the staff has greater face time with the patients which means that they spend less time in pain. So tying all that together is really something that an architect can turn around and say, “This is why we have to use this premium line of furniture for a hospital because this is what it does.” So the manufacturer’s actually arming the architect with the words to go in and sell it to the client. Now that’s going to protect that sale all the way through.

And I feel like we’re starting to fall into this trap that happens in sales to architects. And that’s kind of like people building material manufacturers who make practical, everyday non-furniture products; they go to a show called Neo-Con, referred to as the chair show. They don’t make chairs. They make wall or ceiling panels or something like that. And so I think that the manufacturers sets and goes, “Oh, that’s great for Herman Miller and Steelcase and all those wonderful stuff. They do that. It’s nothing to do with me.” And so how would you advise the manufacturer of ceiling panels how do they [inaudible] with this information and education?

Well, I think that again I think to goes to what are the benefits of the product? So manufacturers want to sell on this is the product. This is what it’s made of. This is how you install it. But what are the benefits of these ceiling tiles? Do they reduce noise? Do they add to the productivity of an office because it’s a calmer environment? Are they also filtering the air? At some point are you running data lines through them? What are the things that these ceiling tiles are doing that is beneficial?

So I can turn around. I can say, “This is a brick. It’s a great brick. Do you like this brick?” But if I can say, “This is a brick, and it actually wicks away moisture and mold. And that adds to the overall health of the building, and since we’re building a school, we want the school to be extraordinary healthy,” then I can make that sale all the way. The client will buy it if I am an architect.

Okay. And one of the things along the same line that I tell manufacturers is to look at your product and the attributes that it has and look at what’s the best type of building that your product offers the most benefit for? Then find architects who specialize in that type of building and make them your first priority, who you call on.

Absolutely. I think that’s great advice.

So we’ve talked about – I see there are two issues. One is aesthetics, like how a product – and I think of the word “aesthetic” as appearance. And for that maybe more like the word “feel.” It can be something like that. That can also be part of aesthetics.

And then there’s performance. For the last 50 years, it won’t fade. It would save energy and things like that. So you have performance, and you have aesthetics.

But aesthetics is how you’re going to get their attention. That’s the thing. It’s that aesthetics I think manufacturers, that’s the fluff. That’s the, “Oh well, it would be nice if our brochure looks beautiful. But it doesn’t really matter. Look at the details.”

So understanding how – there’s two kinds of minds. Manufacturers are almost like medical doctors. They have a product, and then they have a whole list of benefits. And they look at each benefit and say, “This brick is actually porous, and that’s really great for this environment.” Then they look back at the brick, and they go, “Yup, that’s true.” And then they go to the next feature. And they check back at the brick, and they say, “Yeah, that’s true too.” And they go through.

Architects don’t think that way. Designers don’t think that way. They look at something and say – first you have to get their attention. To even be on their radar, you’ve got to get their attention. So they look at something, and they say, “Wow, that’s beautiful. That inspires me.” So aesthetics are not something that is an afterthought. That’s how you’re going first to get on their radar.

Making a Good First Impression

Okay. Speaking of aesthetics and attuned to design, I’m researching a paper I’m writing right now, in which I notice a number of building product manufacturers who make a product- it tends to be very practical performance-based product versus an aesthetic product. And it is better than the next guy’s product.

The company itself doesn’t present itself very well. Like they have a horrible logo. The way they present themselves is they don’t invest in design and such. They don’t have perhaps hire an agency or something to help present themselves well. They just have this great product and frequently I think these companies are run by an inventor or engineer type of person who’s a very smart engineer and he designed this new nail which is better than any other nail. And so that alone should sell.

Now you said, it’s true.

I believe that if I sat down with an architect, that he immediately forms an opinion and about my company or me or by looking at my website about whether or not I make a good product. It’s solely based on the image that I project. Talk about that.

That’s absolutely true because what happens is you have to speak their language in order for them to understand you. So if you have a person who only speaks and understands Chinese, you’re coming to them and speaking English, they don’t understand. And that’s exactly what that horrible website is. It looks chaotic to them. It looks amateurish. And it feels like it could be the best product in the world but if you can’t present it to me in the language I speak, I don’t understand that.

So I do think for manufacturers of something like dry wall, architects are logical people as well so I would think they’re this very unique combination of right brain and left brain. If you can tell me how specifying this dry wall is going to make a difference in the life of this building, and it’s going to mean fewer issues, whatever those issues, whatever those features and benefits are, they will understand that.

And because they do not want to be in a position where a building that they designed using materials that they specified has to have major repairs. So they don’t want to be in that position. They don’t want to create a sick building that makes people sick, a building that doesn’t have good flow or spreads disease. They want to make it really work. So they will understand these benefits. But if you are trying to explain these benefits to them in a language that they don’t understand, they just can’t hear you. Does that make sense?

Yes, that makes perfect sense. I see so many building material manufacturers are very practical people. I’m talking about the guy that advances a new plumbing, flush or handle. The quirks of that tend to be this very practical engineer type and who doesn’t understand the importance of how he presents himself.

And yeah, I think it’s a huge missed opportunity because I see so many manufacturers that make really great products that are getting ignored because they’re just not speaking the same language.

Yeah, that’s a great thing you said that. So we’ve talked about aesthetics, we talked about the forms, talked about the importance of design, the image that you project. Making a great first impression, I think might be a way we can also put that. The next area I want to talk with you about was the growing importance of green environments, sustainability and so forth. Talk to me from your perspective of how the architect sees that.

Architects Are Green

Architects have been the fastest to respond to the mandate that we need to move to a more of an energy-efficient green society. I couldn’t think of the term because they talked about it at AIA. But basically, the buildings that the amount of energy that is used to run buildings has been declining because architects are going in and they are the ultimate user experience. They take buildings and they are purpose-built. So when you tell them the building has to be green, the building has to be green. So they do everything that they can to create buildings that are basically net zero is the goal. They want not to use any more energy than they can actually generate as well.

That’s not only in the operation of the building but when we update, it’s that from the construction aspect of it.

Absolutely. So there is the again it kind of goes back to the two things we’re talking about earlier which is evidence-based design. And all these products have to work together. And they’ve got to be able to collect the data and prove that if they specified these products, they’re going to have a green building. It’s not just lead certification. They need to be able to have measurable results.

Okay. And even if the owner didn’t use the word “I want a green building,” isn’t the architect likely going to be the person who’s going to be thinking of those green aspects, whether or not they were asked?

Absolutely. Because that is what AIA is giving that mandate. So the architects have been the fastest to respond to the call for zero emissions. And they are most likely going to be dealing with the ramifications of climate change. They are building right now with that in mind. So whether it’s a single-family home or a government building, they are looking at green all the time.

Susan, one of the things that I find the most exciting about selling with architects is their willingness to try new things. They get up every day wanting to drive something new. They don’t want to build cookie-cutter buildings, where I find in talking with the home builders or contractors, they do want just to keep doing the same thing for as long as possible. They are more resistant to new ideas and new products where architects are theoretically very open to it.

On the other hand, I hear manufacturers talk all the time about how I watch architects where because they’re overworked and understaffed, and there’s no time, that they simply cut and paste specs from the last job. And so if they inspect the door for the last job, and it works fine, then they’ll just come and paste that spec into the new project. With that reality of how they are combined with the fact that they really would like some new ideas, how do you get past that?

I think it’s understanding that architects and designers want the information in any way, shape and format that they needed. So if they need it in the field, they would want to look it up on their phone, copy, paste the spec into an email and send it back to whoever needs that spec. If they would like it as a PDF because they want to email it to their technical specs writer, they would like it in that format. Or if they want it in Word because they want to do some editing to it, that’s the format that you should deliver it. So it’s the same specs but in multiple formats.

Yes. I think that’s an important consideration because I find manufacturers making assumptions. We got the spec, yes we have the specs. And they don’t think of the importance of the formatting of it.

Yeah, I think the formatting and the detail. So an architect or a designer does not understand nor do they want to understand all the technical details. But the technical spec writer needs all those details. So I kind of think in selling you want to give them the specs and the drawings. It’s sort of in two formats. One is a very top line, and one is very detailed.

Okay. And lots of times it seems like from a manufacturers’ standpoint the responsibility for having the spec information together information available falls into the marketing department and which is different than the sales department. And so the marketing department will think, “Well yeah. We got the specs. They’re right here as a PDF.” And salesperson may go, “Well they want it as a JPEG. And they want as a Word document.” And so that disconnect can sometimes I guess hurt the sales of manufacturers.

Sales and marketing now are one.

Yeah, it should be. That’s another subject. So Susan we just talked about specifications and the importance of having specifications in the format that the architect refers it, does the same thing happen in terms of how you visually present the product?

Absolutely. Too often architects want to see products that what I would call silhouetted. So a nice shot on a white background, very clean, you can see all the technical details of the product as well as the product in the situation. That’s why they need both to be able to see it. If you only give them one, they can’t see the whole picture. So it’s kind of like I think looking at something with one-eye shot. And then you have both your eyes open and you can really fully grasp it. And they need both of those to be able to see the product and give the product value.

So what I’m hearing you say if I were a manufacturer based on what you told me, I would make sure that my marketing people spend time with architects and asking them how would you like the specification of our products presented to you? How would you like visually our product is presented to you? Because I find too many times building material manufacturer, marketing people will make assumptions about, “Oh, this is a beautiful photograph of our product. This is the way to present it.” And it may not translate to the architect.

So Susan, if the marketing department is different from the sales department and the manufacturer, how can the marketing department become better informed about the needs of the architect and make sure that the websites they designed and they do tradeshow exhibits, whatever marketing programs they bring together that they’re on target. What are your thoughts on that?

Well I think I agree that they can sometimes be in two consistently different silos. But your salespeople are out talking to architects and designers. They know what is going on in their industry and in their firm. They are your data gatherers. All the marketing should be created around that data. Because if they’re going to find out what is on the architect’s mind, what problems are they trying to solve, you can then craft where your product fits into that.

And so I think that’s very smart where it’s important to have used the salespeople as your market research and to develop the marketing programs.

Absolutely because if they are doing what we would go and do for a manufacturer. They’re out there talking to architects and designers every single day. And they know what is happening. They know what’s relevant. They know what their fears are, what their concerns are. And your marketing should be based all around meeting what’s relevant to your audience, not telling them what you think they should know but what’s relevant to them.

Excellent. Excellent. Okay. So Susan we’ve covered a lot of information today to take in and help the building material manufacturer able to walk away from this and actually do something to help grow their building material sales to architects. Could you summarize what you think are the most important points?

Top Three Takeaways

Sure I think there’re three key takeaways. One is you want to make sure that you’re speaking the same language as your targets. While it may appear that aesthetics are fluff and irrelevant, they actually add to decoding your technology or the technical details of your product. And they translate it to a language that architects and designers speak. So that’s why aesthetics in your marketing materials do matter.

The second key takeaway is to give both technical information and images of your products, how architects want it and when they want it. So they have to be mobile in situations as well as beautiful close-up or technical drawing of the product and in multiple formats.

And the third key takeaway is that your salespeople are actually your data gatherers. They can work to bring insights to your marketing team that then the marketing team can use and exploit to grow your business.

Great. Sounds like three very straightforward important piece of information that I think many times is easy for building material manufacturers to overlook. So thank you. Hopefully, this has been helpful to helping you get a fresh look at how architects buy building materials versus [inaudible] sell to them. And so the new insights that I’ve certainly learned a lot from talking to Susan today. I look forward to hearing, have you tune into our future episode. Have a great day.

Thank you for listening to this podcast from Mark Mitchell on Building Material Sales and Marketing. We hope he gave you some fresh perspectives on how to grow your sales and listen to future episodes.

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“Fantastic article about how we need to educate the architect to influence the end user/owner.”
Babette Murphy, MBA
Director of Architectural Sales
Super Enterprises

“Great read. The problem is once your product specified and the GC will do their best to VE it out for a product that…”
Todd N. Hedgespeth
Business Develeopment Manager
Omicron Granite & Tile

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