This article is based on a podcast interview I did with Pat Wilkins who spent her career working for Owens Corning, Dow Chemical, and DuPont in selling big builders. Between working for these companies, I was fortunate that she worked for me.
In Pat’s words:
“Many building material manufacturers feel stuck. They sell their products to small builders, but every sale they make only moves a small amount of product. They want to target the larger builders – whether that’s the top 100, top 50, or top 20 builders in the country – but they don’t even know how to start and can’t seem to get their foot in the door.
I have a lot of experience dealing with some of the largest builders, so I know first-hand that there are a lot of challenges when it comes to selling to builders on this scale. But it can be done.
In this article, I’ll share some of my tactics and approaches for selling to large builders and what it takes to get noticed by them.”
Large Builders Have Complicated Ecosystems
The first step to selling to a large builder is understanding that they’re not just bigger in size – they’re also organized differently.
When you’re dealing with a small builder, the decision-making process is a lot more focused. A lot of these small companies are owned and operated by someone who wears many hats. They’re on-site, hands-on, and making all the big decisions themselves. That makes things pretty straightforward for you: you’ll probably be speaking to the decision-maker the entire time, and if you convince that one person to adopt your product, you’re set.
With a larger builder, on the other hand, there isn’t really one single decision-maker. Instead, you’ll be dealing with a whole ecosystem of people who have some decision-making power, but who aren’t the only decision-makers you have to worry about.
Each of these decision-makers will have their own priorities and agendas. Even if you can convince one to go with your product, you might still get shot down by another.
It also means you need to do a bit of homework before approaching these people. Find out who plays what role in the organization. Learn what their priorities are and speak to those priorities directly. When you’re dealing with a small builder, you have to give them the big picture because they have to wear all the hats at once. But when you talk to someone at a large builder, you need to narrow down more. Is their job making sure the project is completed on time? Then you might need to focus on ease of installation. Is their job making sure they stay on budget? Then you’ll have to shift gears and talk about the cost efficiency of using your product.
Go to the Job Site First
The purchasing department is going to send the order for your product, but that doesn’t mean you should go to them first.
Purchasing’s role in the ecosystem is very precise: to keep costs low. Since they want to drive your price down, their priorities won’t match up with yours.
You’ll have to get purchasing on board with buying your product, but the best way to do that is by getting the construction managers on your side. You’re going to have to understand the problems they face and the things that keep them up at night. (Hint: they’re not losing sleep over the price of your product.)
Go out to multiple sites and see how the builder is building, what products they’re using and take a good look at everything going on. See if you can spot anything of concern, whether it’s inefficient construction practices, bad installation procedures, wrong product choices or struggles to meet building codes. If you can spot problems and solve them, you can get on their good side.
And depending on the concerns you spot, it might make sense to go directly to the architects or the engineers instead of starting with the construction managers. It’s all about figuring out who will care about the value you’re delivering.
If you can solve problems for these people, they’ll tell purchasing that you might be a bit more expensive, but you’re worth every extra dime. In fact, it’s quite likely that if you can solve the construction manager’s problems, you can save them money in the end, even if your product costs more. From a financial perspective, your problem-solving product is the cheaper choice. But only someone directly involved in the construction process will see that, so go to them first, not the accountants.
Your Key Selling Point: Support
If you want a large builder to buy from you, you have to work hard to differentiate yourself from the competition. Showing your product features or lowering your price probably won’t be all that interesting to the decision makers you’ll deal with. What they need above all is support.
That support can come in multiple forms (maybe even more than one): leading technology, developing new products to meet their changing needs, or just the arms and legs to come out and assist them (especially with legislation and codes).
It can also come in the form of installation training. Often, when there’s a problem with a product, there’s nothing wrong with the product itself – it just hasn’t been installed properly. This can cost a builder a lot of time and labor, so if you offer to train their production supervisors or construction managers to minimize installation problems, that can be worth a lot to them.
Marketing support is another area where you can differentiate yourself, even if you don’t have the biggest budget. Sometimes, the best way to differentiate yourself is to help the builder differentiate themselves. Give them the ammunition to say, “We build a better home.” Whether it’s through sales training or displays, partner with them to create a message that communicates their value to the customer.
Trust and Relationships Matter at Any Size
There are unique challenges when you’re selling to large builders, but some things don’t change no matter the size of the company. One thing that stays true no matter the scale of the company is that sales is all about establishing relationships.
That’s something I learned when I was starting out in residential roofing sales. I was one of only two women in the entire roofing industry back in those days, and they put me in the Detroit market. I went through lots and lots of product and sales training. I knew everything about the product, and I had all the professional selling skills my colleagues had. But as soon as I went on my first sales call, I realized that wouldn’t be enough.
I walked into my first customer’s office and sat across from him. As soon as I introduced myself and gave him my card, he looked me over and said, “So, what are you going to tell me? Who do you think you are that you’re going to tell me how to put on a roof?”
I didn’t see that coming – they never went over that in sales training.
So, I took a minute and then said, “I’m not here to tell you how to do your job. I’m here to help you understand more about my product and how it may be of interest to you. So, I want to learn more about what you’re doing and talk about the issues you’re having.”
I didn’t give him a pitch. I didn’t drone on about product details.
I established a dialogue. I started building a relationship with the customer.
People buy from people they trust. And you can’t establish trust if you take a one-sided approach, where you’re always talking about how amazing your product is and never stop to listen to the problems they’re facing.
And that’s what it boils down to. Building a relationship with a customer isn’t about dinners and lunches. Those are mostly distractions – it’s much better to cut right to the chase – and most large companies have policies against them anyway. Real relationships are built on honest conversations and mutual understanding. It’s about listening so you can learn what their biggest challenges are and then help them understand how you will help them overcome those challenges.
Persistence Pays Off
If you’re willing to do your homework, approach the right people and show them how you can offer them support and solve their problems, you have a shot at getting into the large builder market.
But be aware that large builders have an incredibly long sales process. They don’t usually make a change on the fly unless they’re in crisis mode (and even then, they might be a bit slow). In general, you’re looking at four to six months to convert a builder. They go out to bid, they get lumber packages, they inspect the materials, and they do the take-offs, so it takes some time.
Be patient and persistent. At every size, there are builders who just care about price. But that doesn’t mean you have to undercut yourself to get a large builder’s attention. At the end of the day, most of them are looking for support. If you can deliver that, you’ll be well on your way to delivering your products to their job sites.”
If there is anyone you know who may benefit from this article, please forward it to them.