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How to Sell Building Contractors

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How to Sell Building Contractors

This is a transcription of my podcast.  As this is a transcript, you’ll have to deal with any grammar, typo or punctuation issues. It’s more like two friends having a discussion. You can click on Google Play if you’d rather listen than read.  You can also subscribe to my podcasts on iTunes.

Building Materials Podcast

Mark Mitchell: Hello again. This is Mark Mitchell from Wizard Strategy. Welcome to my latest podcast. Today we are going to talk about how to sell contractors in building materials. In my experience contractors, if I had to pick one audience, one type of customer that can have the most influence that I think is the most critical I would say that is the contractor. They are also the one that for most people are the hardest to communicate with.

Contractors Are Important, Hard to Reach and Hard to Change

You can call them an architect, you can call them a builder, but many times the contractor can be somebody in a pickup truck that you meet at 7.30 in the morning in the lowest parking lot. Or they can be a little larger. But chances are they do not buy directly from the manufacturer so they can be a little harder to get in touch with.

How to Sell Building ContractorsToday I am really pleased to have my co-presenter John Sonnhalter from Cleveland. And John has an agency in Cleveland, Sonnhalter, that specializes not only in building materials but specializes is, we use a different word they call it tradesman I call it contractor. So if we can, we will agree upon if John says tradesman he means contractor if I say tradesman I mean contractor. So John, tell us a little bit about yourself and the agency and how you got into you know knowing so much about contractors.

 John: Well it was almost by accident. We have been in business for 40 years, and we focus on manufacturers in general. But for whatever reason we started to get manufacturers who made hand tools and power tools and other things that their target audience was the contractor. They sold through distribution or several distribution channels, but their ultimate end user was contractors. So over the years we started to get a very nice stable of customers that manufacturers who sold to contractors.

And my son came back about 13 years ago and again outside looking in he brought to my attention that what we have been focusing on manufacturers and contractors and we have all this experience, and we have been doing we got a new customer, we go out and as opposed you just talk to them in a conference room, we go out and talk to the distributor, we go out in the field with them and talk to contractors and see what their pain points are and just learn from that standpoint.

Contractors were ready to note when you did the introduction, contractor everybody looks at them as architectural specs, they don’t get any spec. And a contractor all he has to do is go to the builder and say, “Hey I got a better way to do this, trust me won’t cost you anymore.” Because architect always says or equal. So the contractor is the pivot point in any of those incidents.

 Mark: Yes. Before we started this broadcast, I look at contractors, and the first thing that I see is that they are very hard to get to change. You might say they are very stubborn or very stuck in their ways, what are your thoughts on that?

John: Well I think we all are at most we are changing a lot, but contractors I think as a rule have to reason sometimes because they have been burnt several times whether it is the distributors fault, whether it’s the manufacturers fault or a combination. But if they show up at job sites they are supposed to be doing laying tile today or doing HVAC if the furnace is in there what’s the deal?

The distributor is still making money and this guy he has a lot. These guys said they screw home it screws them up, and they are reluctant and again for most cases they should be. But manufacturers it’s like any other relationship you know.

I get a kick either people I don’t get many calls anymore, but these staff workers call you, “Hi John how are you, you know send me $100,000 I get this done.” I mean who are you? I don’t know who you are. You know it gets back to any kind of relationship you know where I can trust people before you start. These contractors are different. If you show them that you can help them out you can help them do their job better, help them make more money, be there if they have a problem, they are going to buy your stuff. You don’t have to go and say hey Mark you got to buy this stuff. Hey John, just help me solve this problem, he gave me work around; I never thought about doing it that way.

Mark: Right. Yeah.

John: You build a relationship that way.

 Mark: I agree with you. Do you also think that maybe in today’s world they are even a little more resistant to change because of the shortage of labor that I hear builders and general contractors saying, I am kind of at the mercy of myself because he is got a waiting list of jobs?

 John: If I had a dog, every time HVAC contractor told me, I am not worried about business, I have got plenty of business, I don’t have any people, and I don’t have qualified people. One of their biggest challenges is finding people, qualified people. The second biggest challenge is just to educate them. Because a  lot of them go they to a [inaudible] school, they get some basic stuff done and the [inaudible] school are I think are making a resurgent now. Here is an opportunity for manufacturers to help these contractors educate these people, online stuff, they can do it at night, like you know to educate these folks, it just makes perfect sense. And again most of them are missing the opportunity.

Mark: Right.

John: And these schools now to be a pipe fitter or to be a plumber, makes a good plumber forget the major, a good plumber makes $60-$80,000 a year. Alright.

 Mark: Yeah. Good learning.

 John: They can’t ship that job over China. And he doesn’t have a $150 because he is in college yet.

Mark: Right.

John:  I know I got friends who have kids who went to law school, they can’t find a job.

 Mark: And they have a lot of college debt.

 John: Yes and they are lawyers. But yes the trades were always going to need him, plumbers, electricians, and again it’s…they can’t ship those jobs.

 Mark: What about if you are a manufacturer can you also be thinking about looking at your products and finding ways to make them easier to install or more full proof so that I don’t have to have my best guy doing it. I can look and say hey we can take the less experienced guy now that this manufacturer has made it easier to install correctly.

 John: Yes I agree in converse manufacturers when they do, once they do talk to contractors, they talk. Instead of having a conversation, they talk. One just asks questions, the HVAC contractors, the plumbing contractors, the roofing contractors they do this for a living; they cannot live [inaudible] up their sleeve.

They can say, “Hey Mark if you can only build this thing or bend this thing in 90 degrees my life would be so much simpler.” It comes from all you do is listen, so it works both ways. And again the manufacturer does not pound the nails or put shingles up or doing this every day. These guys are making a living, and they can get a short cut, but they are very ingenious people. They talk to sales people, and we don’t have a left-handed widget that’s a 90-degree bend, by the time we did I’ll buy a lot of …I can’t go back to the…they won’t do it for you.

 Mark: Yeah. You bring up an interesting point. I notice when I go to trade shows. And I look in a manufacturers booth and I see who is there and there is a few companies not very many but a few where like big president or CEO of some rather large companies is standing in the booth like the Roofing show and they are standing there and they are not looking for who is our biggest most important customer that I can slap on the back, they are looking for anybody of any size to basically say how you doing, what are your problems, and what can we do better and what I really love them is that at the highest level their connected to the customer as opposed to their looking at their financial spreadsheets to tell them how good they are doing and I think those companies are…

 John: And if you investigated where those guys came from? Chances are they started in by development marking, product manager and worked their way up. So they appreciate the customer, customers feedback and the relationship that they have. It’s just so important.

 Mark: Yes that’s great. Another thing that I noticed about contractors, you and I talked earlier about this was that how frequently they are family business and the challenges that that presents to them in other ways that a manufacturer can either be empathetic or help or understand a contractor from that perspective.

John: The family business, again the HVAC, the plumbing a big HVAC contractor is 15-18 people with 3-5 trucks, that’s a major player. Most of them are less than seven people. So yes, the guy goes and works at 6 o clock in the morning, gets this stuff ready for the day, gets his screws out, does little estimating, does buying out on the job, back and forth all the time.

And then they need marketing help. Now manufacturers don’t necessarily have to give them marketing help but it would be nice if they can help them or direct them to focus to help them build website. Manufacturers are going to go after the consumer but here, here is how you can do this, here are some tips, you can build website, this is how you do SCO and how to do this kind of stuff so you can generate more business for yourself.

 Mark: That is so right. Last year when I went out interviewing contractors and I talked to them about their business and what’s going on and so forth, everyone almost say my website sucks and I know it does, I don’t have a clue what to do. It’s either my brother in law told me he can do websites and it looks like it or some web firm came in and sold me a bill of goods and I have something that kind of looks pretty but it doesn’t do what I needed to do because they don’t understand my business.

And you bring up a point I always wondered why this is such a common issue that a manufacturer couldn’t invest a little to figure out what should the best HVAC contractors website function, not the graphics but what’s the flow of it, what is the need to have on it and so forth, what does it need to have on it and how do you get here and there and then provide that to them to take to their local web company and say you need to build me this site, we have researched it and this is what will work.

 John: And then with the advent of social media, I don’t have it right at the top of my head but there are some people that specialize, for example in plumbing, plumbing contractor, HVAC, and their blogs is how to help a plumbing contractor. Set up a website do this, check it and link it and all the stuff and a manufacturer, a plumbing manufacturer could do a webinar, complements of XYZ manufacturer, bring in these experts you know or give them an overview and then the guys do like hey talk them work, he is the guy who does that and he can help you out. Today’s world the web guy doesn’t have to be down the street, he can be across the country. The key is this guy understands my business.

 Mark: I have seen those with some firm specializes with roofing contractors. And I go to the roofing show there those web firms have a little booth, but I watch contractors walk by and don’t connect the dots like oh I could talk to this guy and he could help me. So I think sometimes the manufacturer connecting the dots for the contractor and you know help them…

 John: What is it going to apply?

 Mark: No a little time.

John: Goodwill. They are talking with you, they have good thoughts about you as a manufacturer and you are not trying to sell, you are trying to help them grow their business.

 Mark: Yes. You know another issue that I always feel about contractors is they start out as an installer. You know they you know no accountant becomes a roofing contractor or HVAC contractor and so to me they start off my typical thing is they either were in a family business that their father is a plumber or they got into a contracting firm they became good and maybe they became like the best guy at least in their mind and then one day they say I am just going to do this myself. When they do that all of a sudden they don’t realize what they just did. Because they think their installation skills is all they need.

 John: Installation skills are not going to help in cash flow.

 Mark: So if we look at HR hiring people, we look at finance dealings with banks, leasing cars, you know training dealing with customer complaints, figuring out the right source for materials, marketing, sales, pricing, what do you think did you see John is their biggest challenge is there that a manufacturer could help with?

 John: Manufacturer could help as well as associations and the trade press has changed dramatically over last 10-15 years, they are aware of again HVAC contractor, they are aware what those challenges are and they get experts on a monthly basis to write columns about some of those things. So the contractor today has a lot more options as he did or she did in the first 10-15 years ago. I don’t know any manufacturers there are dealing HR issues, they are dealing with financial or but from sales or marketing stand point, those guys, that’s where their weakest area is. They think they are good at it but they are not really good. If they can get in front of somebody it’s a no brainer. how do you get in front of them? How do you get people to call? That’s always a challenge.

 Mark: You bring up another point. It’s interesting like those contractors because the associations, because of trade magazines, that they are now least exposed whether they choose to read it or follow it or not but they are exposed to this information. You go to a convention and they will have all kinds of workshops on how to do this and that by experts, so that is all good.

You brought an interesting points and that is one of my pet peeves, that the building materials sales person is trained in the product, I don’t know selling faucets and so he is trained about faucets, why our faucets are better and how they are installed, and trained faucets and faucets. Then he is trained how to go sell anything to anybody. So he is given those two pieces. But he is not trained is what is the day in a life of a plumber like.

So when I talk also to contractors builders particularly they will say nothing frustrates me more than the I don’t want to use the word stupid but ill equipped sales people that building material manufacturers send a call on me who don’t have a clue what goes on in my life. Don’t have a clue how I make money, don’t have a clue how I lose money.

 John: But they can tell you the ten features of benefits of products. You cannot translate that into how I can make more money. Again I always tell everybody, what’s in it for me, if you look at a contractor no matter what they are doing what’s in it for me? if I can’t help him, because he is going to ask me a question as you sit across….he is going to ask that question, what’s in it for me, how is that product going to help me make more money.

And if you approach it upfront from there all of a sudden you are going to engage him into a conversation that okay get this and you know I found this to be more successful than that but again it has to be a two way street or two way engagement as opposed to…they know if a manufacturer comes to the door they want to sell you something, grant it. But again how many contractors have you been to that there are all story tellers.

They are all yapping away and their structure is here we go man. You talk to them. You can weave in the conversation of…I just came from somebody last week that had this unique problem with an application. Here’s how we solved it. Do you have a worry now?

 Mark: Exactly.

 John: No.

 Mark: Yes.

 John: Or yes I never thought about doing it.

 Mark: I read the article in last month’s trade magazine about contractors having this problem. That was really interesting, do you have that problem or you don’t about it. That you know…

 John: Those kinds of things. But it makes the contractor feel more comfortable. Again go back to the no like and trust, you got to feel comfortable and people won’t buy from people that they know they can’t trust. And again they know that they are selling something but here showing me how it can help me do my job better and make more money and less hassle.

 Mark: Yes. That’s been a…last year I had a VP of sales for a siding company come up to me and say Mark I have 12 sales people, I bought 12 copies of your book and I told them you got to read the book and then for the next 2 weeks every time you call in a builder I want you to read the chapter about how to sell a builder. And then if you are in the parking lot, 10 minutes before 5-6 pages read them and go ahead. 2 weeks later she said she talked to the 12 sales people and said what happened, she said oh my Gosh the conversations totally changed.

The builder has opened up and told me things I never thought they would tell. Some of them are my new best friend and this is not about my book but it is about being curious about learning. And I don’t think that enough manufacturers take the time to have that third element of training. So here is our product training and here is how to be a sales person, and three is this is a day in a life of a contractor a builder an architect or whoever and really understand them. Maybe have to go and spend a day with them on job sites and riding around, really get a sense of because I think there is a big black hole.

John: And there is more to the sale that just here yes I am going to buy 10 widgets, customer service if he has some problems it’s all these…I am like deliver next Tuesday and next Tuesday what happens, you know all the goodwill he had hey I can’t trust Mark, he is falling down.

 Mark: Isn’t that it also occurs to me that critical manufacturer but the manufacturer sells through a distributor and to the contractor and so the contractor could love your product but if he is not in a good relationship with the local distributor you are probably going to have a problem and so that the whole, I think all the three components are very important. What do you think?

 John: I think that’s true. The distributor phenomena when it comes to contractors, it was the biggest challenge that unfortunately the manufacturers have very little control. They have very little loyalty in most cases unless they are. a prime, if there are some EIM’s [?][inaudible] you may have some loyalty. But they are looking for profit margins, the sales people are looking for sales, they don’t give a shit for [inaudible]. I am making extra 20 bucks if I sell this stuff you know.

So it’s a catch can if you will, the distributors are I don’t know how do I put it but they are there but the challenge is for the contractor, the contractors if the manufacturer does their job right and they get Mark the contractor to know I can trust him, Mark, the contractor is going to go into distributorship I don’t give a shit, I want this. They listen to me, I put it in, I get no call backs, so you get it for me. You can’t get it for me I will walk down the street and get it. All of a sudden things change.

 Mark: That falls on the manufacturer to do that job because I see whenever I look at people like ABC and Fergusson for example as the big and getting bigger and then I go and look at their websites and what they do with their bigness I see them as doing things how to help cut their teaching contractors how to be better marketers not the manufacturer. So all of a sudden they are working to become more important than the manufacturers so that the manufacturers should step up in my opinion and defend themselves, they will say well Fergusson doesn’t carry that’s okay what do you carry?

 John: And Fergusson has a better offering. Again XYZ manufacturer, he makes an entry point and an entry point they usually make good, better, best areas. Fergusson’s of the world have that not only yours but they have Kohler and they have this and all different so wherever you want it’s once stop shopping  and but the Fergusson’s are getting bigger. They are going to outpace and they are going to eliminate, allow these little independent distributors, you need to see that. And those distributors, I wrote a blog post last year that Amazon had a program a couple of years ago the Being CIM’s] totally little industrial distributors and staff distributors don’t stock them. We’ll ship them. Amazon is very sophisticated. They take down Mark’s name and I have a [inaudible]…

 Mark: I made a sale.

 John: I know Mark will be watching and I know what his history is. It’s just they are walking right into the flames they have no idea they are going to getbroke. Fergusson’s of the world are a challenge to the manufacturers.

 Mark: You see the mergers and acquisitions are getting bigger and that’s a key way to the contractors.

 John: Right and I think the key from a manufacturers standpoint is unless you are making just a commodity item I have no pricing [inaudible] but if you have got an engineered product talk about the right proposition to these folks. Show them that I reduced [inaudible] cost 30% more but the end cost for that job is going not be 30% lesser or 20% lesser, here is how. Proposition makes more sense that way.

 Mark: John I looked at presentation that you are going to give at the workshop and one of the big challenges also besides the contractor being so critical to so many people’s success is how hard they are to communicate with and reach. There is you know tens of thousands of contractors in any category and building material sales people are [inaudible] company has so many sales people and I think it was really interesting, will you share some of your thinking about how to use online ways of reaching directors?

 John: The social you have got, I recommend 4 social areas. YouTube, Slideshare, LinkedIn, and fourth one is Blogs. But those four are really the areas that contractors can look at and I did a little search yesterday after one of my emails back from you, Slideshare people are like what is Slideshare it is a pretty dynamic social media. I was like okay I am going to start looking, search how to install a French door. You know how many pages there are of that material? It was like 15 pages of probably 150 different ways for manufacturers on how to install French doors. If you are a French door manufacturer why don’t you have something on them?

 Mark: Right.

 John: But YouTube next to Google is the holy grail.

 Mark: I always think that you and I can say this but I always think there are too many white guys in building materials. So they kind of go social media that’s something my kid does right and it’s hard for them to create a contractor online and that he has a life too and he uses these tools.

 John: He goes home in that right. And he goes on and orders stuff online at home personally. He reads stuff online. So yes it’s the problem manufacturers have again the white world it’s they need to control the message, they need to control the words going to go a social media, all that is out the door. You know. They have lost control and they don’t like that. Even though it’s good because with the key words I have grand kids and if my wife I ask her a stupid questions she says Google it. Between that it just is a whole different mentality that manufacturers they are part time [inaudible] because they lose control. In the end if they do it right and if they help get good contact to their target audience…don’ it is I solved your problem. I will show you how to do it.

 Mark: A guy I would think of what are 30 problems that a plumber might be typing into Google and then I want to write content to answer those 30 problems as opposed to 5 reasons to buy my faucet.

John: And if your sales people understood neough of and ask the right questions they are going to come up, and I stressed to a to manufacturer that we represent that they spend 30% of time or less talking to distribution and 70% on the field. So if you can make in a week’s time 7-10 contractors calls and ask them the same questions, what kind of market research you got. Guys here are 50 questions me one salesman comes up with answer these questions, because if you look at the questions I come up with and the guy in California, chances are 80% are going to be the same questions. Answer the questions and guess what you are going to be a hero.

 Mark: You are going to be on first page on Google for that and you are trying to be over worrying on being on first page for replacement faucet and it’s going to be much easier. You know the other one I find is companies say to me, well you know Mark we agree that this content marketing social media is important and when we get more budget then we’ll look at it. And I say the things you are going today that you should stop doing and move the money here and they can’t quite let go of these old legacy ways of marketing.

 John: Well in another …they are always looking at ROI but yet TV commercials and how do you go ROI? You do a blog post and you do something on Youtube, they will tell you who hit what kind of profile they are, where they are and all this information instantaneously. You know how many opened it, where they went, how long they stayed, it’s…

 Mark: Very measurable.

 John: Very much so.

 Mark: Faucet, the production cost you know the production cost is much lower and the media cost is free. You start looking at that and then the life of it is for years. You know you run an ad and that’s it January issues gone.

 John: You were too busy to watch out. It’s always frustrating I tell manufacturers especially that engineer [inaudible] you got a lot of content there. It’s sales sheets, it’s in some of these customer service guys heads, all they do is talk to them, now I think you have to reinvent then we want your forty guy a lot and that stuff. You just have to, content marketing helps you focus the message, focus the audience and focus on the problems. Again you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

 Mark: No, exactly. So John if you were we are talking about building material manufacturers, if you were to kind of you know summarize you know your advice about how to be more successful with contractors, what would your cliff notes version be?

 John: Well I think you have to know your audience and just because you sell plumbing contractors for example doesn’t mean you know it you have to talk to them. The builder relationship, you got to become a good reliable resource to help them build your business. Whether it is roofing, they need somebody that they can depend on, that they have an issue that they can call during day time, they have a special customer service number to an engineer that can help them walk through a problem right there. The only thing those are the kinds of things.

 Mark: Yes that’s a great idea and good advice. Anything else you want to share?

 John: No. Thank you for having me.

 Mark: Oh no thank you, you know you and I have known each other online for a while it was great to sit down with you in person and get to know you better and share our thoughts  on the challenges of contractors who is certainly a very challenging subject. Oh John you have a lot of great content on your website what do you tell people you website is?

 John: It’s and my blog is called

 Mark: I encourage you, John is a great thought leader in this industry and I encourage you to follow his blog as well as he has got a number of great white papers on his website. I hope you have enjoyed today and I look forward to our next podcast this is Mark Mitchell. Have a great day.

 Thank you or listening to this podcast from Mark Mitchell on building materials 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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Thanks for the following comments.  I’d like to hear your feedback and suggestions on how to sell architects.

“Great points here Mark! As always, thank you for the contributions you make with the building materials industry! …”
Jeremy Davis
Regional Sales
DECRA Roofing Systems

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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.