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How to Train Building Materials Sales People

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How to Train Building Materials Sales People

6 Important Steps in New Employee Training (You’re Probably Skipping Most of Them)

Training sets a bedrock for an employee’s performance. But many building material companies treat training as a formality.

They’ll drill the new sales and marketing people on the basics of the product: its features, what it does, why it’s the best option on the market. Then they’ll cover all the usual stuff about the company and how it operates. They’ll go over all the administrative details like how to sign up for insurance and fill in an expense report.

If they’re lucky, the new employees will get basic sales training on top of that. They may get to ride along with an experienced sales person. And then they’ll be sent out to start selling.

It’s no wonder I encounter so many salespeople who just aren’t ready.

There’s a better way. Keep reading, and I’ll share six important steps most building material companies skip in their training.

How to Properly Train Your Building Materials Sales and Marketing People

So, you’ve given your new employees the basic run-through. They know all the administrative things they need to be aware of, they got to see your product and studied some of its features, and someone showed them how to use Salesforce or some similar program.

Once you’ve already gone through those basics, there are six more steps you should take to make sure they’re prepared to connect with customers and make a sale.

1. Go Over the History of the Product

When I say the history of your product, I don’t just mean how your specific product came to be, or how you went from the Regular Model to the new Xtra Resistant Model. I mean go over the entire history of your product category.

Start right from the beginning. Let’s say you sell roofing products. You should teach your salespeople when we first came to build roofs. It can be a bit speculative: we came out of the caves and realized that we got sunburnt or wet, so then we cobbled something together. What was that something? What properties did our ancestors need from the first roofs? And then run them through the entire history, all the way up to the present day, showing them how roofs have changed along the way and covering all the major advances in roofing.

Get them to imagine the world before the product. If you’re a window company, go over what people did before windows. Why did they feel compelled to throw a pane of glass on a house and how did that change things? And what was it like before those windows could open? How big of a game changer was the first window that could be opened and then latched shut?

Equitone Fiber Cement Facades does an excellent job of teaching the history of rain screens with this video.

This history lesson teaches them something important: that your product isn’t just going in buildings because building codes require it or because that’s just what we’re used to – your product is going into buildings because they meet a real need.

It also grounds the whole sales process. It puts what they’re doing into context. They can see the big picture now. Not just “Our warranty is five years longer than the competition’s warranty,” but “This is why our product matters.”

And you’d be surprised how many architects, contractors, and owners have lost sight of the basic reasons they use certain products. After a while, it’s just routine. It’s useful to remind them once in a while that your product serves an important function.

2. Send Them to the Customer

After giving them a lesson in the history of your product, the next thing you should do is send them to your customer and show them what it’s like to be in their shoes.

First, map out the way your product gets to market. Do you sell your product to a one-step distributor who then sells it to a contractor who will, in turn, install it for a builder or homeowner? Or does an architect specify your product but then the contractor is the one who actually buys it?

Whichever way the chain goes, map it out for your new employees, so they have a good sense of who are the real decision-makers when it comes to buying your product. They’ll also learn who can influence the decision. There’s nothing more frustrating for a new sales person to think they’ve made the sale only to have it undone by an influencer.

Now, let’s say you map all this out and show them that it’s a distributor who sells your product to a contractor or builder. Have them spend a day with a distributor – not to sell to them, but to learn from them. Encourage them to be curious. They shouldn’t just be a fly on the wall but should come ready to ask all sorts of questions like:

· Tell me about your business

· How do you make money as a distributor?

· What are the biggest challenges you face?

· Who do you consider your biggest competitors?

· What are you doing to outperform them?

· What do you think of our company?

· How could we improve what we’re doing and make life easier for you?

Then, have them spend a day with the contractor and repeat the whole process, asking the same kinds of questions.

Have them spend some time on a job site so they can see how those materials they’re selling are actually used, installed and how they work with other products. Don’t just have your internal people demonstrate how it’s installed. Seeing how it’s done in ideal conditions is nowhere near as educational as watching people install it out in the field on a structure that’s going up.

And don’t make this a ride-along with your senior salespeople. I know this sounds like a good idea: you’re getting the experienced people on your team to show the new guy the ropes. But your senior salespeople already have their minds set about a lot of things, and many of them are working with assumptions and beliefs that are no longer correct. You want your new employee to get to know the customer and ask their own questions, not just adopt a bunch of old ideas.

Riding with a senior salesperson can be beneficial but not as the first thing in their training.

3. Go Fine-Grained with the Product

Now that your new hires have gone out in the field, it’s time to give them a more in-depth, fine-grained overview of your product. Give them a deep dive into the benefits and features. But don’t just lecture them; they should be able to ask questions and push back. When you’re talking up your product, you want them to feel free to speak up and say, “That’s not what the contractors I spoke with told me. They feel there are some real shortcomings with our product.” That way, you can work out what the contractor’s real problem was, why they perceived the product the way they do, and how to overcome that perception.

You should also take them on a tour of the manufacturing facility or have your engineers give them a demonstration. Take the product apart and look at it through a microscope (whether literally or figuratively). Make sure they understand how it’s made, why it works and what’s behind every little detail.

4. Go Through Your Company’s Processes from the Customer’s Side

Show the new employees what it’s like to be a customer dealing with your company. What do they have to go through to find information about your product and what is it like trying to place an order? What do they need to do if they have a warranty claim? What kind of hoops might they have to jump through to make sure it’s honored? What if they have installation questions?

Sometimes, these processes are set up in a way that makes sense for the company, but that doesn’t always make it easy for the customer. Knowing what the customer goes through will show your employees where there are points of friction in the process and where the customer might need some extra help or assistance to get what they want.

5. Tell Them the Company Story

Next, you need to give your new employees a deep understanding of your company. What’s the story behind it? Who was the founder? What are the company’s goals and values?

Now, it’s true that some new companies don’t have the most thrilling stories. These days, a lot of people operate companies kind of like they were house-flipping operations: they buy the company with the goal of spending three or four years growing sales to make the company look better so they can sell it at a higher price.

But with many companies, there’s an amazing story that really gives you a sense of what they’re all about.

One of my favorites is the story of Barclay Simpson, the man behind Simpson Strong-Tie, which grew out of a customer wanting a new solution and Simpson setting out to create it for him. It’s a simple story, but it speaks volumes about what the company stands for.

Sometimes, the story can focus on the product and the team effort behind it. Like DuPont’s Tyvek – what’s the story behind that product? Who discovered it? What were the available options before it and why was this an improvement?

And there are probably lots of great stories we’ve never even heard, like who was the first person to think asphalt would make a great shingle? If that’s the product you’re selling, it’s a good idea to find out and share it with your new team members.

The whole point of these stories is that they reframe everything you’re doing. Your employees need to know that they don’t work for a window company – they work for a company that strives to deliver comfort and convenience to homeowners. Or they work for a company focused on making builders more successful.

They don’t work for an insulation company – they work for a company that is driven by reducing construction’s impact on the environment. They don’t work for a company that makes and sells a product – they work for a company that stands for something.

6. Quiz Them

Once they’ve been exposed to everything about your product, your company, and your customer, it’s time to quiz them. See what insights they gained from all this training and find out how much of it stuck.

At the very least, sit them down and ask them to tell you about the history of the product, about the way it’s distributed, about the kinds of businesses that buy it, and about the way customers perceive the business.

Don’t Rush Through Training

Once you’ve gone through these six steps, your new employees are finally ready to make a sale or work in marketing and improve your customer relations.

It might take a week or two and, yes, some travel expenses. You might also have to call in a couple of favors from some of your customers so your new hires can interview them or observe the work done on site. But it’s worth it. They’ll know a lot more than their rivals who have just received basic sales training.

Of course, you need to make sure you train your employees on the product. Yes, it’s important. Yes, it matters. But you need to put it in a larger context. Your employees need to understand where the product comes from, why people use it, how they use it and what it’s like to buy it.

So, don’t rush your employees through training. Give them room to learn. Give them time to really understand the business, to get curious about it and to form their own opinions. If you do, you’ll have a much stronger sales and marketing team as a result.

Final Thoughts

It takes most people who are new to the building materials industry at least a year to “get it.” What would it be worth to you to shorten that to a few weeks?

While I wrote this about salespeople, it is also very valuable for new marketing people and anyone else who deals with your customers to be trained this way. An often overlooked department is customer service. In today’s world, they are dealing with the customer more often than the salesperson.

And don’t forget your senior leaders. I have had a number of CEO’s tell me it took their new CFO a year to understand the business.

Thanks for the following comments.  I’d like to hear your feedback and suggestions on how to sell architects.

“Really good article Mark. I think you are spot on with this analysis!”
Rick Finley
Territory Manager
Building Material Distributors

“Great insight as usual Mark. Love your posts. Thanks for keeping them up.”
Chris Evans
Manager Ontario Sales and Technical Support
Savannah Heating Products

“Good points!”
Mahnaz P. Nikbakht
Chairman/ President
Maison Passive Quebec

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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.