I returned from the AIA show recently and I’m still shaking my head at some of the things I saw.
It’s a great conference – if you’re an architect. If you’re a manufacturer, it’s a frustrating event. I saw several building materials reps standing at their booths, waiting patiently for traffic that never comes. The organization has been using increasingly desperate tactics to get architects to even glance at the exhibitors. But no amount of cash prizes or puppy pens could get the attendees to spend much time on the exhibit floor.
One thing’s clear: the AIA show isn’t worth it. It might be a place where hundreds of architects gather, but it’s not a great way to get their attention.
Last week, I advised manufacturers and their sales teams to stop wasting their money at the AIA. I must have touched a nerve as my article generated over 50 comments that you can view on LinkedIn. If you want to reach architects, there are far better ways to do it.
This week, I want to flesh that out a bit by giving you actionable advice on how to sell architects. Your booth at the AIA probably won’t help you get their business, but following these 8 tips will.
1. Understand How Architects Think
You can’t sell architects unless you understand them. That’s why you should start by creating a mental profile for the architects you’re trying to sell. Don’t reach out to architects before you have a clear idea of what they do, what they care about, and how they think.
You probably already have some architect stereotypes in your mind – it’s okay, we all do. But that’s not good enough. You’ll have to do some research to replace your assumptions about architects with facts about what they’re really like.
That means learning what their job involves, what goals they want to achieve with their designs and what it takes for them to advance in their careers. Find out how they interact with engineers, contractors and their building owner clients. Understand who they answer to and who they’re trying to please.
All this will help you create a sales message that grabs their attention and speaks to the things they really care about.
It also helps to know some of the major differences across types of architects. Creative and design-focused architects might approach their work differently than those who are more technical engineering-minded. Independent architects might not have the same needs as architects who work for firms. Architects who work for design-build firms might follow a different decision-making process than those who only work alongside other architects.
2. Architects Specialize – And So Should You
Architects aren’t generalists – almost all of them specialize in a type of building. For example, they might focus exclusively on hotels, healthcare facilities, or multifamily housing.
To be really effective, you not only have to learn about the architect’s business but also the industry they design for. If you want to sell to an architect who specializes in designing educational institutions, you should learn about the business of running a school and the major considerations that go into building decisions. Do they prioritize durability over ease of maintenance? Is sustainability more important to them? Are there trends in school design that an architect will want to follow?
Knowing the answers to those types of questions will tell you how your products will be most interesting to the architect. It will also help you showcase them in a way that speaks to the needs of the building type they specialize in, which will make your message much more compelling.
3. Be the Expert on Your Product
Once you get an architect’s attention, you’ll have to keep it. That means giving an engaging presentation and sticking to a message that speaks to their needs. And importantly, knowing your product in and out.
If your potential customer is interested in your product, they’ll have at least a few questions about it. Since architects can be detail-oriented and technical, those questions are likely to require expert-level answers. You should be ready to provide those. If you can’t, you’ll give the impression that you’re not the right person to help them. They’ll lose interest in your pitch and you’ll lose the sale.
If you’re not already an expert on your product, become one. Study it, ask the research and development team to walk you through its most interesting features and talk to existing customers about why they use your product.
I frequently see sales people focused on a feature or benefit of their product while the architect is more interested in a different feature. Smart sales people learn from each sales call to keep the focus on what the architect values most.
4. Understand Why Architects Cut and Paste Specs
Architects have a reputation for being innovative and cutting edge. There’s certainly some truth to that. All of them want to design buildings that stand out.
That’s the design side, however. When it comes to the materials, they’re much more conservative.
Architects aren’t interested in experimenting with new products or switching to slightly better materials, not unless they have to. If the product they’ve been specifying is good enough, it’s likely to stay from project to project. When it’s time to design a new building, they’ll cut and paste as much of the specs from previous projects as they can.
That’s because architects aren’t the final decision-makers on building projects. Their clients are the owners, and they answer to them. Those owners also put a lot of trust in their contractors, so the contractor’s opinion on a building product usually wins out.
Architects are the experts when it comes to design. When it comes to building materials, their goal is to avoid ruffling feathers. They don’t want to specify a product that the owner will want to change. And they especially don’t want to specify a product that will cause problems and delays during the construction phase of the project.
To minimize those risks, they’ll play it safe. If a product has worked before, they’ll specify it again.
They might change a product to meet a change in the building code, to solve a problem with a previous product, or for various situational reasons (e.g. a hotel being built near an airport will require more sound control). Otherwise, they’ll copy and paste.
Knowing that will help you understand how the architect sees your product. They don’t see better features, an innovative design, or faster installation speeds. All they see is risk and cost.
To successfully get them to change the spec and use your product instead, you have to make them see that the risk of sticking to their current product is higher than the risk of switching to yours. That’s a very hard sell, but not an impossible one. If you know why architects default to copying specs, you have a chance of getting through to them.
5. Don’t Ignore the Power of Social Media
Creatives and business people are highly active on social media. Architects fit in both camps, so they are no exception.
Social media is a simple way to get in front of architects. They’re on it already, so you just need to find a way to engage them and post content that catches their interest.
Build connections and network with architects on various platforms, especially LinkedIn. Create posts that showcase your products and success stories from existing customers.
Consistency is key here. Social media sales is a long game. It takes time to get noticed, become a familiar presence in someone’s feed and create a relationship out of small interactions. Still, it’s low effort, low cost and can make you the first person that comes to mind the next time they need to specify a new product.
6. Get Involved With the AIA
I warned against exhibiting at the AIA, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the organization entirely. The show is mostly a waste of time and money for building materials companies, but joining the organization is a great way to stay current with your customer’s profession.
Knowing about the latest issues that are important to architects will help you tailor your messaging to their current problems, not the ones they had a year ago. Getting involved with the AIA is also a great way to meet more architects and learn how your product can benefit them.
7. Build the Best Website in Your Category
Your website should be the best in your product category for architects. If you sell aluminum cladding, you should work to become the go-to aluminum cladding resource for architects.
To achieve that, you’ll need to do three things:
- Improve your website design. Architects care about the way things are presented and how well they work. If your website is unattractive, the design is unintuitive, or the content is poorly organized, they’re not likely to visit it again.
- Create valuable content. Give architects a reason to go to your site and keep coming back to it. Write blog posts about trends in your product category. Create guides and comparison tools that architects can consult when they run into challenges. Use videos to showcase unique product features. And of course, be sure to ask architects what type of content they look for and what kind of information they need.
- Optimize your SEO. You can only become the go-to resource for architects if those architects can find you in the first place. That means ranking high enough on Google that you don’t get buried in the second or third page of results. Creating valuable content will help with that, but be sure to tweak it to include the right keywords while avoiding clickbait.
8. Give Some Attention to Future Architects
Architectural students aren’t in a position to specify your products or drive sales for you. But they will be someday, so you should make some effort to get in front of them now.
You can do that by making investments in their future, say by sponsoring a design contest for a college. Offering free lectures and workshops where you can impart valuable skills and information will also leave a strong and lasting impression on all the attendees and participants. And of course, you can connect with architectural students on social media.
Make Your Efforts Count
My problem with the AIA show isn’t that it’s a terrible event or that there’s no value to it. My problem is simply that it’s a bad investment. Dollar for dollar, your exhibit just won’t bring in the kind of sales it should.
It’s not just the AIA show, though. I feel the same way about many other attempts at selling to architects. In a lot of cases, all I see is companies spending plenty of time and money and getting very little in return.
That’s why I wanted to share these tips. Selling architects isn’t easy. Most of them are happy to continue copy/pasting specs for as long as they can.
They’re a tough sell, which means you have to make all of your efforts count. If you’re focusing on architects but aren’t taking a smart and strategic approach to reaching them, you’ll be wasting lots of resources and have very few sales to show for it.
If you’re going to sell building materials to architects, make it worth your while. Study them and their business. Be an expert they can trust. Build meaningful connections with them. Reaching them might still be a bit costly, but with the right approach it will be an investment that actually pays off.