I’ve spent much of the last four years consulting on ‘the dark side’ – working for product manufacturers. What an eye opener it has been! After training in architecture I spent 15 years running architects’ practices, and when I set up my consultancy helping construction companies use the Internet better, I wasn’t expecting the greatest interest to come from product companies. The fact is though, they want to talk to architects, but the way they do it isn’t working as well as it did.
Product Companies are Different
Many of the product companies I work with are completely different to the architect practices I used to run.
- They have budgets for marketing – whereas I never had a marketing budget in an entire career marketing architect’s services;
- They have sales people, often teams, whose job it is to cultivate relationships with specifiers and contractors; and
- They have technical teams who are kept well away from specifiers. Indeed I came across one company who even charged 49p a minute on their technical helpline!
Each of these departments – sales, marketing and technical, don’t talk to each other nearly as much as they should, even in the smaller product companies. This is entirely different to how architects operate; architects businesses often have a relatively flat, non-siloed business structure. If there is any definition, it is usually between ‘the office’ and ‘the partners’. Non fee-earners are rare, often only a practice manager. The RIBA benchmarking reports show us that most architects firms spend less than the 2-5% recommended minimum on marketing. And sales people? Don’t make me laugh!
But seriously, these differences can help us understand how we can better get what we want out of product companies when it comes to sourcing construction product information.
Product sourcing is changing
One reason construction product manufacturers are finding it harder marketing to us, is the changes in how our practices work. Architects practices have always been small (76% fewer than 10 staff, 58% fewer than 5, according to the RIBA) but since the recession new ways of working have developed.
People who were made redundant or became disillusioned during the recession left larger practices and set up on their own, often without a traditional business address, preferring to work from home and online. Some of these practices set up joint ventures with other individual professionals, in different locations, collaborating online and rarely meeting in person. Sales representatives can no longer doorstep your practice and offer to update your construction product information or deliver a CPD if you don’t have a doorstep. Indeed they may have lost touch with you altogether.
What is more, the conventional times to contact us no longer really make sense. The new RIBA Plan of Work logo is a never-ending circle of interaction for a reason. A product manufacturer wants to be on your radar all the time, so they contact you. All the time. Pretty soon you’re getting someone else to answer the phone, setting up a reception area. Oh, wait a minute…
When I was working in practice in the mid noughties, we cut our product library down from 20 metres of catalogues to just 5. Research by CIMCIG has confirmed that demand for printed material is dropping, but we know that already, don’t we?
For a start, we need things more quickly. We can’t wait 5 days for a reply card to bring back a generic brochure. That’s why we’ve been using the Internet to source product information for years. The last time RIBA Insight carried out research into this area (2012) they found that 88% of specifiers use Google to research product information, and 83% go direct to product manufacturer’s websites.
Problems with sourcing Information online
If you’re one of those 83% who visit manufacturers websites, you’ll know how much of a challenge product companies find publishing on the Internet. Internet marketing for construction product companies is really in its infancy, with websites clearly not designed for the specifier.
The traditional way of marketing construction products is never to talk about other companies’ products, so we are unable to make genuine comparisons. There is frequently a focus on features rather than benefits, and technical information is often hard to come by. I have friends who have spent hours trying to get someone to send a standard detail when it could have been on the website 24/7, ready for them to download immediately.
Many manufacturers are reluctant to share their digital information, hiding it behind a pay wall that they expect us to pass by giving up email addresses. We don’t like giving our email addresses for product information unless there is a genuine benefit for us, because construction product companies are notorious for spamming us afterwards. So we make up fake email addresses, and curse the extra time it takes us to fill out forms.
So how can we find what we want? How do we know the information is up-to-date? And how can we do all this when we are in a hurry?
We need a Trusted Relationship and Efficient Conversations
There are two things that we, as specifiers, need from construction product companies. We need to find out information swiftly and efficiently, and we need to hang on to the useful people we come across in the process. Some of this is going to take product manufacturers quite a while to sort out for you, so please accept my apology on their behalf for the delay.
In the meantime, here are a few other things you can do to make the experience a little more pleasant.
When I worked in practice there was a chap who came into the office frequently called Richard Gay. To me he was just ‘the Insulation Man’ – I didn’t know he worked for SIG plc, one of the largest specialist product suppliers in Europe. The reason that the name of his employer didn’t matter to me, is that we, as specifiers, are interested in solutions, not products. Richard was hugely important in helping the practice solve technical insulation solutions, and he did it for free. So much so that all his introductions came by referral – his name was passed along from architectural assistant to technologist, practice to practice, because he was useful.
Now there are thousands of people like Richard Gay in construction product companies. We need to maintain valuable relationships with useful people like Richard Gay, and today as well as keeping his email address and phone number, we can connect with such useful people on LinkedIn.
LinkedIn is an online directory of people we know, which stays with us throughout our career; whether we move practice, change address or move into a different sector. Using LinkedIn we can also recommend useful people in public or in private by forwarding their profiles to our contacts, for example. We can keep in touch with the useful product rep even if he moves to another company, and he can keep in touch with us without having to interrupt our busy day.
But what if you don’t know someone useful who can help you with your complex cladding challenge or finding a responsibly sourced light fitting? Talking to manufacturers directly can be useful, but we need to find the right person with the right technical knowledge. We don’t want to end up hanging on the phone or giving our email address away to a load of useless contacts.
Some architects are using Twitter to ask specific questions from manufacturers and get introduced directly to the right person or the right information. One of these is Ming Cheng who works for Burrell Foley Fischer Architects in London. Like many architects of his generation, Ming frequently asks questions of product companies on Twitter – why? Because it’s easy, safe and doesn’t take him long. The question sits there in the air, sometimes for days, sometimes for a few minutes. Then someone replies, and their reply tells us all so much about the company he’s contacted.
Ming recently contacted two window manufacturers asking whether they had a double glazed window that would meet a certain U-value requirement. The well-known brand he contacted took until the next day to confirm they did not. The other brand replied within 5 minutes with a link to the information he needed and an email address for further queries.
Twitter is a great partner to Linkedin, because you can talk to anyone you like. It’s also so much better than trawling websites and hanging on the phone. It is swift, efficient, and you can control the conversation. Any sales talk and a click of a button blocks the bothersome user.
If you’re not already using LinkedIn and Twitter to find and build relationships with product companies, give it a go and let me know how you get on. Ask your colleagues too – you might find they already know this little secret.
And if you come across a construction product company and want to tell them what to do, feel free to point them in my direction. We’ll help them become more useful – after all, it is all they really want to do.