Team Work: Shelly Enterprises sales rep T.C. Feick (left) and architect Bob Nase have developed a working relationship over the years that has benefi ted both.
Colin Lenton Team Work: Shelly Enterprises sales rep T.C. Feick (left) and architect Bob Nase have developed a working relationship over the years that has benefi ted both.

Nearly 50 years ago, playwright Neil Simon premiered The Odd Couple, his famous oil-and-water pairing of what happens when a slovenly sportswriter and a fastidious photographer become roommates. Oscar and Felix at first let their perceptions of one another rattle and nearly destroy their relationship, but by show’s end each began to see the good that comes from being together. Today, dealers and architects are becoming the Odd Couple of LBM. Don’t let the widespread perception that many dealers have of architects as snooty keep you from mining this valuable market segment.

The attraction certainly is growing. A recent ProSales survey found 60% of the dealers polled say they currently reach out to architects, and while 30% have increased their outreach since 2010, roughly 60% plan to deal more with architects by the end of 2013. Why? Of those pursuing a dealer-architect relationship, more than 71% believe architects are a good source of leads for future projects, 59% say soliciting architects can help them land big-dollar home projects, and 55% believe architects have a bigger influence on the products that get specified in a home project than do builders and their subs.

But while there seems to be plenty of acknowledgment that architects can be useful partners with dealers, the reality is that dealers still hesitate to fully engage this market segment. Only half the dealers in the ProSales survey say their staffers currently solicit architects on a regular basis. Interviews suggest widespread fears of being looked down on or treated dismissively are part of the reason.

“Generally speaking, I would say the majority [of architects] are snooty,” says Geoff Brock, an outside sales rep for Mariotti Building Products in Old Forge, Pa. “You need them, but they can be the biggest thorn in your flesh. You sometimes back up and scratch your head, and [ask yourself], ‘Why do I continue to do this?’”

Brock answers his own question. “Because 80% of the products that go into a house are specified by the architect. Some are dead set in their ways and product alignment, they know what they know, even if you have something better or different, or because it means learning something new. But they are a vital part of the industry.”

Bill Hayward, CEO of Hayward Lumber in Monterey, Calif., wouldn’t dream of leaving this market segment untapped. He estimates architects figured in 5% to 10% of the $62.9 million in revenue that Hayward Lumber took in last year.

He plans to increase his outreach to architects in 2013 by training more salespeople to do presentations. “It’s important to know what their issues are, so you become useful to them, and not just be a knowledge spouter,” Hayward says. “Every architect has a different set of needs. There are value engineering problems, energy efficiency problems, and design problems, so know what they need and send the right person.”

Many architects already have discovered that dealers can help answer those needs. Just over 26% of the dealers answering the ProSales survey say architects contact their company several times a month, and another 14% say they get calls several times each week.

“Any architect who thinks he has it all together is kidding himself,” says Bob Nase, principal of Robert M.M. Nase Architects of Harleysville, Pa. “You need to build relationships with top players in the industry from top to bottom.

“Real help is hard to find,” Nase adds. “If there is an offering of key information that will benefit my clients, I’m on it. We stress the importance of finding experienced members of our team.”

“Their industry took a big haircut, and they are appreciative of any help they can get,” says Don Rowe, vice president of sales and marketing for Millard Lumber in Omaha, Neb. “They don’t have the staff to do research, and they rely on us. It’s refreshing.”

Take ‘em to School

Like many dealers, Mariotti Building Products goes beyond answering questions by offering classes with continuing education credits for architects once per quarter.

TW Perry of Gaithersburg, Md., has been reaching out to architects for the past seven or eight years, more intensively in the past couple of years. The dealer built an extensive database of working architects in its region pretty quickly by getting its salespeople to collect the names of architects that came attached to each project they quoted. Lou Skojec, sales manager of the company’s branch in Chevy Chase, Md., says classes have proven a good way in.

“Some architects were more responsive than others,” says Skojec. “Some said, “I don’t want to talk to you unless you are offering [continuing education] credits.’ Offering the credits is a definite entry point; it helps you build the relationship, since continuing education is such a big part of their professional life.

“I definitely think this is a segment that dealers should investigate; otherwise you are missing the boat,” he adds. “When I started in this business in 1980, architects were just annoying guys; now it’s a group you definitely want on your team.”

Product knowledge is one of a dealer’s most valuable commodities when dealing with architects, and Jason Hanna, who works exclusively marketing to architects and custom builders for Ballston Spa, N.Y.-based Curtis Lumber, says: “Education is the most effective way to get your product out there.”

Adds Paul Aggeler, president and CEO of John’s Lumber in Clinton Township, Mich.: “We can bring architects knowledge about products that they might not know exists, like PVC trimboard. We want them to start coming to us for info. They can’t get that from a big-box sales assistant.”

For a while, Hanna drove around with a chunk of steel in his car—“it was a new steel beam that replaces wooden headers,” he recalls—and told all his architects about it. Sometimes building science issues will come up, and updating literature from vendors will give Hanna an opportunity to make his milk run.

There are other times when architects might be looking for something other than information. On occasion, an architect has asked Mariotti rep Brock for price concessions or worse.

“[It was] like, ‘I’ll spec your windows, but I need a year-end kickback,’ or, ‘I brought this job to you and I want a finder’s fee,’” he recalls. “I dissolved my relationship with architects over that. I don’t agree with that mode of business. If the only reason you’re buying from me is I give you a kickback, you’ll be gone if someone else sweetens the pot, so why would I even go down that path?”

Nonetheless, Brock says Mariotti has plans to move forward in working with this segment. “There is definitely validity to having the conversation, because they are doing the drawings. We just have to figure out the possible return on investment.”