One of my most vivid impressions of architects comes from a cocktail party in San Francisco several years back. I was writing the news for a hospital association that was hosting a conference on designing health care facilities, and during one soiree I remarked to a trio of architects that I couldn’t understand why Frank Lloyd Wright received so much praise for Fallingwater—one of the most famous houses of the 20th century—when his design pretty much guaranteed it would collapse.
You don’t understand, the architects replied; it wasn’t Frank Lloyd Wright’s job to create something that could stand up in real life. That’s the engineer’s job.
Those architects struck me as not only buying into Wright’s design vision but also his advice to “Take care of the luxuries, and the essentials will take care of themselves.” Fallingwater is a gorgeous house, but were it not for somebody else taking care of the essentials—in this case, figuring out how to shore up Fallingwater’s stress points—the house would have crashed to the ground by now. And from what dealers tell us, architects still rely on building material providers to keep an eye on engineering and codes so the architects can focus their energies on form, function, and fame. Our survey in August found that 40% of the responding dealers got calls from architects at least several times a month, and 14% heard from architects several times a week.
In my six years as editor of ProSales, I can’t recall us ever describing a customer group as “snooty,” “a thorn in your flesh,” and “annoying,” but that’s how you characterized architects—at least when you dealt with them in the past. Today, while the housing crash has humbled some architects, a significant number of dealers still regard them with suspicion. But those who have taken the trouble to connect say courting architects can get your products sold. Think of them as a difficult partner.
In fact, pairing our cover story on architects with one on selling to the government—an equally frustrating clientele, but for far different reasons—raises a key point to keep in mind as you plot future strategy: Building a diversified customer base will give you your best odds for long-term success. Yes, that means you must reach out to some types that are harder to win and less fun to sell to. Architects and bureaucrats are two of them. But ultimately, the dollars they bring are just as green as a builder’s.
One reason why dealers liked the last housing boom so much was because so many sales involved their favorite customer and home type: small builders constructing single-family trade-ups. But the coming rebound won’t be like that; changes in the age and backgrounds of potential home buyers make the old, easy sales to favorite customers less likely. Your future success may well depend on your ability to reach out and sell to customers who will test your patience.