Representatives from 27 custom builders were among more than 400 people who gathered inside Raleigh, N.C.'s Convention Center a few months ago. They were looking for something that meeting organizers said they weren't getting enough of: information about new products.
Custom Builders USA, a Washington-based buying group for 400-plus builders in 14 cities, put on eight of these "Product Day" events in 2008. COO Brian Pavlik says his members demand them because "they aren't getting enough exposure to new products, and they don't have the time to schedule 30 appointments. We're trying to create efficiency."
Alan Lev feels the same about a certain line of bath products. "I've tried to get information by calling the company and telling them I'm interested in something I've identified [on my own], but they don't call back," says Lev, president of Belgravia Group, a Chicago-based condominium and townhouse developer.
From coast to coast, ProSales heard the same desire by builders to learn about products. And from dealers, it heard a similarly strong message: Pro dealers who alert their customers about new products and can show how to install them have a competitive edge. That's especially true in today's woeful economy, when builders want products that offer value, simplicity, and lower prices.
This doesn't mean that all a dealer needs to do to make a sale is wave a new product under a builder's nose. Few builders are eager to take on anything their peers haven't certified already. And some builders remain skeptical about recommendations from dealers. "They're always hawking new stuff," says Bill Slease, who owns Tapestry Custom Homes in McKinley, Texas.
But even the skeptical can be won over with well-informed, committed arguments. Slease admits he is considering a new spray-foam product that a handful of manufacturers and local distributors have championed.
"It is our responsibility to bring solutions and options to our customers," says Timothy Leahy, sales manager for BMC West's yard on Denver's Front Range. "But we need to listen and ask many questions, and not just shotgun products."
Knowledge Is Power
Dealers say they have a better chance of convincing builders and contractors to take on new or alternate products when they can demonstrate how a product saves time and money, or can help a pro expand his customer base. The most effective, credible way to do this, say dealers, is to work with manufacturers and their reps to provide training to their outside salespeople and product knowledge seminars to their patrons.
For example, ABC Supply's 71-branch Northeast region conducts "Tuesday tutorials" for its salespeople. It brings in manufacturers for eight weeks of product training, says Tom Kuchan, the region's vice president. The more progressive dealers and distributors even test products themselves, so they can pitch them with greater confidence and authority.
Selling new products is a process that only occasionally begins with a conversation between a dealer's salesperson and a contractor or builder, whose initial interest is likely to have been piqued by other sources.
Magleby Cos., a high-end custom builder in Pleasant Grove, Utah, builds eight to 10 homes per year with an average selling price of $2.5 million. It started using a synthetic underlayment for metal and cedar roofs, supplied by Germany-based Cosella-Dorken, about six months after Chad Magleby, this builder's owner, spotted the product at the International Builders Show in January 2007. "If we're not changing, we're going to be obsolete," he says.
A 2008 survey by ProSales' parent, Hanley Wood LLC, of nearly 1,200 builders, dealers, remodelers, and architects found that about three-quarters of those who had attended a trade show in the previous 12 months followed up with a dealer or manufacturer's rep about a product. Dealers need to be ready to respond when a show or conference creates buzz about certain building materials.
Last year, Fi-Fold Co., a Florida-based supplier of radiant insulation, launched a new product at IBS that was written up in a magazine for specialty installers. The article showed up on Google, "and the hits we got off of that were tremendous," says Robert Swanson, Fi-Fold president and CEO.
Like many industry officials, Swanson says he learns about new things first from trade magazines. But older media like magazines and TV are yielding to the Internet, and even a tech-challenged industry like housing is searching for new ideas online. Nearly half of the respondents to Hanley Wood's survey use search engines daily, mainly to reach suppliers' sites.
"I believe most of my customers get their info through the Internet," says Melody Tennefoss, a window and door specialist for 25 years who now sells for BMC Millwork in Vancouver, Wash. "Once they see something online or through a salesperson, they are extremely receptive to new products and construction methods."
Regardless of the initial source, in terms of customer education and service, dealers and distributors should be ready to step in. Conveying data online may offer limitless possibilities, but "I have never seen passion built into that sales tool," says Robert Sargent, sales and marketing manager for Mead, Neb.?based Advanced Building & Components, a prefab wall supplier.