When people talk about how technology has disrupted industries, a few companies usually start the conversation. Recent history has crowned tech firms like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Tesla as the reigning champs of disruption. And then there’s Uber, the on-demand "sharing economy" driver service that has become the business model that launched a thousand copycat startups.
Most people in the building materials industry seem to think of technology, digital services, and mobile apps as more consumer-centric. They are not. Technology is here, it’s changing the way industries do business, and it's impacting all industries—including professionals in building materials and construction. In our industry, manufacturers and distributors and in many cases dealers are last to the party.
We routinely talk with hundreds of people in the building material industry about technology, and their responses are telling. The manufacturer’s typical response is “This industry is slow to change; our customers just aren’t adopting technology.” Distributors and dealers say, “We haven’t adopted it, as our customers don’t use technology.”
But when we talk with construction professionals each year (architects, builders, general contractors, specialty contractors, designers), their answers are much different. They say technology is growing tremendously in importance to their business success, but manufacturers and suppliers are way behind the curve, meaning they are forced to find their own way. The manufacturers and distributors are not listening, and are falling behind their customers and industry influencers.
According to Pew Research Center, 64% of American adults now own a smartphone. That's an increase from 35% in the spring of 2011. (Millennials are at 85%.) Our conversations reveal that construction professionals are utilizing smartphones and technology at an even higher rate. Just look at the 2,800-plus construction apps available in the Apple App Store alone. Millennials will drive technology momentum even further as they continue to enter the industry.
A recent panel discussion we were involved in provided a good representation of what we continue to hear from the market. On the panel were builders, remodeling companies, and lumberyard executives. Here is a summary of what they said when asked about their use of technology and its impact to their business:
- All own at least one smartphone and actively use it in their business.
- On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), the average on importance of the smartphone or digital tools on their business success was 7.5. Using digital tools with architects scored highest.
- All utilize at least one app to interact with products or manage their business.
- All utilize their phone onsite continuously to communicate to vendors, their team and clients—as well as find product information.
- All prefer researching new product ideas digitally, outside of their sales reps or even the manufacturer’s website (i.e., blogs, Houzz, Pinterest, and peer and influencer social media posts).
Most manufacturers believe they are the source of information in their product category, but according to this last bullet, you may not be. The use and ease of technology in our personal lives is transcending to new expectations in business. To address the rising demand for real-time engagement and instant gratification, building materials brands must look beyond the status quo of business as usual. This may seem scary for some in terms of who may get cut out of the process due to the “Uberfication” of building materials. In reality, it’s the late adopters, regardless of where they fall in the channel, who put themselves at risk by not evolving at the speed of modern business.
An easy way to understand how to meet your customer’s growing digital needs is to conduct a survey and ask 10 key questions about how your business can improve its digital tool set. SurveyMonkey provides an easy way to set up a survey to point your customer too, and for your to access the data. Questions should be specific to your business, but things like use of email, ecommerce, social media, and how customers like to track orders are all good places to start. Also consider building up your customer email list for ongoing communications. That also gives you a place to start with pushing out things like surveys.
Builders, contractors and architects are all highly mobile, and most are incorporating their smartphones and technology as part of their daily business. While traditional marketing and communications still have a place in this transition, the future clearly lies in making seamless digital experiences for all end users, whether they’re looking for taxi cabs or ordering vinyl siding.