A Crash Course on Building Material Buyers: Webinar Transcript

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Susan: Epiphany is a marketing agency that is focused on helping building material and architectural product manufacturers grow sales. I’m going to give attendees just a few minutes to join, you can use the chat box if you’re having trouble hearing me but the sound should be good!

While we’re waiting, one of the keys to creating effective marketing, especially when you have a very diverse sales channel and of course limited resources, is identifying and connecting with the persona at every step. Not just those who are making a decision to choose a product or material but also those who are influencing the decision by either reinforcing it, challenging it, or changing it. During this webinar I’m going to show you an example of companies that I think are doing it well and use the home page of their website as a way to show how they are connecting with personas.

When we think about the buyer persona I like to put it into our “7 Steps to Specification”. The reason we start with specification is that usually a product or material has been specified by an architect or a designer but of course it’s influenced all the way down to the distributor, contractor and in some cases the homeowner.

A buyer’s persona is like a field guide to your typical customer. It helps define who they are, how they think, what they value, who influences their decision, and what stake they have in this type of sale. We want to identify their needs, wants, concerns, and the priorities of each of the targets. Everybody has a different agenda, especially when it comes to construction or renovation every persona has a different objective and goal. They each have different timelines. We want to understand what they’re trying to do.

Taking this approach is a very efficient way to grow sales; look at each persona and ask if we are we connecting with them in a relevant meaningful way? The reason I want to start today with architects and designers is because they spend 40% of each day sourcing and researching products and materials. This is where they are spending their time looking for what you have to offer. And, they’re doing it in complicated ways; from the types of searches they do to how their generation factors into it. We know that millenials, 38 and under, are starting online and then going in to the library to validate their searches and the opposite is true for those 39-40 and above. The way they look for products is changing, smart manufacturers must keep up.


The first persona that I want to talk about today is the architect. Their business still highly relies on word of mouth. The developers, the owners, they talk and share contacts. When you take a look at an architect’s website portfolio, what you are seeing is work that represents hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of hours. They need a client to be very happy with a project 10 years from now. For example,  if they’ve designed a health care facility and then they’re asked to answer an RFP for a new one, they want to be able to send a reference and they don’t want, when that reference reaches out, to find out the building had moisture issues, or that it cost an arm and a leg to heat and cool, or that the surfaces were peeling up, etc. So the architect is really afraid of failure. Since 2008 architects were basically doers, the visionary. But they’ve really changed to sellers and doers because they’re asked to grow accounts. As I talk about each of these personas try to identify what problems your personas have and how you can position your marketing to reach them.

To understand architects from a bird's-eye perspective there are 109,000 architects in the United States, one-in-three newly licensed is female, the average salary is $88,000 and this is key and I’m going to tell you why; they have five years of schooling and usually a three-year internship meaning they start as a professional at about 25 and it takes them until roughly 33 to receive their license.

Going back to the income level of an architect; of course that’s sliding. If they’re a star architect they’re making much more and they can make much less depending on the type of firm and their location in the country. The reason that’s relevant is let’s face it, your sales rep is making twice as much as they do. The contractor is probably making 3-4 times what they do, the developer - well who knows, they could be making 20 times that amount. What is it about architects that’s really important to them? How do they feel good about themselves? They feel good about themselves because they are the smartest people in the room. They can see things that you and I can’t. That is their point of pride. For architects, style matters. Style says everything. How you choose a product says everything about you. So if you want to change the mind of an architect to get them to select your product you need to speak their language. A lot of manufacturers we talk to say that’s fluff. That’s marketing. And it’s not. It’s about understanding what motivates your customers and learning how to communicate with them.

This is a site I really like a lot for an architect because it does several things very quickly. First off knowing our personas, architects, designers, owners, developers, facility managers, contractors, one thing that’s changed in their life is everything is measurable. Now restaurants in the New York Times reviews are rated on the food, the atmosphere, and the sound. Could you hear people speak at your table? So sound for spaces is measured. This site speaks the architects’ language; it’s beautiful, minimal, clear, precise and it also solves their problem: sustainable acoustic elements for healthy spaces. So the health of a building is no longer just about how much natural light it’s about sound, it’s about biophilic design, are we bringing nature inside, are the residents in the building productive, are they happy, are they healthy? This site speaks the visual language, it has a minimal design, it solves a problem, it’s measurable and it’s sustainable.

Interior Designers

Moving on to Lucy, our Interior Designer. While architects create the “Master Shell” of a building, the story of what goes on in the inside of that building is left in the hands of designers who bring the interior to life. That’s what a lot of people remember as the narrative of a property. For designers every single detail matters. Products are really looked at through a lens of will they make a visual statement balanced with will they withstand thousands of touches or years of wear and tear? Designers are really our extroverts so they’re more daring than the rest of the personas. They’re more willing to try new things and adapt more quickly than an architect will. Some of the stats for our trendsetters; there are 57 thousand in the US, 89% of them are women, $60,000 is their average salary. They are extroverts, they love peer reviews, you can call one that you’ve never met before and say “hey I understand you did this space how did that flooring hold up?” And they will tell you, they’re just fearless when it comes to selecting materials. Biophilic design is huge for them. It’s the new green; it literally means bringing the outside in. Designers and architects have a lot of guilt. If you go in their libraries or worse, in their sample libraries when they’re purging them you can just see how they fill up dumpsters with this stuff and AIA did an industry mandate that by 2030 all buildings will be net zero  and this is something architects and designers work at every day and have for some time, so those are things that are on Lucy’s radar.

Enter Material Bank; Material Bank solves a lot of problems for designers and architects. Again, designers are spending 40% of their days looking for materials and how they search is really different from how libraries are set up. They may be looking for green fabrics, wall coverings, flooring, they may be looking for wall coverings that absorb sound that are made of a certain amount of felt or wood or recycled materials, they could be looking for surfaces that reduce the spread of infection. In the past they would have to go to all these different websites and research and call the reps and get a sample and then boom, Material Bank comes out.

With Material Bank you can order any sample by midnight and you get everything curated in a beautiful Warbie Parker styled box delivered to your desk the next morning by 10 o’clock. It’s pretty impressive. Return and reuse is part of the experience;  it’s really easy to return samples, it alleviates so much guilt, it gets so much off the designers desk, really really solves their problems. 85% of the samples that are returned can be reused, not recycled, reused, so that’s huge. The 15% that might have a chip or a pen mark or something, those go in to traveling curated sample libraries that go to colleges that have an interior design program. So Material Bank has found a way to speak their language, save them time. It’s easy to use, trackable, makes returns fast and efficient, it really works for an interior designer.


Now the contractor, this is one of my favorite personas because I think it’s so interesting. A General Contractor (GC) either grows up in this as a family business or happens to be a tradesperson who becomes really really good at what they do and then they find they’re actually really good at running teams, and it eventually becomes a full time business. They are typically a person who is good at what they do and what they know. What they don’t know is business, (though in larger national construction companies there are M.B.A.’s), marketing, how to differentiate themselves, they’re facing a labor shortage and every time that you ask them to try a new product you're basically saying to them I want you to learn on the job at your own expense and I also need you to go back and make any kind of in-field repairs. So how can we position products and services to help this GC focus on what they do well and help them get ahead? Answer some of the problems of the labor shortage, help them market, and think, what can we do as a company?

I think this company Blue Ridge, has done a really good job. If you’re going to go to a GC and say we want to build a new multi-family unit and I’m going to get three bids because this is what we all do, we all get three bids, so contractor A comes back and they have a price, B comes back with a price, C comes back and says, “Hey this is multi-family so you’re going to have reviews on Facebook and other social media, you want to have tenant retention. I’m going to deliver a building that’s going to be quieter than the rest so you can have the best reviews and fewer flips as possible” Now all of a sudden Contractor C really seems different. So what about your product can help a contractor solve a problem or differentiate. I love this site because it’s educational, it really gives them differentiation, and there are 3 calls to action. This is important because contractors like the rest of us the age and the level of digital sophistication is changing, this customer is changing. So some of them want to locate a dealer, some of them want to learn more, especially those stealth millenials who want to learn more before picking up the phone and talking to anybody.


Here of course is the contractor’s customer, and that is the developer. I think the interesting thing about a developer is how they really are formulaic. This is a high risk profession, and success is not an accident to them. It has nothing to do with luck, they have a formula for success. They plan to minimize risk at every moment, they’re balancing the needs and reality of the GC’s, the timing of the project managers, and then the design intent from the design team. They pay for the designs and they want them to get it right. If they’re in health care they want to be able to develop a medical park that’s going to work and they want things to be measured and this cannot be an accident, with the developers it’s really about: how can you help them be more successful while minimizing risk?

Anyone who can speak their language about creating value, flexible manufacturing, efficient installation, these are all things that speak to them. So maybe no, I wasn’t interested in solar before because it sounded hard, it sounded like something I couldn’t do, but this company has found a way to walk a developer through so that it seems like a no brainer. It’s forward thinking, relevant, and efficient. Not just the messaging but they way the messaging is conveyed. In all of these personas that is a balancing act between the verbal and the visual and in an area I haven’t covered today in the types of materials, so brochure, samples, and trade shows.


The distributor is  interesting to me because distributors and GC’s have a lot in common. Traditionally we see that a lot are family-run businesses whether it’s multi-generational, siblings, or cousins. Try to put yourself in their shoes—when you look around at a holiday meal and the success of everyone you love in that room depends on whether you do well or not. Traditionally, distributors have not been marketers and they haven’t been susceptible to changes in the digital world we live in, but that has all come to an end. They’re very vulnerable to things like Amazon coming in and drop shipping to the job site. We did a focus group with some installers and they didn’t understand why they could not put an order in to their distributor by 10 the night before, receive a code to a pod, send a crew at 5 AM to pick up the materials. Amazon set the standard with it’s pick up lockers. When thinking about distributors, is there a way that your company can help them grow their business and help them serve their customers in a better way? The interesting thing to me about distributors is they always claim that there’s not a lot of loyalty from their customers and then we hear from manufacturers the same thing about them.

Glitsa is a company that made a decision to only partner with one distributor in every one of their geographic regions. The reason they made this decision is because installers have a very cult-like obsession with this product, they are the original “Swedish Finish” and true installers, real craftsman who understand how to put a finish on a floor are just in love with Glitsa. By aligning with key distributors, Glitsa is funneling customers to one single location. Glitsa also did another smart thing, they took a look and said who are additional personas that are coming to our site that need support, and one of them was the homeowner. They understand that homeowners now do research in ways that they never did before and the site needed to be beautiful, aspirational, and really fit the homeowner. This site sells distributors, it forms key relationships, it sells installers, and it’s homeowner friendly.

Facility Owners/Managers

The facilities manager or the owner is really the person who bears the brunt of  the specification decisions. They’re responsible for every single element in a building from maintenance and lawn care to HVAC and new carpet for the lobby. They are professional problem solvers and when a product fails they are the ones who have to deal with it. How can you position your company to be of help to this person? Whether it’s educating them about what the competitor’s product may not do, and that may be an assumption, to directly solving their problems.

Stark Systems is a product that will eliminate the disruption of renovation. Every hospital, corporate office or hotel is going to have a renovation at some point and this makes it super easy for the facilities manager to handle. The communication itself is clean, it leads with the benefits, there are four calls to action, and it really solves the problem very quickly and very clearly. So, if Stark is solely focused on selling to facilities managers, this messaging resonates.

Purchasing Agents

The purchasing agent is another persona that we don’t really hear a lot about. They are tasked with delivering the design intent within a budget. They are out there tracking every little item and a lot of times if a product is a pain for them to purchase, if it’s not clear what all the specifications are, if it requires special timing, if it’s difficult; they don’t want to do it. That’s where we find they will go in and replace or equal items. If the product is going to come from China that’s a red flag to a Purchasing agent due to the shipping times. If the product arrives damaged and it needs to be replaced, it cannot hold up the opening of a senior living facility. They have to have everything right there, on time, and correct. If something seems like a pain they will throw it out and either say A. I don’t want to buy those things let the owner do it or B. I will get you that but I will get it from a company that I know and trust rather than who you wrote the specification for.

Clippings is a UK company (and they will be in the US, or a company like it will be) and I love this because architects and designers always want to add drama with a one-off or huge installation in the lobby or certain type of lighting in different areas of a property and that can translate to be a purchasing agent’s nightmare. Clippings is a system where designers can go online, select items across a multitude of companies, even custom items requiring multiple touches, and they can put together an order, send the link to the purchasing agent. The purchasing agent has access to a  beautiful dashboard that shows where every product is in the stage of development, it verifies the specifications, and now all these one-offs have become something really easy for a purchasing agent to manage. It’s forward thinking, it’s efficient, it solves problems, it’s clean and clear, it makes their life so much easier.

Sales Reps

The sales rep is who I think of as the most often overlooked persona in the sales journey. People think, “we hired them, why do we have to advertise to them? Why do we have to market to them?” It’s important to  have an understanding of who sales reps are so you can get the most from them. A lot of the time manufacturers enter into this industry without fully understanding how long sales take—from the specification to the installation—and how to support them. If you have a multi-line sales rep, you’ve got to make it so easy for them to make a sale so that when they get that one lunch and learn, they’re going to show your line above the others. In order to do that, know who they are selling to and what everyone’s challenges are.

Zandur sells all different types of flooring and it’s site is set up perfectly for Millennials who are conducting very specific searches: “best flooring for health care, ice rinks, spas”. When they type long tail key phrases into Google, they might find the answer here. It’s very clear and easy to use this site, specifiers can select colors and request a sample. By the time they reach out to a sales rep, (remembering that this will be done once a specifier is 90% sure they want to specify it) they have a lot of the key information that they need. Once that happens, the sales reps can start the actual selling—they can start talking about custom, about lead times, all that sort of thing. The realities of the sale. This  is a website that’s really helping the sales rep sell. It’s smart navigation, it’s targeted, it’s easy, and it really understands the sales reps’ customers. We’ve interviewed a bunch of sales reps, (all of the personas come from actual interviews) and they say that sometimes the last place they ever want to send their customers to is the website because it’s confusing; they don’t know if it’s residential or commercial, it’s hard to find the spec sheets, nobody knows how to get a sample, etc. It’s important that as you create or tweak your website that it makes it easier not harder for your sales rep to deliver.

Home Buyers

Now of course last but not least is the homeowner. What’s interesting about today’s homeowner is that because of the internet they can find anything. We find home owners weighing in on the decision of which material will be used for a vapor barrier or for insulation. These used to be decisions that typically were left to the contractor.  Home owners are concerned about the health of their family from off-gassing products, they want to be smart and sustainable and have a home that is not only beautiful but well made, and healthy. Gone are the days where we can just give the homeowner a swatch book and say “pick one.”When we typically think about a homeowner looking to replace a roof we don’t think about solar as being one of the options, but there it is. When you think about the way these homeowners are going to be searching ,Tesla has shown that they understand how to talk to homeowners because this looks more like a magazine spread than like a technical piece on a solar roof or panel. That really speaks their language, it’s easy for them to understand it’s forward thinking, it’s smart, and it’s sustainable.


In summary it’s really important to know your personas and what makes them tick. From the architect to even the person who stocks the shelves at Lowe’s. Know who you are trying to reach and what matters to them. The more you can tailor your messaging to them, the better. The digital world makes it very easy to create highly targeted messaging. If you understand your personas, you can translate your messaging to be highly impactful at a trade show, website, brochure and every point of communication. II hope we’re no longer printing massive coffee table books and catalogues that can’t be updated easily, instead, look for small nimble pieces of communication that we can really make personal to each of the personas.

My challenge is for you to audit your current marketing and look and see what messaging is missing and, what tactics are missing?

I don’t think we have any questions, so thank you for your time today!


A Virtual Lunch and Learn:



Susan Milne

If you have a question that hasn’t been answered or would like to find out more about how Epiphany can help get you specified, give me a call: 803.377.0106