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Advice for Product Representatives: Calling on Design Firms

Feb 2014


As a consultant to the VI, I have worked with many building product manufacturers over the years.  One thing we have learned is that the way building product representatives manage their sales territories can have a big impact on productivity and success rate in getting specifications.  Here are a few suggestions I have found helpful.


First, prioritize the firms you call on and group them into categories.  Think of them as ‘A’ firms, ‘B’ firms and ‘C’ firms.  Cutoffs for each category are somewhat arbitrary but here is one way that works well.  The ‘A’ firms are typically the bigger, more productive firms in the area, the ones that get lots of work and welcome you in the door.  In general, plan to contact them at least once a month.  After a short time you will know the key, influential people in the firm and you’ll want to be available to them when needed.

The ‘B’ firms are the next tier offices.  They may not be as large or as busy as the ‘A’ firms and they may not favor you with their specification quite as often.  Plan to call on them about 2-4 times a year; more often if they need to see you and if you are getting results by working with them.

The ‘C’ firms are the least impactful of the firms you’ll want to stay in contact with. They may also be the firms that, regardless of your best efforts, won’t give you a specification or when they do, have no willingness to enforce it.  Think of them as the “or equal” firms.  Your time is probably better spent elsewhere, so the ‘C’ firms might only get to see you once a year when you come in to update samples, or product information resources.

Always go in prepared to make an educational presentation even if it’s just a short one.  Impromptu situations may arise where that is the most appropriate thing to do. One approach I have found helpful is to call on specific projects whenever possible.  The reason for this is billable hours.  If the design professional can spend time talking with you about a specific project, that time can be billed to their client.  Time not billed to a client simply becomes overhead.

I also recommend that product manufacturers join The Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) and the local CSI chapter.  You will meet many local practitioners quickly and will soon be calling on friends.  Chapter involvement also presents opportunities to sponsor meetings, meals, outings, product table-top nights and other high visibility activities.  Don’t hesitate to offer plant tours if you have one in the area.  This is a great way to educate specifiers and to build the company’s reputation as a trusted local resource.

Do's and Don't's

Putting on a presentation to an office full of busy design professionals doesn’t come naturally to many people, regardless of their level of experience.  Here are a few guidelines I have found helpful.

Practice!  It’s important to be credible and professional. Architects are used to hearing some of the best (and unfortunately, the worst) presenters in the industry.  Be early, know the names and functional positions of those who will attend, and be able to articulate issues that are likely to come up.

Set up and check out any equipment you will be using including notebook computers, projectors and room lighting, well in advance.  If the presentation includes providing lunch, investigate ahead of time.  There is probably someone in the firm assigned to coordinate educational presentations and they will be able to offer advice about local restaurants, sandwich shops or caterers who can provide the kinds of food popular with the firm.

Be sensitive to diets.  For example, not everyone will eat meat.  Packaging of food items can be an issue for some firms who may like to see all recyclable packaging.  As we often say, educate your guests and don’t try to ‘sell’ them.  In the presentation, establish the value of your product to the design firm and to its clients. The only reason your product means something to the designer is that it solves a design problem. Be careful with humor.  Off color jokes, religious humor and politics can offend.

Always be sensitive to the firm’s schedule.  Do your best to stick to the clock, starting and stopping on time.  Advise the audience on how and where to use the product but don’t forget to tell them where NOT to use it, too.  That can establish credibility right from the start.  Finally, offer to stay after the presentation.  At that point, you can look at specific project details and get into the proprietary aspects of the product.