As hardwood continues to gain in popularity in commercial interior design trends, manufacturers and distributors are looking for ways to tap into this new market segment. Diversifying your business is a great way to increase volume, but reaching the architecture and design (A&D) community isn’t as easy as just showing up with your residential samples and literature.

The world of commercial design is its own separate community, complete with its own vernacular and personality. To sell to A&D professionals, you must learn the language and the culture, as outsiders are easily spotted and, quite often, summarily rejected.

It’s common knowledge that the first rule of selling is to understand your customer. Commercial designers and architects are professionals who have, at a minimum, an undergraduate degree in their field. To call a designer a “decorator” will quickly get you tossed out of the office. As a professional, they work on billable hours, so their time literally is money. And most are stretched incredibly thin, as the skeleton crew that survived the recession is now experiencing a pickup in business.

A&D firms don’t have time to chitchat with you when you make a sales call and, in my experience, do not appreciate reps who think they can just “drop in” and expect to get face time.

Instead of simply requesting a basic appointment with designers and architects, create opportunities that offer value to them. Many firms have one day a week set aside for “lunch and learns,” during which reps present the latest and greatest products while the office enjoys a delicious lunch supplied by the salesperson.

 Other great ways to entice participation is to conduct a CEU presentation that designers and architects can use toward their continuing education requirements. Courses must be developed and approved by industry organizations such as AIA or ASID. If you do not have an approved CEU course, schedule wine and cheese drop-ins at the firm, or plan fun offsite activities that appeal to the group. The more creative, the more likely people you will get to attend.

Once you’ve secured the appointment, keep the following in mind to ensure you get the most out of your time.

Designers love design the most. The projects they work on are a reflection of their personal aesthetic; therefore, if the product is not pretty, it doesn’t matter how much manufacturing- and industry-speak you throw at them.

Focus on what visual attributes make the products unique, and be sure to bring samples large enough for them to touch and feel. Know how to describe the product with design-industry terms, e.g. monolithic, textural, high variation, tonal, etc.

Keep in mind that designers and architects are “jacks of all trades” when it comes to designing, and hardwood represents a very small portion of what they specify. Many of them only have experience with wood when buying for their homes, so the more you can educate them and be a resource for them to lean on, the more value you will have.

Don’t assume designers and architects are familiar with manufacturing terms that are common knowledge among dealers; most people outside of the manufacturing industry do not understand the difference between solid and engineered constructions, or sawn face and rotary-peeled veneer. Focus on what is relevant to the performance and what makes one product more appropriate for an application than another.

Be prepared to back up any claims you make about sustainability, performance and testing, and raw material content, because the A&D community is liable to their customer. It’s often not enough to just print such claims in your marketing material; White Papers and third-party certification provide credibility.

Designers are very interested in sustainability and design, but they are less concerned with pricing than you might expect. They work in terms of an installed material budget, and until the project goes out to bid, an exact price isn’t really needed. Providing budget numbers spanning across a few dollars a square foot will suffice in the beginning, but expect the project to go through a final value engineering or “VE” process, during which you’ll either need to reduce the price to the new lower budget or find a close, comparable alternative.

Finally, know that the commercial selling cycle is completely different than with residential. The work you do today might not turn into a purchase order for 12 months or more, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need the sample of your hardwood tomorrow. Almost every swatch requested for a project will be needed “yesterday.”  And if you don’t overnight on your UPS number for free, your product won’t make it on the finish board (what designers prepare for their client meetings to show every design element or “finish” in the project).

If they can’t sell you to the client in the presentation tomorrow, you won’t get an order next year.

Diversifying into the commercial marketplace by targeting A&D can increase your business, but only if done correctly and with the awareness that the effort you put forth today might take months to generate purchase orders.

Understanding the role of commercial specifiers and acting as a resource is the best way to reach this community. Keep it fresh, fun, and focused on the designer, and you will take the “hard” out of commercial hardwood