I have always enjoyed the play, “Death of a Salesman”. Maybe it’s because I remember meeting the playwright Arthur Miller when he spoke at my high school on the subject of McCarthyism back in 1979. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for the cathartic effects of watching a drama about a life that remained stagnant while the rest of the world changed. As I reflect upon the gist of the play, however, it is amazing how pertinent the play’s theme is in today’s business climate.
Over the past 20 years, the role of the salesman has changed dramatically in all industries. In particular, I have noticed a major transformation in the construction industry where it is obvious that the sales role has been forever altered. In the past, sales personnel were the key communicators of new products, technologies, and processes. They were a critical factor in the success of any company. Unfortunately there has been a steady devolution occurring that is leaving the traditional salesman in the unemployment line.
The sales process has been a key element in the construction industry for decades. As manufacturers developed new products and technologies, they needed a means to communicate these developments to the marketplace. Sales departments educated architects on changes in the industry through sales calls, architectural presentations, and product binder updates. The floors of AIA and CSI shows teamed with architects and general contractors, hungry for information on product innovations. Magazines catering to the industry were in high demand because they featured projects incorporating new technologies. It was an exciting time to be on the front lines.
So let us take a good look at what has changed over the past ten years. The industry has consolidated through attrition and mergers and acquisitions. Sales departments have succumbed to the hatchet of cost control. Architectural offices have little interest in sales presentations unless they are connected to continued education credits. Trade show floors have turned into ghost towns. Magazines and industry publications are struggling to stay in business. Many people think these conditions are a temporary result of the anemic economy. I would submit that the changes affecting the sales process is due to something else entirely.
One trend that has contributed to the death of the salesman as we know it is the commoditization of construction products. Over the past couple decades most manufacturers have figured out how to copy virtually any product or technology in the construction industry to the point where there is little difference between the top competitors. Take a close look at windows, doors, flooring, lighting, finishes, hardware, and specialties and you will see only minor differences between the players. For example, the major window manufacturers use the same glass, wood, hardware, and weather stripping to fabricate their windows, resulting in a collection of me-too products. The result of commoditization has reduced the decision making process down to one of price and availability. The salesman is no longer needed to explain product differentiation.
The growth of the internet as a research tool has also had a profound effect upon the sales cycle. In the past, architects and general contractors relied upon salespeople to keep them informed about new products and developments in the industry. In our current cyber world they can now access updated product manuals on thousands of websites from all over the world. There is no sense in wasting time with a sales call when one can access current product data 24/7. It also doesn’t make sense to attempt to maintain a product library when this same information is available online in an updated form. Current versions of specifications can be accessed online in seconds from virtually any major manufacturer. You can even tap into online videos of product demonstrations via YouTube.
The Internet also provides valuable information from users of products by providing them with a vehicle for sharing their experiences. Social media sites like LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Facebook are good resources for opinions on the merits of different products. LinkedIn, in particular, provides an outstanding forum for professionals to share valuable information on experiences in the construction industry. In addition, you can search the Internet for blogs featuring opinions on thousands of topics related to the industry. Existing litigation against manufacturers is now public information that is readily available to anyone. Just type “class action lawsuit in the window industry” in a Google search to see what I mean. It’s obvious that the Internet has replaced the salesman as the primary resource for product information in the construction industry.
So what is a salesman to do in this new environment where what worked in the past is no longer valid? Should you just crawl into a hole and brush up your resume to prepare yourself for a future as a Wal-Mart greeter? I don’t think so. I believe that it is time to redefine the role of sales departments in the construction industry. You can no longer make a living carrying the product message of the manufacturer and reciting the features and benefits of a particular widget. You must now understand how your products relate to the entire industry and become more of a consultant than a peddler. It is essential to have a background in the industry so you can provide solutions instead of product literature. A firm grasp of the technical aspects of your product and your competitors’ products is essential. Nobody will give you the time of day unless you can add value by providing relevant applications that solve current challenges for the construction team.
The construction industry is moving forward. Are you going to act like Willy Loman and wait for the economic fog to clear, hoping that things will change back to the good old days? Or are you going to embrace the new world where the salesman does much more than just peddle products? The choice is yours to either adapt or to become fodder for another heartbreaking drama.