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The Smarter Building Materials Marketing podcast helps industry professionals find better ways to grow leads, sales and outperform the competition. It’s designed to give insight on how to create a results-driven digital marketing strategy for companies of any size.
In this episode, Zach and Beth talk to Michael Sather, Director of New Market Development at Solatube, about how manufacturers sales teams and distributors create fervent demand for their product with architects.
A Bright Idea For a Product
In this day and age of LEED and WELL building standards, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that daylight in the workplace can enhance productivity, increase employee morale and mental health, and improve staff retention. But with so many of us working in older buildings where daylighting wasn’t a priority in the design, how do you bring the sun in?
Based in Vista, California, Solatube isn’t just the name of a company, it’s also the name of their product. Serving the residential and commercial markets, Solatubes can be incorporated into new designs, as well as retrofits, and can literally bring sunlight down several stories to help illuminate warehouses, office towers and schools.
‘You not only brightened my kitchen, you brightened my whole life.’
The impacts of daylighting are immediate and very tangible. Michael tells a story about an early client who sent him a note he keeps on his wall to this day. “I got a postcard from a woman; we'd put a unit in her kitchen. She was in Idaho and the postcard said, ‘You not only brightened my kitchen, you brightened my whole life.’”
Solatube’s products are so powerful they can replace electric lighting in many spaces and for long parts of the day. Michael describes installing Solatube in a call center as life-changing for its employees.
“They said, ‘We used to be really depressed going into the office and be stuck inside all day, but now we don't feel like that. It's nice and open. It's very calm and relaxing.’ Daylight makes everything look brighter and cleaner, and generally, puts people in a better mood.”
Getting in Front of Key Architect Prospects
These days, Michael works primarily on the commercial side of Solatube’s business. They go to market through a network of commercial distributors that they contract with their specialty architectural product representatives.
“Marketing to architects has always been a primary focus for us. We have a specification-grade product really focusing on helping the architects with their design. We can assist with layouts, and work with the architect as a consultant to show them exactly what we would recommend in terms of product and spacing.”
And while the whole Solatube team is very passionate about the products they make and sell, Micahel finds going for the softer approach with architects tends to work better, rather than burying them in all the benefits Solatube can offer to a project.
“Having respect for architects' time is probably one of the most important things I've learned over the years. These guys work on billable hours; they're getting bombarded all day with messages. So we really try to keep the messaging in terms of blast emails and stuff to a bare minimum. We don't do a ton of advertising.”
Make an Architect’s Sales Pitch Easier
One of Solatube’s unique value propositions is its proprietary software that calculates how much sunlight Solatube products will be able to bring into a space.
Beth wants to know more: “How are you guys tracking sunlight exposure, sun angle, where the sun's going to be in respect to where the building is going to be built and all of the different pieces. Can you talk through a little bit more of what that process looks like and then how you transfer that information to the architect?”
Michael says, “We actually have created a system using relative photometry. So it uses a file that shows how the light comes through the Solatube, how it's distributed into the space. And then we select a weather data site. So it pairs it with historical weather data. It looks at weather data over the last 20 years.”
Not only does using two decades of weather data mean Solatube can stand by its product’s claims, they can also be confident as they adjust the models for different configurations. “Let's say we have a 30-foot tube length with two 90 degree turns; we can actually factor that into the file. We can model it for clear sky days, for a cloudy day, for actual weather.”
Making an architect's job easier is probably one of the best sales pitches there is.
Having this level of information is not only a great way to sell the product to architects, it also helps those same architects sell it to their clients. The projections on available hours of sunlight can be used by building owners looking for supporting documentation for LEED accreditation or to get tenant buy-in for a retrofit.
Making an architect's job easier, and making them look good in the process, is probably one of the best sales pitches there is.
Zach says, “So many manufacturers sell on the longevity of a product and how long this product will last or the durability. You're actually framing that in the context of a story and using technology to articulate that in a way that's very, very compelling.”
Help Bring Architectural Vision to Life
Beth takes it one step further and wants to consider who Solatube will bring an architect’s vision to life: “Architects care so much about how their space is going to be utilized and how it will feel. You're giving them tangible scientific evidence of how this product is going to improve their experience of being in this space. I don't think even the products that can quantify it have gone to the effort that Solatube has.”
One of Solatube’s best selling features is how great interiors look in natural light, compared to incandescent or fluorescent bulbs. Interior designers love to incorporate daylight into designs to really make colors pop and come together the way they envisioned it in the design studio.
Michael also sees architects who love Solatube because of the room it gives for creativity in even mundane projects. “Every architect goes to school thinking and they're going to be Frank Lloyd Wright or I. M. Pei, but a lot of them end up designing strip malls and concrete tilt-up buildings. Then how do you do something creative? Even in those spaces, they can still be the hero.”
In fact, Michael has been keeping a photo database of projects that use Solatube for the last 20 years. If an architect can dream it, Michael probably has a picture of an architect who already successfully did it. This proof is a great way to build confidence that the vision will work, in any building and Solatube configuration.
Try Once, Buy Forever
When it comes to convincing architects to try Solatube, Michael’s team and their distributor network uses a mix of tried and true approaches, like AIA-accredited lunch workshops that give them a chance to show off their products while allowing architects to get their necessary continuing education credits, along with a few more unconventional methods, like giving away their products for free.
"Once a customer sees it, they're going to want to do it on a larger scale.”
Michael says, “One of the really unique things we do is we offer our distributors what we call a seed program. So we give them a bank of Solatube products every year that they're able to use at their discretion. Because we know once a customer sees it, they're going to want to do it on a larger scale.”
Distributors will offer these “seed” products to architects so they can daylight a single classroom as part of a larger renovation and retrofit. Or they’ll give them to pro bono projects like animal shelters and food banks, not just as a sales tactic, but also as a means of giving back to the community.
This seed approach is, according to Michael, almost always successful. “If we can help bring sunshine into somebody's lives, word gets around. People do appreciate that and it definitely comes back to you in the long run.”
Zach sees how this approach not only sells the product but helps architects sell more work, too. “A school district is going to say, ‘We love this in this one classroom. Can you not only do it in the entire building but can you do it for all of our other buildings?’ It's essentially more work for the architect. They're landing more work from it, and it's free at the outset.”
Whatever You’re Selling, Do It Passionately
It’s easy to see that Michael and the rest of the Solatube team has a product that they truly believe in and love to show off. One of their most creative sales strategies is an annual “block party” at their office and factory in Vista. Over 700 friends, family, architects, designers, contractors and employees attend and can tour the facility to see Solatube in action.
This leads Michael to his best piece of advice for anyone trying to raise the profile of their product, get in front of a new customer demographic or break into new markets.
“We have a very contagious passion for what we do. It infects our partners that we work with and our distributors out in the field. They become part of the Solatube team. They become these evangelists out there that can help spread that passion. And it's really something that spreads pretty quickly once people actually get to see the product and experience it firsthand.”
We talk a lot about authenticity on this show, and Michael agrees.
“If you don't have passion for what you're selling, find something else. That is the most important thing I would say. People see right through it. You can know your product; you can know the technical side of it. You can know the right things to say, but people can feel passion. It's unspoken, but it's probably the most important thing I think a salesperson has.”
Got a Question?
If you have questions about how to win new architect customers, let us know! Shoot us an email at [email protected] with all of your questions.