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How To Improve Building Materials Sales to Commercial Architects

Want a pipeline that fills itself? This week, we talked with an expert in business development on how manufacturers create a pipeline that's constantly full with commercial architects, without actually having to generate a lot of outbound activity.

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Photo of Beth PopNikolov
by Zach Williams and Beth PopNikolov

More About This Episode

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 insights on how to create a results-driven digital marketing strategy for companies of any size.

Caitlin Mulligan is the Director of Business Development at SCI Lighting Solutions and works with high-end architects and designers in the commercial space. We picked her brain about how to keep architects and designers interested in your product and engaged with your brand.

Being a Reliable Resource in the Industry

Caitlin Mulligan has been on the business development and specifications side of the lighting industry for nine years now, after attending the University of Michigan's architecture program. “I sort of found my way in lighting, moved out to California and have been doing this in L.A. ever since,” Caitlin explains.

Although she’s in sales, she doesn’t really directly sell, mostly because of how the lighting industry works. “And I think because of how high-end specifications sales works is that all of your time is devoted to being a resource that people can rely on,” she says.

141 Being a Reliable Resource in the Industry


That means her role with customers is “being a reliable source for education. And that turns into products being on a schedule, or ending up on a plan and being purchased. So I am in sales, but at the same time, I have a tough time saying that sales is what I do for a living.” And as director of business development at SCI, the sales process looks a little different than what a traditional sales team might focus on.

“I don't have to go out and actively pursue work. So all of the large commercial interior architects in LA, I think at this point, all the ones I work with know who I am and know that I'm a reliable resource for everything lighting and electrical,” she says.

Caitlin found that especially during COVID, people wanted to be able to reach out to her team more often. “So many of the projects that I've been involved in, it's people saying, ‘I need a solution or here's my RCP, can you take a look? What do you suggest? Do you have recommended products?’”

Being available to customers has helped Caitlin and her team establish stronger relationships with them, a foundation for SCI’s growing success.

Connecting With Commercial Architects

“A lot of people come to us, they want help, they want advice, product solutions,” says Caitlin. For her, “It's just being helpful and offering all of that knowledge to them and having them use your products because they trust you.”

Building that kind of trust has taken time, but SCI has grown because of the commitment they keep with their clients. “SCI represents over 100 different manufacturers,” says Caitlin, who also explains that those products are a big part of SCI’s success. “And a lot of them are fantastic products that architects want to use, so that helps.”

Many architectural firms see turnover, so for Caitlin, keeping up with the individual designers and architects (not just the firm) helped her to establish strong relationships. “Coming into LA, I built a lot of friendships and stayed consistent through whichever firm people left. You know they went from a 500 person firm to a 10 person firm to starting their own firm. And you're there for them and consistent, no matter where they are. And a lot of designers are really loyal to that commitment.”

Building manufacturers can offer customers the same kind of commitment, and that can help you stand out against competitors. Caitlin explains how this has helped SCI grow further.

“The thing with lighting is that every project needs it, right?” she says. “And if you are coming in as a new resource in the market and focusing on accounts and architects that don't have a lot of lighting resources — I think that they will count on you, and you can be there for them and build a relationship with them as their firm grows.”

How the Industry Has Had to Pivot With COVID

The design industry has changed since COVID, so we asked Caitlin if the pandemic impacted the way she’s been selling to her customers in commercial architecture.

“When it comes to marketing in the current COVID/post-COVID world,” says Caitlin, “this is a question that has been at the absolute forefront of everything we've been doing.”

The days of in-person lunch-and-learns and trade shows have dwindled. But everyone is familiar with in-person networking. “What's not familiar is trying to get mind share when you don't even know where people's minds are at,” Caitlin explains.

So Caitlin has had to pivot with how she engages with her customers and leads. “A lot of my friends are architects at these big firms or lighting designers at smaller firms. And I am constantly on them saying, ‘What resonates with you? How do you experience brands? Why do you go to the solutions you do?’”

141 How the Industry Has Had to Pivot With COVID


The responses have been across the board, she says. “Some people love that — every week 11:00 a.m. live webinar, that's what I'm going to go to, I'll see you there.”

Caitlin has used technology to reach people where they’re at, and the key is consistency. “And I've been recording those and posting them and people are like, ‘I love that you repost because I watch them after my kids go to bed or I put my headphones in and I listen to what's new,’” she says.

Tips for Reaching Commercial Architects Online

Social media has played an increasingly important role for manufacturers and other building materials firms like SCI. Something we’ve obviously noticed at Venveo and with our manufacturing clients.

“I have not only SCI's Instagram account, but [also] sort of a more personal account for me,” says Caitlin. “And my designers who I personally work with follow that. And I post updates about myself and products, and it feels sort of like that personal touch that you're missing in COVID.”

Whether that’s sending a congratulations on a project or wishing a client a happy birthday, Caitlin stays connected with her designer clients. “So finding the way to get back to that more organic, personal touch too, has been a challenge, but there's no right way.”

Caitlin produces quite a bit of content for SCI, and she makes a few suggestions to manufacturers who want to reach commercial architects.

  • “Video content, scheduled webinars,” are both increasingly helpful forms of content for people who want visual aids with their content. This allows manufacturers an opportunity to share helpful content and become more of a resource to designers.
  • She also recommends PDF guides, for everything from specifying to installing products, which have all grown more necessary during the pandemic. “It’s so that somebody doesn't need to call you; you're providing resources that work when you're not there. Because some people in COVID, they don't want to talk to you. They don't want to talk to anybody.”
  • Behind-the-scenes photos and videos are also popular on social media and can go a long way toward engaging with leads. “It's this level of, oh yeah, there's people behind these companies and these products that … I resonate with, I love seeing that. And when our manufacturers give us that type of content to share, that's my favorite to sort of just remind people that these aren't just websites, if that makes sense,” says Caitlin.

Caitlin also recommends getting involved in your industry’s professional organizations and in local community programs. “If people continue to see you, they get to know you, they trust you and they reach out to you,” she says. Because “showing up to a lunch-and-learn (especially on Zoom) once every six months is not going to cut it now with most firms.”

Want Even More Insight?

Genuine relationships are key to building a successful business, and for Caitlin, that involves education and establishes trust. “So one of the things I'm extremely passionate about in the lighting industry, the architecture industry in general, is mentorship. So although when I came in, I feel like it was kind of a sink or swim mentality, now when we bring people into the organization, I hope [it’s] an easier transition, a lot more warm calls,” she says.

Manufacturers might work with products, but it’s important to remember that you’re working with people, too. You can check out Caitlin’s Instagram for ideas on engaging your audience or reach out to her at [email protected].

Enjoying the podcast? Check out all of Venveo’s episodes and get even more perspective on marketing in the building materials industry today.