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John Crosby is managing director of corporate partnerships at the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The global organization keeps a close pulse on today’s architects, the culture of building design and what successful architects really care about.
The Goal: Improving the Connection Between Architects & Manufacturers
“I came into AIA with a perspective that there's something missing in the architect's practice,” says John. “But quite frankly, the fractionalization of construction has gotten in the way, as well.”
John Crosby came from the building materials side of the industry and worked at Hanley Wood Media before joining the team at AIA.
“So coming to AIA, my first belief was let's figure out a way to get building product manufacturers more connected and rooted into the design and specification phases in a way that matters to the architect,” says John. “And that's a challenge, but ultimately we're committed to that education on both sides of the fence because it's a mutually beneficial relationship.”
He says that the culture of today’s architectural firm has evolved, especially in the last 20 years. “If you think about the average size firm, it's not Gensler with thousands of employees worldwide: The average firm is 50 to 100 employees and even skews lower than that if you look at the full scale of architecture and building design into the residential space.”
There are a few shifts going on in architecture firms today. “The culture of the firm has been changing for 20 years and technology has played a role in that, but there are generational shifts that are happening,” explains John.
While the construction industry has traditionally been seen as risk-averse, today’s architects are asking for change, and much of that is due to the increasing crisis of climate change. “There's no question the science of design is becoming one of the, if not the most, important factors,” says John. “Now we're very much focused on climate action as a priority for the profession. That's not AIA saying it. That's our members telling us we've got to find a way to do better — and doing better on buildings means innovating.”
Today’s architects want to design in more sustainable ways, “and that also requires a realignment with the building products industry to understand materials better,” says John.
How To Be a Better Partner to Architects
Manufacturers can help their architect clients in a few different ways, and the opportunities are everywhere. The AIA performs research surveys with their members to get a pulse on what architects are looking for when it comes to the buildings they design, the materials they specify and the manufacturers they partner with.
“Our research has shown that 90% of our members want that strategic relationship with a manufacturer, but only about 55% of manufacturers believe the architect wants that,” says John.
This gap in understanding might be because of response time and availability. Architects want to connect with manufacturers in meaningful ways, “but [they need] that relationship when they want it, and that's a really difficult chasm to get over,” says John. “I'm a firm believer that technology … should be the facilitator of closing that gap.”
He gives a few examples of what manufacturers can do to close that gap.
Create Content That Matters
Manufacturers can start by providing content that architects are already looking for when it comes to products. “That starts with things like design guides and pricing guides and warranty information and installation guides. But it also includes EPDs (environmental product declarations) and HPDs (health product declarations), which are fundamental to decision-making. I can tell you that the millennial generation is going to look to those before they look to the spec in making a decision,” says John.
All of that information can go on your website (if it’s not already there). “We tell our corporate partners every day: If you don't think you're in the digital content business, you're already behind,” says John.
Communication = Trust
John urges manufacturers to learn how to navigate conversations and communicate effectively with architects. “Whatever human being is involved in a conversation with an architect or any building design professional, [they should] come with a knowledge of the category and come with a willingness to look at a design idea and offer up ideas,” says John.
But sometimes that means being ready to lose the sale. John suggests that reps should “be willing to concede my product's not for you because that move will get you more business down the road,” he explains. “It fosters a level of trust that will immediately change how that architect perceives your brand and perceives you as a human being to begin with, but as a resource from that manufacturer.”
“The other part of the equation is on-demand responsiveness,” says John. AIA members have complained about response time in the building materials industry: “Most 40 to 50-year-old architects simply pick up a phone and want to talk to somebody, and if no one's available, that's a problem.”
Understand What’s Needed
John explains that successful companies figure out where the gaps are and find solutions. He gave the example of Old Castle Building Envelope, which revamped its brand and website, and offered its site users innovative software apps and technology to help with BIM modeling. All great things, but John suggests they were “forgetting the fact that they had a product that really had, frankly, a reputation gap,” John explains. “Now they're pivoting to thinking more upstream in the decision-making process.”
Old Castle is now asking the architect: “‘How can I ensure that my product is going to meet your building enclosure goals in a way that you'll want to keep coming back,’ and they're bringing their science and their R&D people to the table first,” says John. “They're going with what matters first.”
Ask Your Architects
John puts it simply: “If there's one thing I know about architects, is they like to be heard.”
He gave another example of Andersen Windows, who AIA collaborated with to examine how their sales and marketing teams worked together. It was discovered that the two departments were separate, working in silos, which started to create a real misalignment in the company’s messaging.
That misalignment meant the company was “also missing opportunities in terms of how they express their value as a brand, from a multifamily and commercial standpoint,” explains John.
“Everybody knows Andersen from a retrofit and from a residential standpoint, but there's so much more to tell, and they were missing that opportunity. So sometimes it's just about acknowledging your gaps and being honest about it,” says John.
Navigating the Shifts Ahead in Construction
The architecture and construction industries have weathered big changes in the last few years, and John sees further shifts (and learning curves) ahead.
“I can tell you that technology will continue to disrupt architectural practice, and I'm going to step away from the specification or the design process for a moment and talk about just operational shifts,” says John. “So there's a struggle there for them to understand how technology can go beyond the Revit and CAD systems. They need to figure out how to modernize the technology that can help them grow and become more efficient.”
“And speaking of efficiency, if you think about how architects are looking at material selection … there's trouble spots everywhere with trying to figure out the universe of building materials,” he says. “The other part is efficiency in terms of collaboration, just within the firm around considering what materials to select.”
In other words, the need for efficiency is more crucial than ever — and that extends to how we communicate and connect with each other. But communication needs to be immediate and precise. “If our members do a Google search, it's because they started by thinking, I'm going to look at this brand's website. After two minutes, if they can't find what they want, they're gone,” explains John. “That's the data we're getting from our members.”
“Websites need to evolve,” John emphasizes. “Where are those resources on your website, just for inbound, someone searching, but when, and where are you having those conversations? How are you pushing your content?”
Architects are looking for information and inspiration online, and they’re looking at your website. “They don't want to sit and have that conversation, so they understand it better. They want to read a quick hit or see a beautiful image on Instagram, or yes, do a Google search and end up on your website,” says John.
Want Even More Insight?
John and his team at AIA have worked on a project that’s focused specifically for product manufacturers, called the Smarter Together campaign, which is launching this year. It’s an opportunity for manufacturers and building materials professionals to connect with architects and collaborate in a meaningful way. John sees it as a way to drive the industry forward.
“The Smarter Together Series is essentially our love letter to the building products industry,” says John. The series brings together marketing experts and academic professionals to tell a more holistic story about the construction industry.
Zach will be speaking at The Smarter Together Series covering High Conversion Digital Strategies for Building Product Manufacturers.
“We're all in a period of disruption right now, and not really sure what it's going to look like in six months. That's the thing that we want to talk about. Finding ways to adapt to the sales and marketing environment, understanding the evolution of architectural practice,” says John.
Learn more about this new series by visiting the Smarter Together Series page.
Be sure to check out the full episode with John Crosby for more actionable insights. We also have several other resources that will help you sell to architects more effectively.
Stay on top of the building materials industry when you listen to our podcast: Visit our full menu of episodes for more expert interviews and valuable perspectives on what’s going on in construction today.