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How to catch a specification writer’s eye

Product manufacturers in business-to-business markets face the complex challenge of getting specified, yet marketers in these organisations don’t always see it as their role to ensure an effective communications strategy around reaching and influencing key specifier audiences, leaving it to their technical and customer service teams.

But the clarity and quality of marketing communications can make a huge difference. So here’s an outline guide on the aspects to consider.

Firstly - clarify the basics:  

In most industrial construction and manufacturing projects, a design professional – be that an architect or engineering consultant - prepares drawings and specifications to stipulate what is to be built, the materials to be involved and what needs to be costed based on the quality and performance requirements.  This specification will also take account of energy and sustainability targets and any building regulations, standards or legislation.

These specs contain detailed descriptions of the quality, characteristics and performance of products to be used, and often name manufacturers, brands and model numbers, along with alternatives or it might state that equivalent substitutes are acceptable.

The research behind developing the specification can be time-consuming and once a product and its characteristics are familiar, the specifier is likely to be loyal, specifying or using that product as an example in many future project specs.

Manufacturers achieving a specific product mention in the spec have an advantage, as they are more likely to be quoted for, purchased and used.  This is why influencing the specifiers is so important to companies within the supply chain for construction or manufacturing projects.

Marketing communications to support getting specified:

1. Create messaging that solves issues, rather than focusing on product

Specifiers and design professionals are probably dealing with several projects at once and they don’t have time to review manufacturers’ literature, emails or information on a daily basis. They need information – but only when they’ re ready.  And even then, they are still not interested in your products – but the problems they need to solve.

So it’s vital that you position your expertise around problem-solving, rather than focus on your product or company attributes. Specifiers will be impressed by thought-leading pieces that demonstrate know-how and offer technical advice to help solve certain pressing challenges, or to see a proficiency that demonstrates your specialisation or subject knowledge.

Specifiers will explore environmental impact, energy and carbon reduction, noise or dust pollution, more sustainable solutions and whole life costs depending on the project.  Being seen to be at the forefront of developments with particular knowledge and capability will warm specifiers’ inclination for dialogue and a relationship. Remember: they are looking for trusted advisors and guidance in helping to solve problems rather than any sales pitch.

2. Be accessible and be found

In order to influence the specifiers, manufacturers need to be seen or found where specifiers will search for product or technical information, through channels they can access at a time that suits them.

This will comprise a variety of sources, but naturally includes online search – so be sure to optimise what you want to be found for – and bear in mind that they will not be searching for named products – so you need be found online for terms they will use and issues they are looking to resolve.  If your website carries the information they seek, then the specifiers are more likely to find it.

Specifiers will of course turn directly to some manufacturers’ websites – those they trust and are familiar with - those rich with practical information.    They are likely to examine websites and online information in the first instance to obtain knowledge and details.  They will make judgements about you long before interacting with you directly, if at all.

Other resources they use are likely to be online and offline product directories, industry association resources, media publications, product selector indexes or industry software tools and social media.   Research demonstrates hard copy journals are read for general information but online sources are used for more specific references.  

Different people gain information in different ways so it’s important to use multiple communication channels.

3. Be known for something

Don’t forget that articulating a strong brand or single-minded message, is a great strength in B2B where time-poor specifiers and decision makers need to find answers quickly.

Rather than researching each and every product, specifiers will default to firstly checking out those that are front of mind. So consider what you need to be known for to give you best cut-through. Ensure clarity and consistently reinforce this.

Mixed messages that attempt to cram in too much disparate information are weak.  Differentiate yourself from others to make yourself more resilient to substitution.

4. Give specifiers an enhanced user experience

Well written and stimulating product details make a standout website which specifiers will use as a source of information. Don’t underestimate the importance of a well–designed website that delivers the right user experience for specifiers. Ideally create a dedicated section where the assets needed are immediately accessible.

Provide great product, technical and thought-leading information downloads.  Remember too that architects and design professionals are visually driven, actively looking for inspiration, creativity and new solutions. This must be balanced with factual and precise technical knowledge and resources. BIM and CAD content wherever possible is a must. Accessing the precise information need in an easily accessible format can save design professionals hours.

5. Keep yourselves front of mind

Direct on-going contact and nurturing is important. This could be via email, traditional mail and social networking – not to push your product or sell, but to provide valuable information that engages, reinforces your brand’s positioning and supports your expertise. This, together with online ads promoting technical paper downloads on topics of interest can drive specifier traffic to your website.

It’s also worth seeking out any events, exhibitions, seminars or symposiums where you can gain some face time, or involve yourselves in exhibiting or speaking opportunities.  

Of course, real person support is key. So the technical advisor role continues to be vital – and customer service and helplines all play a part too. Every contact point is part of the experience and influences specifiers’ preferences. Continuing to hold your front of mind position is also critical, even where relationships already exist.

6. The opportunity through Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

CPD is an invaluable tool for engaging with specifiers and participation is high.  Online CPD is increasingly common, but CPD delivered in your specifier’s office or through seminars is a key marketing advantage for face-to- face influence. 

CPD needs to offer impartial technical detail and be approved by one of the certification bodies, but it’s also vital to make the presentation engaging and memorable.

 CPDs shouldn’t be seen as the end game – they are just the beginning.  A series of follow-up communications and actions should be predefined to ensure maximum return from any CPD investment.

Types of specifications

Specifications tend to fall into three different categories; performance, prescriptive and proprietary.

Performance specifications – specify the operational or functional requirements or standards of a component or installation.  It’s then up to the contractor or engineer to choose the materials, products and methods to ensure the build or equipment will meet this performance and operate as specified.

Prescriptive specifications – include a detail of the materials that must be used, often including how to prepare, install and test together with quality control, other handling requirements and standards to be met.

Proprietary specifications – are those that specify a single approved named product. This may be used when there is need for consistency of materials to an existing development or in complex specifications where only one manufacturer’s product or piece of equipment is considered able to accomplish the performance and achieve the results required.

Proprietary specification is of course the ultimate position sought by manufacturers – and many provide specifiers with descriptive details relating to features that cannot be matched by competitors.  But this route is not usually favoured by the specifier, as stating a ‘sole source’ forgoes the opportunity for competitive pricing on delivering the build or project. 

More often, specifiers use non-proprietary specs and although a list of preferred manufacturers and products may be developed when included in a spec, they add the term ‘or equivalent’ – meaning the contractor can suggest a different product in their bid, as long as it is at least as good quality as the one specified, meeting the performance, appearance and fit-for-purpose standards described.

This shifts responsibility from the specifier to the contractor.  If the contractor can be convinced to carry the risk and move away from any named product suggestions in the spec – there is a further opportunity for manufacturers…

Look beyond the original design specification

Getting onto the original design specification is great, but not always achievable, so it’s good practice for manufacturers to also target the contractors, sub-contractors, facilities managers, installers, engineering procurement services and others who may be involved in quoting and delivering the project.

Contractors need to bid to win work and so they look for competitive pricing opportunities. Where the spec states that equivalents may be used, the contractor does the research and uses sub-contractors or suppliers to propose the alternatives that give best value and/or other advantages that may give the contractor an edge in being selected.

Those bidding to be the main contractor can be convinced to propose product alternatives to those mentioned in the spec if they are confident the products’ attributes meet the spec.  Contractors need product benefits and technical clarity in communications from manufacturers to be sure their proposal meets the criteria that will be acceptable to the design professional when it’s reviewed. 

Be sure to also align your message to the way contractors are likely seek it.  Don’t embellish details so that the basics are hard to identify, but also remember it is a multi-criteria selection process and not simply about price – so highlight your special service offerings/benefits that may help to give the contractor an edge in their bid.

Additional factors influencing selection are likely to include:

  • Product lead times or availability for peace of mind on project timing/delivery
  • The degree or methods of maximising quality control or consistency
  • Products or processes that reduce noise, dust, disruption and/or enhance safety
  • Proven responsiveness to warranty issues
  • Energy-saving materials, whole life costs and sustainability
  • Specialisation or technical know-how – proven knowledge/case studies
  • Any aspects that reduce project risk
  • Aesthetic values

Manufacturers should also differentiate through enhanced customer experience at every touchpoint - bearing in mind that’s often best achieved by making interactions with you as straightforward as possible.

Manufacturing product companies who maintain good communications and relationships with all project parties are more likely to gain complete acceptance throughout the process from specification to installation.

Contractors and others are becoming increasingly involved in the specification phase. Their deep product knowledge and involvement can speed up the process for the project owners, design professionals and project specifiers.

A final note - know your audiences

As with any marketing communications programme, understanding your audiences is key to success.

Gain insight on attitudes and behavioural characteristics. Do you understand the specification process from start to finish?  Who else is involved in the decision making unit? What are the tools and resources they use and what type of content do they need about your products?

You may benefit from focusing your efforts on one type of audience or on one type of application to build your reputation to best effect. For example by type of facility – be that offices, institutions or education. Or by industry type – be that processing, oil and gas or construction. Ideally look to specialise further, e.g. a glass manufacturer could hone in on architectural firms that use large amounts of glass in their buildings.

It is also important to have a broad understanding of the specifiers’ current perceptions or beliefs are about your brand offering so you know where you are starting from and the shift in thinking that your communications need to achieve. This will also mean you can ultimately measure success later.

Additionally, identifying the specifiers’ and contractors’ preferences from the competitor landscape will give you a basis from which you can consider displacement tactics.

We all know knowledge is power, so gain the insight needed to give yourself a competitive advantage. More concentrated communications effort can make or break manufacturers’ success.

For more help in navigating your message to and through specifiers and other third parties – talk to us at Clear B2B, contact r.arquati@clearb2b.com

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