Hiring a specification salesperson can boost a retailer’s bottom line – if it’s done right. Here’s what you need to know.
By Susan Grisham
For lighting showrooms looking to expand or diversify their business, specification sales may be the answer. Handling this segment requires a commitment of manpower and resources, but the positives outweigh the negatives. In addition, becoming an authority in the building community enhances the overall reputation of the showroom as a leader.
“Showrooms that have this capability will certainly find it to be one of the most encouraging opportunities,” says Mike Craft, senior custom lighting designer at Metro Lighting’s Brentwood, Mo. store. “Specification sales are the toughest – and easiest – that showrooms can make. When you have a great reputation, word of mouth can be your best marketing alliance. Those trusted relationships with the design community establish the showroom as a leader and the place to send friends and clients. It is a sales win-win because it gives credibility – and that’s a priceless asset.”
Al Thomas, CLC, director of lighting design services for North Coast Lighting/North Coast Electric in Seattle points to another benefit: the lower risk of price comparisons on products. “Your project is much more resistant to the sell-down tactics prevalent in the industry because the products you have specified have a perceived value, resulting in larger margin dollars,” he advises.
Entering the specification market may seem daunting and growth takes time, but the experts say it is worth the investment. “Start small and build,” Craft recommends. “Dedicate an individual to head the team and build as needed.”
“Commit to a full-time outside salesperson who can visit architects and interior designers plus attend decorator functions and trade shows,” advises David Bellwoar, vp/showroom division at Bright Light Design Center and sister companies Annapolis Lighting and Colonial Electric in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Virgina. “Building relationships and rapport takes time and labor costs upfront, but the payback is well worth it.”
Metro Lighting/Metro Electric entered the specification arena in 2006 after recognizing the effects of the building recession and subsequent downturn. “We saw this as an opportunity to capitalize on existing relationships and strengthen our market position in the region,” Craft explains. “In today’s design environment, our audience is architects, lighting specifiers, engineers, plan developers, project managers, contractors, and in some cases, end users. This multi-dimensional sales relationship is unlike traditional showrooms sales, which are more job-specific. Specification sales require a long-term rapport to provide on-going cu+++++++stomer service. It truly takes a commitment by the showroom’s team to develop relationships and have the credibility to deliver and maintain design excellence.”
Because the category is complex, it also demands more training. “Typically, specification sales are pre-construction, which require full integration with the architect prior to the finished drawings. Our salespeople spend a lot of time in architect offices,” Bellwoar explains. “On the other hand, when I think of typical showrooms sales, I see a customer in a rush because their electrician told them they have two days to select the dining room chandelier or bath sconces. At this point, I know that the recessed fixtures and lighting controls are done, and the mounting boxes are installed, leaving little room for creative design.”
Bellwoar adds that education is essential. “Credentials are vital. A good outside salesperson should have knowledge of total lighting design such as lighting with layers of light, adding controls, and light-sensing shade control. It also helps the client feel more comfortable with your suggestions,” he states. “We use the counter salespeople as inside support for the spec team. Rarely do we ask the outside salesperson to enter and expedite the actual orders. Their job is more before and after the project.”
At Metro Lighting¸ management sees to it that everyone has the necessary tools for the job such as computer software and the proper samples. “Many times the showroom can also be a place to demonstrate,” Craft notes. “Keep in mind that design professionals want the samples and the mock-ups brought to them, so be prepared for a financial investment. I suggest using a ‘loaner library’ for specific samples and materials,” he advises.
Craft places a lot of importance on experience. “Whoever heads the team needs to have played in the game and know what to expect and have an understanding of the process,” he says. “Having someone with computer skills is also imperative; CAD, AGI, Revit (illumination analysis and design documentation programs), and other design software knowledge is very useful.”
“Specification sales require that you have a complete understanding of the scope of the projects and have the knowledge to make appropriate recommendations. There is no room for guessing,” Thomas warns. “Be sure you have the ability to document your recommendations. In certain situations, doing a mock-up can be very prudent.”
Thomas concurs that having an educated, confident staff is critical. “It’s best if you have CLCs or LC staff certified by the NCQLP (National Council on Qualifications for Lighting Professions). You need to have architectural-grade merchandise on display so clients can see the difference in performance, aperture brightness, and cutoff angles,” he advises.
“We find that our more seasoned designers and CLCs do the best job in spec design,” Bellwoar notes. “Whenever possible, we will pair a rookie to help the education process. Showrooms must keep a full bench of qualified designers in order to write this kind of business. Success always comes back to the people who are involved. A good corporate culture helps these self-motivated folks to achieve. We have had some successes over the past two years by having a part-time salesperson at every branch. When we promote someone, the part-timer is typically ready to go full-time.”
“It takes a team effort to be successful, and personnel must be willing to be educated and learn every day,” Craft adds. “No two projects are ever the same.”
These showrooms prefer to promote from within to fill specification sales positions. “We administer a personality profile test during the employee application process,” Bellwoar remarks. “Specification sales require creativity, patience, and a high level of technical expertise. When we find that combination, coupled with a friendly extrovert, we hire them!”
“Recruiting is always an option,” Thomas adds, “but providing an opportunity to have key staff grow into that position also pays dividends.”
If your business has eager, outgoing staff that is willing to learn, specification sales may become a solid avenue for revenue and standing in the community.
David Bellwoar, Bright Light Design Center/Colonial Electric
Fit the right personality to the job specification and client type, build relationships, and have a little fun every day.
Mike Craft, Metro Lighting/Metro Electric
Do design lunch-and-learns, e-mail, make phone calls, and offer coffee time. Just stay in first place and your hard work and dedication will be rewarded. And remember, if specifiers wanted to be lighting geeks like us, they would be doing what we’re doing – but they are not. They need you as much as you need them.
Al Thomas, North Coast Electric/North Coast Lighting
Make sure your designs are professionally presented. The days of redlining a blueprint are behind us. For example, I teach a class “How to produce professional lighting design documentation.” Establish relationships with other professionals, such as someone in your market who does outstanding wine cellars, and network them into a project.
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