How to reach out to interior designers, and what to do with them once you get them.

Showrooms such as the one at Apex Supply (Atlanta) appeal to the visual side of designers.
For many years most distributors based their marketing efforts around the functional characteristic of plumbing products. The plumber was their primary market, and the only market for many distributors.

The growing interest in the aesthetic value of plumbing products has created a new participant in the purchasing process. Members of the interior design community have had a growing influence in the plumbing industry.

As a result, some plumbing distributors are devoting more marketing, advertising and sales promotion dollars to this influential group.

Although interior designers are on an equal level of importance with the home builder and architect, they certainly are different. The challenge becomes developing nontraditional marketing venues to attract this group and providing a higher level of service to keep them.

Thinking outside the box helps.

A whole new psycho-graphic

If you have ever worked much with designers, you probably already know that they have a different personality makeup from that of most plumbing wholesaler customers. Imagine an interior designer who identifies himself only as "Sergio" in order to attract a certain upscale clientele. Although many designers are not this extreme, it gives you an idea of the person you're dealing with. In a nutshell, the typical designer has a strong personality with a high degree of egotism.

As a distributor, your choice is either to find ways to appeal to Sergio or write off his business as not being a necessary contributing factor to your showroom sales. Although not all designers fit the Sergio mold, be prepared to accept their creative side and whaevert may come with it. The finicky attitude of designers is a fact of life. Adapt to it, or don't bother pursuing the designers' business.

The creative approach

Merchandising efforts should be designed to deal with a group that has been known to be demanding as well as fastidious. What works with your plumbing contractor customers probably won't be as effective with designers. For example, you may have better luck with wine-and-cheese parties and gourmet cooking demonstrations than with beer and barbecue.

The nature of the design community suggests a two-pronged attack in terms of the distributor's marketing efforts:

1. The way to appeal to this group is differentfrom what works for the typical secondary buying influence. Keep in mind that in some cases, the designers all but dictate product selection to their customers. They even may be the primary buying influence.

2. The service requirements of designers are another major change. You're dealing with a whole new psycho-graphic. Designers are predominately left-side brain thinkers vs. the right-side brain thinkers you're accustomed to.

Foran Design Center in Grand Blanc, Mich., has taken a proactive approach to address the different needs of designers. The company has established a complete home decorating center under one roof.

"This year we'll entertain the local design community with an open house, send a quarterly newsletter and use a showroom courtesy card to tie it all together," Michael Foran says.

This focussed marketing program seems to be paying off quite nicely, too. Foran's retail sales far outstrip the volume attributed to designer sales at most showrooms. In fact, providing materials for a $50,000 bathroom project is not unusual.

Creating an image

The design professional does not want to walk through a dingy warehouse to get to your showroom. Make your showroom a showcase of your company by positioning it at the front of the building near the reception area.

Be aware that even your building's location can be a important in establishing a relationship with designers. When designers perceive themselves tied to an elegant place of business, they feel better about the relationship.

Unfortunately, it's harder for them to think of a showroom as elegant if it's in the heart of an industrial district. After, all, designers are visual beings. But if you treat them well, most of them can get over the culture shock of an industrial location.

The key to getting the design community to specify your plumbing products is to expose designers to the items displayed in your showroom. Your showroom display plan should include all product brands you want to sell out of your inventory, not just the showroom.

Plumbing fixtures can open the door to sales of many peripheral product lines such as towel bars and soap dishes. Other items, such as high-priced appliances, can cause the amount of money ultimately spent by the consumer and dropping to your bottom line to skyrocket.

Showroom Utopia

In a perfect world, working with designers would be a snap. PHCP distributors would have the foresight to recognize that the design community can play a pivotal role in sales and act accordingly.

The showroom would be developed with various product displays targeted to interior designers. The displays would include com- plete kitchen and bath living space modules. They would be kept up-to-date with nothing but trend-setting, cutting-edge materials.

Distributos would introduce sample-board programs that would encompass designers' libraries and allow them to check product in and out. Most designers possess a visual/creative-type personality, so this "touchy, feely" group must have displays and sample boards of current material to work with. Brochures just will not do.

And in a perfect designer-oriented world, every showroom would have a salesperson whose sole job is to pursue design-related sales.

People may make the difference

Showroom attendants must fit a profile identical to the designers themselves. The best showroom salespeople are designer "wannabes." It stands to reason that sharing likes and dislikes and having the same profile as your customer encourages a strong bond. Recurring interaction between a designer and one particular salesperson creates a comfort level that will reinforce the bond.

Be prepared for your showroom attendants to spend two to three hours per sale with designers and their consumer customers. Also, designers are likely to expect your showroom attendants to socialize with them on the weekends and to be available to meet them by appointment at any hour of the day or evening.

Every designer deserves some handholding and needs product knowledge to feel comfortable with your company. Success with designers starts with acknowledging that you are in the relationship business first, and the plumbing business second.

Once in the showroom, designers have expectations of your showroom products and the professionalism of their showroom attendant. Yes, I referred to the attendants as their. Designers can have very definite ideas about whom they wor with.

Your showroom attendants must make sure that designers' experience is favorable so they will network with you and specify your material. That includes gaining the confidence of designers who will continue to call on you once you've achieved their trust.

Consider your showroom as a design center that must be positioned to assist designers professionally in more than just sales. Drop your barriers and let your imagination go. Oh yes, hire a good cleaning service!

Establishing designers' confidence in your product lines also means that you must train your people in total customer satisfaction. Meeting customers' expectations is of paramount importance. Product line commitment and designer loyalty combine to achieve long-term success with the design community. Your time with them is an investment and, like all good business decisions, investments pay returns.

Target this growing business sector and do whaever is necessary to get in the purchasing loop. You'll be positioned for solid, profitable future business growth.