Finding Specs Without the Plan Room

To sell a product line that I recently began distributing, I must get it written into specifications. I am used to finding jobs to bid by checking the plan room and staying in touch with the contractors I serve. But these methods don’t identify projects still in the design or spec stage. How should I prospect for architect/engineer work?—M. T. Humphrey, distributor

Successful prospecting depends on understanding your strategy and on having a good plan. Answer the following questions to determine whether it makes sense to depart from your traditional business to call on specifiers:

  • What is your competition? If other products are established in your market, success at the specifier level will be difficult unless your product offers significantly greater value.
  • Does your contract with the product manufacturer assure that you will be able to keep the line after you have developed its market?
  • Will specifiers take an interest in and be willing to make a commitment to your product? Do some market research before you launch an all-out initiative. This can be as informal as making a trial presentation to several dozen prospects and asking for feedback. Or you can use a marketing consultant to conduct an independent, objective survey or focus group.
  • Do you have the time, talent, and money to support the new venture?
  • Will calling on specifiers strategically benefit your other product lines?

Next, you need a sharper focus on who your best prospects are. Does your business plan require you to take a project-oriented approach, calling on firms with jobs on the drawing boards regardless of their potential for repeat business? Or can you pursue a relationship-oriented approach, targeting individuals and firms with the best long-term prospects regardless of the work they have today?

Assume, for instance, your product is used in hospital surgical suites. In a project- oriented approach, you may want to subscribe to a construction news service that reports on health care facilities and to go after immediate business by calling on designers of current projects. You would not be concerned with how often they do surgical suites. Alternately, the relationship- oriented approach requires you to identify designers and firms with a long-term involvement with hospital design and who, as industry leaders, may be in a position to influence others.

Once you understand whom you want as a prospect, you can define sales tactics and select the prospecting technique that best fits your target. There are, in general, three methods for locating prospects:

1. Construction news services gather information about proposed and actual building projects and make it available to subscribers. The largest and best known service is the F. W. Dodge division of McGraw-Hill Inc. (800-541-9913). Dodge has an international staff of reporters to collect project news, and it delivers information in a variety of formats, including microfilmed bid documents.

Another nationwide news service is Construction Market Data (404-449-0566), owned by Southam Co., Canada’s leading construction industry publisher. Southam recently acquired R.S. Means and Co. and has launched several other U.S. construction publications, suggesting that Construction Market Data is an organization to watch.

The Clark Reports (800-222-0255 or 708-234-6665) searches for projects by scanning thousands of magazines, newspapers, and other documents every month for news suggesting a company is considering a new facility. Clark also prepares customized reports.

There are many local and regional construction news services that sometimes do a better job of covering their specific communities. Check the Yellow Pages or ask a local contractor for help in locating these services. Other news services concentrate on specific industries or types of construction. Many services are now available through online computerized databases.

2. Networking not only identifies projects but also helps to build relationships. Your customers are watching what their competitors and customers are doing, and they may be glad to share their insight with you, especially if you reciprocate. Referrals from satisfied customers are among the best leads you can get.

Many salespeople take established customers for granted and make no effort to stay in touch with them. Your prospects are not only design firms, but individuals within those firms. Architects and engineers often change firms as project workload dictates. Try to maintain your relationships with these migrant designers; they can get you in the door at a new employer’s office. Keep track of their home addresses so you have another way to reach them.

Building owners, developers, real estate brokers, chambers of commerce, and economic development agencies are other sources of news and referral. In many cities, there are “breakfast clubs” where noncompeting contractors and material suppliers gather monthly to share information about prospects.

3. Advertising and other promotional activities such as trade shows and public relations can also be used to build your prospect list. The proper measurement of the effectiveness of an advertisement is not how many inquiries it produced, but the number of inquiries it produced from people fitting your prospect definition.

Finally, give your strategy enough time to work. When you bid to contractors, you usually know a construction schedule and delivery time. Calling on designers, however, requires a much longer fruition period. Allow time for the designers to get to know and trust you. Remember that design projects are often placed on hold while owners re-evaluate financial or other considerations. Along the way, you must guard against substitutions and be alert for new members who join the design team.

A project may take months or even years to get through design to the point where you can actually bid the project. But if your strategic plan is solid, keep with it, and you will find selling at the specifier level to be worth the effort.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1992