Go-to guys

by Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, CSC

I recently received an e-mail from my local IMI (International Masonry Institute) representative, saying that she would be retiring in a few weeks. Even though I had known her all the twenty-plus years I have been a CSI member, and knew we were about the same age, it was a bit of a shock. After trying to convince her not to retire (not very hard), I thought about other favorite product reps - my go-to guys, some of whom retired or lost their jobs in the past couple of years.

Specifiers have a simple job: to know everything about everything. Which is interesting, given that they not only must try to keep up with new products and changes in old ones, but must somehow divine what it is that the rest of the project team has in mind. Of course it's impossible to know everything, so what they do know is phone numbers for their go-to guys. These are the people who have the right answer or know where to get it, help extract information from manufacturers' labyrinthine websites, respond quickly, and appear to remain unfazed by calls made just days - or hours - before bidding documents are issued. They're the ones who know not only their own products but those of competitors, and are able to offer advice about installation, maintenance, potential problems, and corrective measures for defects or failures beyond their control.

Thanks to years of experience, both good and bad, when I meet new reps I quickly develop a feel for their experience and knowledge, and my BS meter occasionally warns me that I'm not likely to get the straight scoop from a particular rep. I may call them later, but I remain uncertain about the value of what they say.

One thing that gives new product reps, if not instant credibility, a big step in that direction, is three letters on their business cards. You might think I mean CSI, but what I look for first is CDT; if I see both CSI and CDT, we're ready to rock! If the CDT isn't there, before they leave, they get a quick and friendly lecture about the value of CDT to a specifier. And if they are CDTs, I tell them how much I appreciate their efforts to understand construction documents. Although my go-to guys don't have to be CDT or CSI members, most of them are.
Not all of my go-to guys are product reps. Many of them are specifiers, architects, engineers, and others whom I trust in the same way as the product reps. Some of them I know only through online forums, but, as is the case with the product reps, most of them are CSI members.

I often am amazed at how personal business can be. In theory, you can get good information from any product rep, from any company's customer service department, or from any company's literature or website. And, also in theory, you'll get the same excellent support from those same sources. That being the case, I find it strange that a particular brand of hardware or roofing, for example, is dominant in one area while virtually unused in another. If one hospital or university believes it is the best option, why is it dismissed elsewhere?

The answer, unfortunately, is something that can't successfully be specified, but is realized only through personal relationships. It's the experience, knowledge, and trust that come from knowing that the person you're dealing with is someone you'll work with again, and will be there when needed. It's easy to specify that a manufacturer must have 24-hour service, or maintain a local parts center, but once the final payment has been made there isn't much an owner can do if those post-completion requirements disappear.

Perhaps more important is the confidence that this person will not only be honest, but will tell the whole truth. There are few things that will build credibility more quickly than a suggestion that the manufacturer's product may not be the right one for the job.

Just a few days ago, I put my network to the test. I got a call from one of our construction administrators, something about fireproofing. I thought I knew the answer, but to make sure I called my fireproofing go-to guy. She was on vacation, but the answering machine included the name and phone number of someone who would fill in for her. A nice touch, better than the usual "press zero and take your chances."

At this point, one of Murphy's laws kicked in; the less time you have to get an answer, the more difficult it will be to find a person with the answer. I called the back-up person and got another answering machine, this one telling me only that the person I called was not available; no indication of when he would be back or how to contact anyone else. My next move was to pull up CSI's online member database, and search for people who worked for the fireproofing company. Several names appeared, and I recognized one of them as a person I had worked with several years ago and, fortunately, one of my go-to guys from that time. He was in, and was able to confirm my belief immediately.

Another recent experience, which also started with a call from a construction administrator, confirmed the value of go-to guys. This one involved a proposed substitution for a specified joint sealant. Again, my go-to guy wasn't available, but this time, instead of looking for another CSI member, I called the manufacturer's customer service number. During the conversation, the person who took the call told me several interesting things; among them that the company does not provide information about expected life of their products, and that there is little difference between polyurethane and silicone sealants. I asked for a recommendation for use with masonry, and was given the name of a specific product. While we were talking, I pulled up the data sheet from the manufacturer's website, and found that it made no mention of staining masonry, while another product specifically said that it was recommended for masonry. I asked about the second product, and was told, "Oh, you could use that one, too."

About then, I saw that I had another call coming in, from my go-to guy, so I took his call. He provided all the information I did not get from talking with the factory rep, recommended specific products, and discussed at length the differences between them. I couldn't help but compare my experience with the factory rep to that of buying a camera or computer from Target. The sales people are friendly and helpful, but their knowledge extends no further than the information printed on the outside of the box. Most calls I've made to manufacturers were much more satisfying, but I'll always prefer talking with someone I know to talking to a faceless person who might have started the same day.

There are times when I don't know anyone who is familiar with a given product. When that happens, my first stop is the member database, where I look first for certified members. When I find a likely source, I call and start by identifying myself as a CSI member, then go on to say that I found the person's name in the member database. Does that get me a better or faster answer? I'm not naïve enough to believe that every CDT or CSI member is going to be the go-to guy I need, but thus far I have not been put off or disappointed.

The longer I do this job, the more I know how much I don't know. So here's to the go-to guys who make it possible!

© 2010, Sheldon Wolfe

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