A tale of two companies

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

Smoke and mirrors?

A few months ago, in "Go-to guys", I spoke of the many excellent product representatives I know, and how valuable they are to me in my job as specifier. This past month, I experienced something just a bit different. It wasn't that the product reps weren't helpful, but their corporate structure made it difficult for them to offer the help that specifiers need, which, in turn, makes it difficult for specifiers to properly serve their clients.

It all started with an e-mail from one of our construction administrators, about a substitution request. The subcontractor claimed that a substantial savings would result from using the proposed products, and went on to say that one of the proposed substitute products was, in fact, identical to one that had been specified.

I'm sure many specifiers are asking themselves, "If it wasn't specified, why didn't you just reject it?" That's a great question for a future discussion, but for the moment, accept as fact that there was more than one good reason to consider the request.

My research began with the supplier's claim that one of the proposed substitutions was the same as one that had been specified. As it turned out, this was not
a simple claim that one product was very similar to the other, but that the two literally were the same. This was something of a surprise, as we had been using the specified products for more than a decade, while the supposed equal product was an unknown.

It didn't take long to determine that the manufacturers of the competing products were subsidiaries of a larger company. The fun began when I called the parent company's toll-free number. After identifying myself, the call went something like this.

"I'd like to talk with someone in your technical department, to find out if [specified] product A and [substitute] product B are the same."

"Where are you located?"

"St. Paul."

"Call your local representative at 555-555-0101."

"Does that representative deal with both A and B?"

"No. If you want the representative for B, call 555-555-0123."

"I'd like to speak with someone who is familiar with both products."

"You'll have to call your local rep."

"Do you mean to tell me that there is no one in your office who can answer the question?"

"That's what our field representatives are for."

It was clear that this wasn't going any further, so I said "thanks" and hung up. I called one of the numbers; the phone rang for so long that I gave up and tried the other. That rep was out of the office, so I left a callback message.

I then went to my secret source of information, the CSI member database. Ta-da! I found the name of a person who was a vice president of the parent company. I called and got a message saying that person was out of the office. Transferring to the operator, I again found myself talking to the person I had talked with a just a few minutes before. I'm sure she wasn't pleased that I was still trying to burrow into the company, but I wasn't pleased by the run-around.

A short time later, I got a call from the rep for product A. When I told him about the substitution request, and the claim that A and B were the same, he expressed frustration, and made comments to the effect that he had run into this problem before, that A and B were not the same, and that there was some confusion at the corporate level that led to the problem. He said he would look into it and get back to me.

I then got another call, which I assumed would be from the VP of the parent company. However, instead of returning my call, the VP had passed my request off to a head of the product B company, so I was unable to talk with someone who could speak for both companies.

"Mr. B, I have been told that your product B is identical to product A. Is that true?"

"They're not really identical. They do use the same material, have the same properties, and use the same MSDS, but the pigment and the name are different."

"So they're really the same?" Although Mr. B never came right out and said so, everything he said indicated that A and B are the same. He then spent some time explaining the distribution systems used by the two companies. One is sold direct to installers, while the other is sold through distributors. Furthermore, an installer of A is not allowed to purchase B, and vice versa.

"What I'm concerned about is that we've been specifying A for many years, and now it appears that your company is selling the same thing under a different name at a lower price. In other words, our clients may have been paying more than they had to. Is there a difference in the quality of installers?"

"No. We do have factory training, but we do not certify installers."

Giving up the battle, I asked if we could get a list showing all of the products of both companies, indicating which are the same. I'm certain someone knows this information, but I was told such a list is not available.

When I got back to my computer, I discovered an e-mail from the product A rep. He told me the proposed substitution wasn't available any longer, and had been replaced by another product. Mr. B said that was essentially correct - but the new product is really the same thing with a different name.

OK, maybe there is good reason to have two distribution systems for a single product, but why not just sell the same product and avoid the confusion? Is there a point to this shell game? Could it be nothing more than a way to get around public bidding requirements? Whatever the reason, it doesn't really matter. Apparently, we have two product representatives selling many of the same products under different names, competing with each other, and, understandably, not too interested in talking about the competing company's products.

Design professionals need straight answers, and episodes like this can quickly destroy a company's credibility.

Written by our guest blogger, Sheldon Wolfe
See Sheldon's other work at: Constructive Thoughts