By being able to lend a hand to architects, reps can lose the stigma of "salesman" and be recognized as an integral part of the design team
This article is an encore of something Michael Chusid wrote nearly 20 years ago. It remains true today.
Q. Getting our products named in an architect's specifications is an important part of our sales strategy. What would the advantages be if our reps knew how to write specs themselves? And how can they get the training they need? - C.B.F., sales manager
A. Let me answer your first question by relating an experience I had once while working at an architectural firm. 'Joe" was a building product sales representative who carried a roofing system I had never used. He called on me several times to introduce his company and explain the benefits of his product. I became interested in his product, but, like most architects, I couldn't devote the time to research and write a spec for it.
Then one day a storm destroyed the roofs of several local schools. An emergency school board meeting was held and my firm was awarded the contract to design the re-roofing. The next morning, Joe showed up at my office asking how he would help. Since I had a pressing deadline, I asked Joe to write the roofing spec while I assembled the rest of the bid documents. He took a seat in my conference room and several hours later presented me with a well-written specification section.
If Joe had not been able to roll up his sleeves and write an effective spec Tor his product, I would have been pressured by time constraints to use another roof I was already familiar with. Joe's spec was written in the style used by my office, the format recommended by the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). It was properly cross-referenced to other specification sections, and it showed an understanding of bidding requirements and the conditions of the construction contract. I was able to put Joe's spec into the project manual with a minimum of editing. And I saved the section in my computer to use as an office master specification.
Joe's spec was written around his company's products, of course. But because the client was a public agency that required competitive bids, Joe named several other suppliers as acceptable substitutes. By spelling out exactly what was required, Joe made sure that his competitors couldn't cut costs by bidding a lower quality product.
In my mind. Joe had ceased to be a roofing salesman and had become my roofing consultant-part of my design team. In this new capacity, he was invited back many times to bid other projects and was able to roof many of my buildings.
Why reps should know specs
While opportunities like this don't happen every day, it demonstrates how important it is for a salesman to understand spec writing. Another roofing salesman might have merely referred me to his technical manual for the specifications. Joe's product may have been no better than the alternatives, but the advantage he had was that he knew the language of the industry and was capable of using it to service a customer.
Sales reps who can help with specs and detailing are a valuable resource. Architects are typically under tremendous time pressures and cannot possibly be expert in all building materials, so they frequently rely on sales reps for assistance. In some trades, such as elevators and door hardware, specification writing is an established part of the sales rep's job. The ability to write specs is also crucial when promoting maintenance projects or other work for which an owner has not retained an architect or consulting engineer.
While it's easy to feel intimidated by 500 pages of project specifications, a rep who understands how specs are organized and prepared is likely to have a greater sense of self-confidence and professionalism. Even if the opportunity to write a section does not arise, these reps will have many chances to suggest specifications or modifications that will improve a building's design or ensure their product is used correctly. By working with the specifier, the rep has a better chance of getting his product's proprietary advantages included in the specification. And his understanding of specs will help him prepare more accurate bids and deliver projects with fewer problems.
Where to learn
I recommend taking one of the introductory classes offered by many CSI chapters or by industry groups such as the National Concrete Masonry Association. Such classes can also be presented as part of a company's sales meetings.
These classes introduce the CSI, Manual of Practice [now called Project Resourse Manual] which describes organization of construction documents, principles of effective spec writing, and CSI's recommended three-part format. The manual's latest edition has chapters on product presentation techniques, product literature, and effective technical assistance. The classes also prepare you to earn CSI's Certified Construction Product Representative designation. (Call 703-684-0300 to order a copy or to get information on classes and certification.)
It also helps to read as many specs as possible, especially the sections that apply to your product. Also, familiarize yourself with bidding requirements and conditions of the construction contract. Keep a reference file of good specifications and sections that address special conditions.
When calling on a new firm, meet the specification writer and find out how he prepares specs. Give him copies of your specs on the type of computer medium he uses. If he has an office master specification, offer to review it for technical accuracy and compliance with the latest standards. The more you know about how the specifier works, the better equipped you'll be to render assistance.
Specification writers will usually respond favorably to your interest. Consider how Joe learned to write specs. As a novice, he would write a specification and then ask experienced specifiers to critique it. He would revise the spec to include their recommendations and then give it to them to use as part of their office master specifications. In addition to helping Joe learn to write specs, this process got the specifiers involved with Joe's product.
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By Michael Chusid. Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, ©1994