A New Language Can Help Your Business Grow

Getting more commercial construction business requires a keen understanding of how architects and product specifiers communicate.

By Chris Hurdleston

Imagine for a moment that you decide to expand your market share to a different country – say, Russia. You land in Stalingrad, armed with your sales binder and fancy brochures, thinking, "Everyone's going to love my products?' Just like back home, right?

You arrive at your first appointment and are confronted with a stark reality: You have no idea how to speak Russian, and you don't understand the nuances of how buying decisions are made in this new market. How well do you think you would do?

Wouldn't you have rather been armed with something beyond the binder, brochures and bravado – if you knew the language and felt completey comfortable approaching your new prospects?

That example might seem extreme, but it served as the eye-opening basis of an excellent presentation given during International Cast Polymer Association's (ICPA) Multi-Regional meeting held in October [2011] in Dallas. The gist of the session: Cast polymer manufacturers looking to expand their market share need to learn a new language, – the language of architects and product specifiers

Product specifiers are a well-organized group. They speak a common language that is unfamiliar to most of us. These people ultimately determine what type of products will be used in a commercial project and then identity the products using a specific format called MasterFormat. To do business with this contingent of potentially lucrative buyers, you have to learn their language and customs.

Here's the good news: it's not difficult to learn their language or rules, and companies in our industry have a largely untapped opportunity to properly work with architects and spec writers. The bad news is the majority of cast polymer manufacturers have never taken the time to learn how to work within the confines of their system. As an industry, we have virtually ignored selling and marketing to this group of buyers. Those who participated in the Multi-Regional event left with a better understanding of how this process works.

The presentation was delivered by Walter S. Poage, AIA, CSI, CDT, president of the Fort Worth, Texas, chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). CSI was founded in 1948 to address the specific need for a uniform system of presenting and organizing construction documents into a common language and format. This format is presented in the form of construction specifications, also called "guide specifications." In part, they define the requirements for products, materials and levels of workmanship upon which the construction contract is based. The specifications also detail the requirements for administration and performance of the project. Understanding this process is the key to entering or penetrating the commercial construction realm.

Many surface companies (firms selling engineered quartz, solid surface, laminate, etc.) have created very detailed specifications for their products. The specifications are written to be particular to their product line or brand name. These companies use specifications as both educational tools and marketing tools to obtain product placement into construction specification manuals. For example, the specifications for Company X's solid surface products are different than Company Y's specifications. But these two different specifications are all written in the same language and format, as required by CSI. It's this "commonality of format" that bridges the communication barrier between the manufacturer and the specifier. Once you understand how this format is structured, you’ll communicate in the same language as the specifiers and potentially sell more of your products.

Here is a glimpse of how the structure works, and the level of detail by which CSI operates: There are 49 “Divisions of Specifications” in CSI’s new MasterFormat. Divisions 02 through 16 include the specifications for construction materials, including material types and installation methods.

Cast polymer materials fall under Division 06, “Plastic Fabrications.” Within this category, engineered composites are listed under Subsection 61, "Simulated Stone Fabrications" and further defined into two specific categories: Section 13 for "Cultured Marble Fabrications" and Section 16 for "Solid Surfacing Fabrications." When written out in spec format, our industry should realize the importance of "[Section] 06 61 13" and "[Section] Division 06 61 16."


Well-crafted product specifications have these attributes:

1. Clear. Use proper grammar and simple sentence construction to avoid ambiguity, and no word can be misspelled. Remember, you're working with educated people who expect you to operate at the same level. Have your documents edited for accuracy of spelling and grammar.

2. Concise. Eliminate unnecessary words, but not at the expense of clarity, correctness or completeness. Specifications do not allow for overstatements, exaggerations or flowery descriptions of your product. Concise means clear and to-the-point, without boasts or claims of superiority

3. Correct. Present information accurately and precisely. Carefully select words that convey exact meanings. The word "surface" may be ambiguous. It's better to define the type of surface as "engineered composite surface" or "solid surface."

4. Complete. Do not forget important information. For example, if your product meets a Class I fire rating (ASTM E 84) for flame spread and smoke density, this is important information for an architect or specifier looking for products for a nursing home or high-rise hotel project. Also, the availability of edge treatments and other product attributes can be incorporated into your specifications to add valuable detail.

There is nothing better than seeing your company's brand name product specified into a project-it's a proud feeling to have the product of choice. When this occurs, anyone bidding on the project needs to contact you and obtain pricing for your materials for the scope of the project. Remember, if they're calling you, they're not calling your competition. Properly written specifications and products will help you attain this envious position. ICPA members who attended Poage's informative presentation at the Multi-Regional event learned how to capitalize on a specific way to grow their businesses.

Now, imagine making that sales call in Russia, but this time, envision speaking a common language with a better understanding of the new market's customs and operations. Your success would be the direct effect of your preparation. The same holds true with commercial construction and working with architects and specifiers – it can be a growth area for all ICPA manufacturers.

Chris Hurdleston is president of Marbleon, Inc., Leola, Pa. Article first appeared in MasterCast, published by ICPA, and is reprinted by permission of publisher.