Up Front: What Side of the fence are you on?
April 26, 2007
I am fortunate. I have been on both sides of the fence. In fact, I have been all over the fence, under it, around it and on top of it. The fence I am talking about is the submittal fence. I have been a subcontractor who read project specifications and realized the architect didn’t have a clue about the products he specified. I have been a salesman for a manufacturer and had success getting my product into the specifications, only to have someone else at the eleventh hour knock my product out or a subcontractor have me switched out when he got the job. I also spent over 10 years assisting architects with their specifications and product selections as an impartial industry representative. I now have come full circle: I work as an architect and I am the one who ultimately decides which product will be used or denied.
We have manufacturers come into our architectural office and do the proverbial “Dog and Pony Show.” Most architects and contractors have never had to do the box lunch presentation. It is not as easy as it looks and the fruitful results of your presentation can take months. It is a grueling process and you have to be a bit thick-skinned to handle it. You will have many a door slammed in your face for every little bit of success you achieve. I try to give a little respect to every manufacturer that comes to my office. I know. I have been in those shoes.
Subcontractors have to bid work. They typically find out relatively soon if they are successful. Successful? That’s funny, because your first reaction as the successful subcontractor is typically “What did I miss? Did I get the atriums? Were there any atriums?” This does not even take into account the attitude and organizational skills of the general contractor/superintendent who can make or break a profit, and then building owners who can drive you insane with picking everything apart. Didn’t they know you got the job because you were the low bid? All of these factors or just the thoughts of them can keep you awake at night. I know. I have been in those shoes too.
For the manufacturers, I would suggest listening before selling. I have told manufacturers important information about the potential customer they are about to visit and the potential customer’s concerns and fears about the products they represent. I was shocked to later find out they went full steam ahead with a pre-canned presentation that did nothing to address the specific concerns of that client. You must listen to your customers; if you don’t, your competition will.
For subcontractors, read the specifications and do not automatically assume you will succeed with a substitution request and save money, thus allowing you to bid more competitively. Also, be respectful to dealers and manufacturers and try to honor the specifications. I know this is a buddy-buddy business and that is fine, but it does not mean that being rude or inconsiderate is acceptable behavior.
I handle submittal requests on a daily basis now and I have some advice from an architect’s point of view. Some products I know, but some I don’t. The ones I don’t know, I have to research. This is more work for me and I in turn have to bill my clients for that research time. I do not like to waste my client’s money and if the benefit of the product seems more work than it’s worth, I pass. Submittal rejected.
Here is a tip on getting a substitution request approved by an architect. Submit three copies of the product data, clearly demonstrating code compliance with manufacturers installation instructions and the warranty. Most importantly, have a cover letter that explains why you believe this product is superior, more appropriate, can save the architect’s client some money or provides a better warranty than the specified product. Do not oversell. The substitution request can be granted if the product is similar with equal warranties on the basis that the contractor is more familiar with this product, his employees perform better and/or the product has better local representation. The letter should also clearly state that the product is compatible with any adjacent materials. I have asked our head specification writer if after 25 years of reviewing submittals, has he ever received a package like that? He laughed. “Not even close.”
I do feel fortunate that I have been on every side of the fence. It is amazing how the view can be different from each side, depending where you stand.