By Bridget McCrea
Make 2018 the year your company starts focusing more intently on building strong relationships with specifiers.
It may be stating the obvious, but no organization can succeed and grow without cultivating strong, long-term relationships with its customers and suppliers. Although obvious, it’s easier said than done. For precasters, this all starts with knowing who strongly influences product and/or service procurement decisions. These professionals often come on the scene even before projects are put out to bid and the wheels of procurement are put into motion. Today, precasters often find themselves up against alternative materials and/or processes, making the need for strong specifier relationships that can get you in the door early more important than ever.
Beyond the product
From a recent survey titled, “The Architect Specification Journey: Understanding the Role of Building Product Manufacturers Today & Tomorrow,” the American Institute of Architects found relationships count big-time when it comes to the materials used in new construction.
“In fact, architects rely primarily on the existing relationships they have established over the years with building product manufacturers (BPMs),” according to AIA Architect.1
“When a specifier engages in an emotional relationship — he or she has seen beyond the building products to the company at large,” according to Epiphany Studios’ Grow Sales by Creating a Preference for Your Building or Architectural Product. “Specifiers will defend the products that they have a preference for. They will not be moved by cheaper substitutes or faster delivery times. Products may come and products may go, but a relationship will endure the change.”2
Companies like Pro-Cast Products of Highland, Calif., rely on strong relationships and two-way communication with specifiers to keep their job pipelines full. In some cases, those communications revolve around tweaking an initial request for proposal to reflect a newer, more feasible or more economical product or technique.
Warren Taylor, president and CEO, said he encountered this situation recently when a specifier wasn’t aware of the various size options for precast box culverts. Originally specified as an 18-foot-wide, single-cell box, which would have pushed the limits, Taylor said he instead introduced the specifier to his company’s monolithic double-box culverts – a viable option that reduced the amount of reinforcement needed.
“We were able to save the owner some money by getting the specifier to tweak the original plan and still be able to accomplish what he set out to do,” said Taylor, whose team puts a regular effort into developing relationships, educating and consulting with project specifiers and engineers.
“We consider ourselves experts in what we do, but a specifier may not be,” Taylor said. “By having those relationships in place, and by cultivating those connections over time, we can work through those subtle product changes that make projects more buildable and/or economical – as opposed to what the specifier had in mind.”
In most cases, Pro-Cast takes on that role during the bidding process as a normal course of action.
“We can’t spend enough time on it because in some cases we don’t even know who the specifier is until the job comes out for bid,” Taylor said.
Sometimes project specifiers will contact Pro-Cast in advance and initiate the conversations, while others are largely non-receptive to making changes to their original designs.
“Some of these folks are just plugging along and not interested in making any changes,” Taylor said. “That’s always a challenge, although for the most part specifiers are pretty open to listening to what we have to say.”
To get important points across to those who aren’t as receptive, Taylor and his team take an educational approach that’s both consistent and persuasive. If, for example, a specifier has chosen cast-in-place concrete or another non-precast alternative on a specific project, Taylor looks for magazine articles, trade association reports and other collateral material to support his assertions.
And in situations where precast isn’t necessarily the best material for the job, Taylor is willing to step back and allow the process to happen without his intervention.
“Look, to a carpenter everything looks like a nail,” he said. “And to a precaster, everything looks like it can be done in precast. The bottom line is that sometimes a project makes sense with our materials and sometimes it doesn’t.
“In some situations, there’s going to be a certain amount of trepidation around whether we’re just trying to sell our product versus actually adding value and efficiency to a project. To break through those barriers, you really just have to get out there and talk to people, form the relationships, and then stay on top of it.”
A foot in the door
As the vice president and general manager for Tindall Corporation’s utility division in Spartanburg, S.C., Joel Sheets said it’s no secret that specifiers and engineers hold most of the cards when it comes to project material selection. He said forming relationships with those professionals early in the game is particularly important when working with contractors versus the project owners themselves.
“Oftentimes it’s the owner’s engineer who is being paid to approve and bless the project,” Sheets said. “If you’re fortunate enough to have your name on the plans, you stand a much better shot of selling the job to the installation contractor – who is your ultimate customer.”
To make that happen, Sheets said Tindall’s sales force pays close attention to upcoming jobs and any related specifications and requirements. With municipal jobs, for instance, the company finds itself working with project engineers who may or may not have specified precast in their original plans. For the latter, the company will hold on-site or off-site lunch-and-learn sessions that incorporate PowerPoint presentations and other means of conveying the value of precast for specific applications.
“We try to educate them on the value of what we’re offering,” said Sheets, who adds that strong relationships with contractors tend to be indispensable for flipping jobs to precast from some other material.
“A contractor can be your best friend on the job when they’re being asked to use cast in place, and when they know that precast will save them time. They’ll advocate for you with the engineer of record.”
To get through to that engineer of record, Sheets and his company’s sales team uses lunch and learns – usually held at the engineer’s office – some of which are accredited and count for continuing education hours.
“Those CE hours are great selling points that can help you get a foot in the door,” Sheets said.
Rich Krolewski, NPCA’s director of certification and regulatory services, has developed relationships with U.S. Federal Highway Administration officials, state department of transportation officers, and health department regulators – alliances that go a long way in helping the precast concrete industry compete effectively. He said precasters who find themselves losing market share to competitive products should carefully examine the strength of their own specifier relationships.
“Nine times out of 10, those situations happen because instead of being proactive, the producing company takes a reactive stance to scenarios like over-engineering or over-reinforcing,” Krolewski said. “If a job specification has already been approved – or the document has been in place for a long time – going back and revising it is very difficult.”
To avoid this challenge, Krolewski advises precasters to figure out which individuals at municipal engineering departments are making the decisions on target projects and then open dialog with those individuals.
“You may have to dig deep when identifying your market and determining who the decision makers are,” Krolewski said. “It also helps to have a good reason why that person should make a change to a specification.”
Your first line of offense
For precasters looking to cultivate stronger alliances with specifiers, Sheets said your company’s sales force should be the first line of offense.
“We rely on a very talented sales force that has these relationships in place and that isn’t afraid to build those bonds,” said Sheets, who advises companies to take a long-term approach to the task, versus just focusing on one-off interactions with specifiers and engineers. “It’s not about knowing them and working with them once; it’s about keeping these professionals apprised of changes in the industry, new product developments, new solutions and job success stories. Focus on making specifiers the heroes by helping them introduce new options to project owners or municipalities that are struggling to understand their best, most economical or most efficient options.”
In return, Sheets said, precasters can expect an improved shot at selling the job, better future job prospects, and an overall lift in awareness of the precast industry and its products.
“Even if there’s no guarantee that your company is going to win the bid, work to express your value by connecting with folks and forming those valued, long-term relationships,” Sheets said. “If nothing else, you just may get a last look and the opportunity to provide value in areas that no one else recognized.”
Taylor concurs, and said that when manufacturers can effectively make the argument that precast is better, faster and easier, the overall job usually goes easier. Work to get those points across, he said, and realize that the payoff may not be immediate.
“Forming relationships is definitely worth the effort and in most cases, it does pay off down the line,” he said.
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.