Building productive relationships: Contractor's Corner

By Dave Stafford


Contract dealers can dramatically increase their chances of winning that next commercial job by specifying the product mix. When contract dealers offer products or influence a commercial specification, it will boost their win rate. A complacent bidder who relies on others for critical product specs will lose more often than not.

Why not do some missionary work with select architects and interior designers? Smaller firms that specialize in commercial tenant, healthcare or institutional projects are better targets than large “A” level firms. Ask around among your current clients. Incorporate this new focus with other planned business contacts. Most architects rely on interior designers for the detail work on commercial flooring and interiors. They are the target more than the architect unless it’s a smaller firm.

A comprehensive commercial product offering is the first step. Without that, the chance of success is nil. This doesn’t mean glitz and glamour as much as a well constructed, high quality, fairly priced, color coordinated line that has up-to-date patterns across a range of products. When packing a sample bag, it’s best to select at least three manufacturers, even if the intention is to focus on only one of them. If there aren’t enough to show, then the potential clients will think that they aren’t being given enough choices and that the contract dealer is trying to force them into a choice of one company. Likewise, don’t take ten different companies’ samples, since that implies a complete lack of focus. And it’s a good idea to be prepared to give good reasons why a certain company is superior. If the contract dealer is excited by a line, they will pick up on that.

It also helps if contract dealers themselves have a good eye for color and design; and this can be easily demonstrated by how the dealer dresses for an appointment. Perceived expertise may be in direct proportion to how well dealers put together their outfits—leave the plaid shirt and striped tie at home! 

The one area that most lack, when specifying products, is the fine detail of what’s required to get the product on the floor so it won’t become a problem. No one likes to admit it when they don’t know something or appear foolish. It’s always best to resist the urge to rub it in when they ask stupid questions. Go out of your way to answer questions, provide entry to an up-to-date commercial library, and communicate your experience with the nuts and bolts of effective and efficient installation. Sell your credentials.

The opportunity to work with either the architect or designer may begin as simply as a phone call. “Hi, my name is Jeff and I was wondering if you could answer a couple of questions. I’m specifying some flooring for a school remodel project.” From the tenor of the questions, the dealer can determine how to help or where to lend expertise. Maybe it’s a budget issue: “Can you give me some idea how long it will take to install broadloom commercial carpet by direct gluedown; how does that compare with carpet tile; what is a good comparison between the two insofar as cost to install per square foot?” Resist the urge to show off but also don’t be coy. Answer the question by using real life examples, illustrations and high budget numbers (rather than lowball figures). It’s important that those answers keep him out of trouble. Contract dealers that are unrealistic will be remembered, but not fondly. 

There is no harm in asking about the stage of the project, the owner, whether the general contractor has been selected, or if the school will be soliciting bids. Finally, dealers can always ask if the architect or designer would like them to submit a couple of products for consideration, along the lines of: “Jeff, it sounds like you have a great project; I’ve just gotten in some new samples on a coordinated line of carpet, carpet tile and resilient. Would you like to take a few minutes on Wednesday morning or Thursday afternoon for a look?” 

It’s also essential to work with mill rep partners effectively. Most specification work is driven by the mill reps rather than by commercial dealers. In fact, I usually found there was a decided bias toward the manufacturers. The best situation is when the mill rep actually recommends a contract dealer (or places one on his preferred dealer list) to the designer. Now there is some stature. The main reason a mill rep will do this is because the contract dealer can be trusted to handle the installation process flawlessly. 

If there exists an opportunity, as in the “Jeff” example above, why not arrange to bring in the mill rep yourself and let him carry the ball? Here, the mill rep will also be looking out for the dealer and may help provide a coordinated spec for product and complete installation. Or, if a dealer has heard of a project but has no chance to do spec work himself, it’s worthwhile to give the mill rep a call about the project. He may already know about the job, but will appreciate being thought of. If not, maybe he can sell it. It is certainly worth a phone call or email. This is particularly important if there might be a vulnerable spec subject to “or equal” substitution. Perhaps the designer has explained he is working on an especially tight budget.

By working together to pursue a spec, it may be possible to qualify for the mill’s key dealer pricing level; this may also offer better discount terms and accelerated delivery. A close relationship with a strong mill rep will often pay unexpected dividends outside of preferred price levels. He may hear street gossip about project changes before you do. A mill rep once said to me, “Did you hear about the shakeup at the Channing project? They fired the interior designer who was handling it. You might want to get back in there quickly.” I did, and was able to help fast track the spec changes and ended up with the job.

Anytime contract dealers can show a mill rep that they’re promoting his products, it’s worthwhile to do it. It’s essential to communicate by letting the rep know when his products have been recommended for specific projects. The good ones will always return the favor. In commercial work with specified projects, you need all the friends you can get. 

If the architect or designer is really tight with the owner, and funding is not an issue, then a brand name may be specified as a sole source spec; it may also be noted as “by way of illustration not restriction” so that a comparable product may be submitted. 

If a product substitution will only be permitted with prior written approval before bid, then watch out. Also, the statement, “any other product sample submitted must be the same yarn system,” may also open the door for rejection. 

Owners love a “value sell” and architects and designers hate them. Just as a drug manufacturer likes brand names and sells against generics, the open spec without a brand name reference invites low profit alternatives. Want to get a designer upset? Just ask about submitting an “or equal” product.

Designers don’t like them because they have to evaluate several products rather than one, and make decisions as to what is not acceptable. This is especially aggravating since they may not get paid for the extra time and effort—and it may mean multiple color changes and create a ripple effect with other related interior items.

I always tried to do a soft submission when faced with a formal pre-bid submission of samples. “Jack, before I drop off the actual submission, I wanted to run a couple of quick ideas by you for feedback. How do these samples look to you?” This way, you have some idea what he may accept. Even better, provide at least two samples and price ranges. A written product summary of the technical specs or other features and benefits will help justify his decision to accept the alternative: “Not only will the owner save about 8% on the initial cost, but the product warranty is superior to the specified product.” 

Also, don’t wait until the last minute to submit samples! A perfectly good submission may be rejected because they didn’t have time to evaluate. Follow up quickly, answer any questions, and if a rejection seems likely, try and pin down exactly what is wrong and fix it. “Yes, the sample was about the right color, but we didn’t like the high-low texture.” In this specific example, the same yarn system was also available in a level loop, and that one was accepted. 

You and the architect or interior designer will be approaching the value proposition from different perspectives. You will be looking for the most apparent value for the lowest cost that the owner (or designer) will accept. The goal of the architect or designer and owner is to reduce the price, through competition, without compromising the design or useful life of the product. In spite of what you might be told, budgets have a way of being cut and tough choices have to be made.

When working with architects or interior designers, I found there was no accounting for taste or determination of “design integrity.” What was a great alternative and logical to me might not capture their attention. Avoid the temptation of going custom unless you are talking about a very large job. Custom setup, yarn minimums and overage requirements in lieu of a running line can severely damage your profit picture. 

Product pricing is certainly important and will be dependent on how involved you have been in the specification work. If you’ve been instrumental, or even supportive, you may have an edge. However, just as important is what it will take for you to successfully deliver the project. Here is where you need to convince the architect or designer of the value of the delivery process. This includes substrate testing, prep work, product staging, installation, team management and overall quality control.

You will be doing you and them a favor by explaining the steps that must be taken for making their vision a reality. If you are excited about the project, why not put together a brief PowerPoint presentation that outlines the steps as you see them? A short slide presentation can be prepared, with or without a voiceover, and be very effective. This may be emailed, put on a disc or presented personally via iPad or laptop. If you are lucky, this will be so effective that they will put a synopsis in the installation specs or, even better, require bidders to furnish an outline of their method of handling the delivery and installation along with the bid. 

Justify your pricing and demonstrate your professional credentials. Many large projects are won not by the lowest price but by the perception of best overall value. That’s what the architect and designer need to see from you to swing the project your way. After all, that’s what the owner is paying for, their expertise and good judgment.

Copyright 2014 Floor Focus 


Related Topics:The International Surface Event (TISE)