One for Construction Product Manufacturers: How do Spec Writers Decide What Products to Specify?

Maybe in a perfect world, spec writers would research ALL the available products, and specify ALL of the products that meet the project requirements.  Think of the competition that would create, and the potential cost savings to the Owner because of that competition… and think of the additional costs to the Owner for the time the specifier would have to spend on all that research!

The construction industry generally seems to agree that having 3 competitors provides enough competition to get a fair price for a product.  I believe that the law of diminishing returns would apply to a practice of researching and specifying any more than 3 comparable products, or “equals”.

So how do spec writers select those three products?  Sometimes the Owner tells the design team what they want us to specify.1  If an Owner doesn’t have a preference, the Architect often makes selections based on aesthetic requirements.2  And, if neither the Owner nor the Architect has a preference, the specifier makes product selections. 

Last night, I got a comment from Kirk Wood about the third situation.  Kirk was wondering if it’s a case of “who you know” rather than “what you have to offer” that determines which manufacturers’ products get specified by spec writers. 

First, I have to mention that the manufacturers’ reps that spec writers know best are those whose products we have researched and have had questions about; the reps we know best are those whose products we know best.  We know these reps through the process of researching the products we were specifying, NOT the other way around.  It’s NOT that we know them, so we spec their products; it’s that they rep products that we spec, so we turn to them when we have questions about the products (compatibility, pricing, product options, availability, et cetera).

So how do specifiers know about these products or manufacturers in the first place?  When preparing specification sections for a project, many of us start with commercially available master specifications.  (I use MasterSpec, by ARCOM.)  These master specifications usually list available manufacturers for the products we’re specifying, and many of us start the selection process there.3 

Moving ahead from the master is where, due to time and budget constraints, the process of product selection has the capacity to get random…

When possible, we select products and manufacturers that we are familiar with, and we do research to make sure that these familiar products work for the specific project.  If we haven’t ever researched any of these products before, they’re unfamiliar, so we start from the list provided by the master specification, and research those.  It’s a very rare situation when all the products listed in a master specification will meet the project requirements.  So, I research the listed products until I get three that meet the project requirements.

Here’s how I go about this:  I start with the list, and delete those that don’t work.

A manufacturer’s website with too many barriers to entry will make me jump to the next manufacturer on the list.

A manufacturer’s website with no information, just contact information for the manufacturer’s rep, will make me jump to the next manufacturer on the list.

A manufacturer’s website that is running too slowly will make me jump to the next manufacturer on the list.

A manufacturer that has NO WEBSITE is OFF THE LIST.

It’s not who you know.  I’m not saying that product selection isn’t a bit random at times, but generally, if a manufacturer has clear, easily accessible, easily navigable, correct, quickly available, concise, complete, and non-conflicting4, information on the internet, that manufacturer’s products are more likely to get specified.

Spec writers are a predictable breed of design professional.  We prefer to see things published, in print, rather than to listen to someone tell us about them.  We’re skeptics, and aren’t likely to blindly accept things that we can’t independently verify.  We are detail-oriented and generally are not interested in information beyond the technical.  Most of us are introverts, and a lot of us would rather write than talk (can you tell?).

So, my advice to manufacturers is the following:  Have a good website.  Have a good technical information department.  Have great manufacturer’s representatives!  Encourage your reps to join CSI, the Construction Specifications Institute.5 

Being active in CSI is not about getting spec writers to know you so that they’ll spec your products; it truly does not work that way.  Being active in CSI is about getting spec writers to realize that you, a local manufacturer’s rep, are there to answer our questions, and to help educate us about your products, and about comparable products (your competitors’ products).

Reps should become resources for spec writers.  Specifiers aren’t really susceptible to old-style salesman techniques; we’re skeptics, remember?  Don’t go to CSI meetings and try to “sell.”  Go to CSI meetings and let design professionals know that you’re there, and when you’re given the opportunity, educate us about your products (and about how they compare to your competitors’ products.)

We’re all in this construction industry together.  The primary goal that all of us have is to get a building built for an Owner, and to make a living doing it.  When one manufacturer’s product is more appropriate for a project than another’s, that’s the one that should be used in the project.  I think that, objectively, we can all agree on that.  The best way to make sure that the most appropriate products are being incorporated into the project is for manufacturers and their reps to make their best efforts to educate spec writers.  And if there are a bunch of equally appropriate products, then specifying 3 of them is a good way to get a fair price for the Owner’s project. 

Notes: 

  1. Ah, yes – the natural question is, “How does the Owner pick the products that they want us to spec?”  Well, that’s always a bit perplexing.  Many of the products that Owners require in their technical guidelines aren’t actually comparable, but are written as if they are.  Many of the products in the Owners’ technical guides have been discontinued, and listed manufacturers have gone out of business.  Some of the products and manufacturers never existed – curious typos and misspellings have created shadowy products or manufacturers that somehow get repeated, project after project…  Truly, a mystery.
  2. When the Architect makes product selections, the spec writer researches the Architect’s desired products, and if they meet the project requirements, and are compatible with other specified products, the spec writer specs the product or products selected by the Architect.  If there are comparable products, or “equals”, selected by the Architect, the specifier will include those.  If there really aren’t exact equals, the specifier will usually indicate that the Architect’s selected product is the “Basis of Design,” and will allow substitution requests for products that almost meet the specifications.  The Architect will decide if proposed substitutions are acceptable.
  3. More than once, I have suggested to a manufacturer’s rep that they should contact ARCOM, MasterSpec’s publisher, to see if they can get their products listed.  If spec writers don’t know you exist, we can’t specify your products…
  4. Yes, I have reported conflicts between different bits of technical information on a manufacturer’s website.  Come on, people!
  5. CSI’s website: http://www.csinet.org

More GREAT info for construction product manufacturers can be found at the blog of Chusid Associates: http://www.buildingproductmarketing.com/

11 thoughts on “One for Construction Product Manufacturers: How do Spec Writers Decide What Products to Specify?

  1. Pingback: Building Systems Design, Inc. Blog » Archive » Interesting article

  2. Great posting Liz. Thank you.

    I might add one more thing for manufacturers to do. When called or emailed, please respond promptly. I cannot tell you how many times I have filled out the contact form on a manufacturer’s website because the architect selected their product and then waited and waited. I recall one that did follow up by phone several months later. I asked what project the call was about. The caller had no idea. Neither did I. That ended the conversation and left an impression that will not be forgotten.

  3. In the post frame (pole building) industry, specifiers could save themselves a great deal of agony (as well as pain for the contractors and money for their clients), by getting not only product specifics from building manufacturers (not building contractors) as well as what the benefits of those products are to the contractor and building owner.

    Follow me at: http://www.hansenpolebuildings.com/blog/

  4. Liz,

    Thank you for posting and writing this article. I plan on sharing this article with my colleagues.

    I agree with your statement, “We’re all in this construction industry together.”

    We can all service the spec writers, architects and owners better if we know how they want to be serviced.

    Your article answers the million dollar question, “How can we help you?”

    Thanks again!

  5. Dear Liz
    Enjoyed the article “How do Spec Writers Decide What Products to Specify?”. As a manufacturer new to the US market who mainly sell via specification sales I would like to know if the custom of listing 3 competitors is a general rule of thumb say or is in fact a regulation ? My final query – is the specification writing for government or state projects the same and have to have the 3 competitors listed?. In Europe the process is different and I would like to have a better understanding of the US system.

    Regards

    • Hi, Bobby,
      Thanks for reading!
      Public projects in the U.S. are often very different from private projects.
      Some public entities require that 3 competitors be named. (Public entities include school districts, city governmental agencies, state governments, and the federal government.)
      Private owners can do whatever they want. Some require that 3 competitors be listed. Some don’t.
      Some architecture firms list 3 manufacturers, even if the owner doesn’t require it, as a typical practice.
      It’s not a clean answer – it really varies by owner.

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