Monday, January 24, 2011

The gentle art of product-rep self-defense, Part 1 of 2

The longer you work on a project, the more your name gets associated with that project in your office. This is good when engineers or clients call and the receptionist needs someone to whom s/he can transfer those project related calls. It's not so good when product reps call and ask about the So-and-So project, and the call goes to your desk. Let's be fair: product reps have to sell their products (movable shelving, direct-vent fireplaces, decorative lighting fixtures and systems) or services (equipment coordination, BIM consultancy, HVAC system commissioning). They do that in part by hearing about new projects and following leads, which means calling architects about the projects and seeing if there's a chance the architect would use their product in the project. But while we're being fair, let's also be honest: phone calls and visits from vendors (as we'll call product and service reps for now) can be distracting, disruptive, and downright annoying. How are you supposed to handle these folks? On the one hand, you need to get your work done, but on the other, they might have a product or service that this client could really use.

I deal with this situation on an almost-daily basis for two reasons. One, I'm working now and have worked in the past on some decently-sized and/or high-profile projects, so some reps get sent to me form the front desk, and others are reps I've worked with on previous projects and call about new ones. Two, I was the continuing education seminar coordinator for our office in 2010, which means a ton of vendors now know my name, email address, and phone number. Thank heavens for Caller ID--if I don't know the number calling in, I let it go to voicemail. Interruption averted.

If you're ever caught off guard by a vendor, deflect and defer to your boss. If you get a phone call, transfer them to your boss with the indication to the rep that you aren't in charge of these kinds of decisions ("our project manager, Judy, is in charge of selecting and coordinating equipment along with the owner, so I'll send you to her voicemail"). If they catch you in person, say the same thing and take their business card to pass on to your boss. Taking product literature along with the card can be helpful as long as they don't give you a book. (A lot of product literature tends to go into the recycle bin, so it seems.) Remember: if any rep ever catches you off guard, defer and deflect, no matter the size of the project.

It's important to have a conversation with your project manager about who should handle these calls and visits. Ask your manager if there are any products or services that they're really needing: do you have a client that only uses a certain brand of light fixture? Does this client really need help with inventory planning, distribution, and maintenance? If you know what kinds of vendors you really need, you can thin the herd coming through your phone lines (or go find them yourself). It's also important to know what kinds of projects your firm does, and therefore what vendors your firm does and doesn't need. Now and then, the firm for which I work will get a call, a visit, or an info packet from a company that does custom kitchen cabinets or designs spa bathrooms or closets. Nice to know, but we do little to no single- or double-family high-end residential work. Hence, this person probably shouldn't waste a lot of time courting our business. Letting him/her know that up front is actually a courtesy--it allows the rep to go after people that might really use those products, and it keeps someone from needlessly blowing up your digits for weeks on end.

In Part 2: how to handle lunch invites, presentations, and product libraries. In the meantime, if you have a topic you'd like to see discussed or a question you're dying to have answered, drop me a line in the comments or via my email in the sidebar. Thanks!


  1. Working relationships with vendors can be one of the most valuable resources a young architect can have. Look for the ones that really know their product, show up when invited, and keep their promises.

    Many sales reps are true experts in their product or service, and will provide invaluable assistance. If you don't have time to meet with them while you are working on a project, see if you can arrange a meeting with them at another time, and ask them to help you understand their technology. Local product shows and meetings of groups such as the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) also provides opportunities to build your network of helpful rep.

    When approached this way, I have found that vendors can be an important part of a project team. Then you can focus on collaboration, and not defense.

    For more on this topic, see my blog at

    Michael Chusid, RA FCSI CCS

  2. We posted a response on our blog:

  3. The door swings both ways regarding the Product Rep and the Architect. Architects, as a whole, prefer not to take Product Representative calls (phone, email, or in person) until they need us and then the need is always immediate whether it’s for information or a sample. Some irony to this is that if they would have just taken us up on the lunch and learn offer or the personal / phone / email consult, then some (if not all) questions and requests could have been averted. The architectural community as a whole should teach and train in schools of Architecture that Product Reps are not the red-headed step child of the construction industry only to be called when the Architect needs a quick answer, which also ironically, needs to be long and insightful to ensure quality construction documents and to protect the Architect’s, Owner’s, and Project’s integrity.

    Regarding Product Reps seeming annoying because they have to sell their products is only a skewed part of the story. We all sell something; even an Architect. Product Reps sell products and services, and Architects sell their services. And, just like Product Reps, Architects don’t win every project. If a Product Rep seemingly pushes harder, it’s because Manufacturers’ products and services don’t quite yield as profitable an ROI as what the Architect sells their services for.

    Another issue is lack of adequate training for young Architects. There are simple issues that could be resolved even as early as when they are attending schools of architecture much more during internships. This would include having the professors in school and all personnel where they are interns refer to us as “Product Representatives” and not sales reps, vendors, or suppliers; this creates unnecessary confusion. Those reps who don’t mind being called those blasphemous terms typically don’t last long in the world of architecture because they soon get a bad rap within the architectural community as being annoying sales reps, or they learn to be a Product Representative - or even better, a Golden Rep or Thought Leader.

    Additionally, young Architects aren’t taught (or it’s consistently not instilled around the world) that Product Representatives play a vital, living role on the Project Team. Architects don’t (and can’t) know everything about every product or how any given product may fit into any given project’s needs, so they should be taught and encouraged to lean on Product Reps as caregivers. They should be taught that Product Reps are involved throughout every Phase of any construction oriented project. From Schematic Design through Facility Management, Product Reps should be seen as a guiding hand and not as attackers from whom you need to learn self-defense. Without the Product Rep, there are just Owners and Architects wishing they could design the dream and General Contractors and Facility Managers looking for a new career.

    Manufacturers certainly have their share of blame through inadequate training of Product Reps or even discouragement of using terms like sales reps; which coincidentally, is only inflamed by Architects using this and other negative terms when referring to Product Reps. However, Manufacturers’ perspectives would change if the architectural community’s perception of Product Reps changed; if it started with the Architects then even General Contractors would see Product Reps in a positive light. Moreover, Thought Leadership in construction has to start with Architects, but in turn, Architects have to learn to appreciate that even Product Reps can be Thought Leaders.

    I rarely write CSI or Product Rep oriented blogs, but I wrote a quick blog on CCPR certification perceptions that you might find insightful at:

  4. Lulu, seriously consider joining CSI (Construction Specifications Institute) if you aren't already a member. I believe you would be pleasantly surprised to learn what CSI really is (NOT being a group of specifiers as is often thought of first). The national website is

    Also, consider opening your blog to open response content without approval. You can always delete (or block if necessary) what you consider unworthy response posts, but the nitty gritty is that a blog should be inviting and not closed off. As you state in your "About Me" section of this blog, it's about opinions.

  5. Lulu, I'll have a double, too!

    I was just discussing this issue yesterday with a product rep, and fellow Denver CSI member. I'm a spec writer, and a licensed architect, and I practiced as an architect for years before I started writing specs. As soon as I started writing specs, I realized how hugely important product reps are. But when I was working as an architect, my opinion of product reps was the same as yours.

    Product reps know their products better than anyone else could ever hope to - they know them better than architects, spec writers, contractors, owners, and users do.

    These people aren't just salespeople - many of these people do forensic investigations on their products, when failures occur on projects. Failures usually turn out to be due to improper installation. Sometimes improper installation is a result of poor or incorrect project specifications written by the project specifier, or poor or incorrect details drawn by the project architect. We, as design professionals, may have more to learn from failures than from anything else. These product reps are tremendous technical resources for specifiers and for architects who know how to tap into them.

    My recommendations to your readers: Get to know a product rep for a product you frequently use. Ask this rep to review your project specifications and details that include their product - you may surprise yourself and learn something about a product you thought you knew well! Then you'll see how much product reps have to offer.

  6. First, good comments, all! It's always good to get the other side. I have no problem approving comments from people that don't agree with me, or have something--anything--to add. The reason I approve comments before they are published is to weed out poorly thought-out, insulting, or profane arguments before they get published and start a firestorm. I'm all about sharing opinions and points of view--I just want to make sure that anything that gets published is relatively coherent and respectful. (And because this blog is about opinions, that is why I use a pseudonym--my employers shouldn't be punished for my personal opinions on professional topics. And so far, it has kept folks from trying to solicit me for work, advertising, etc.)

    The reason I give caveats to interns with regard to product reps and vendors is that a) interns frequently aren't the folks in charge of deciding what products will be used on a project, and b) interns sometimes don't (yet!) have the technical knowledge to ask the right questions or really understand what the rep is showing or teaching them. For example, I've worked with a certain brand and type of flooring that tends to rip and fail when large pieces of equipment are dragged across them or turned around on them, but many of my interns haven't yet had that experience. If the rep for that flooring comes in to speak with my intern, I also need to be present so that I can ask more questions about the flooring product, and also the intern can learn about the kinds of questions to ask a product rep and to learn from my previous failures (and failure is a great teacher, as Liz points out!).

    The other example of the problems incurred when reps talk to interns is one that I recounted on a rep may hear about a new project, so they call the firm that is working on the project. The receptionist doesn't know if this person calling in is a rep, an engineer, or whatever, so they forward the call to the person who is most likely to be in the office and available to answer questions: the intern. However, if the intern isn't the one making decisions on what products the project will use, then all they can really do is get a little info, take a number, and pass it on to the project manager. Once in a while, this isn't so bad. But right now when the work is finally coming back and folks are eager, this could be four or five calls a day to someone who isn't the right person to talk to (yet).

    All of the suggestions and comments regarding product reps in the comments here are really good ones. Keep sending them in, and thanks for stopping by!

  7. Stirling--just rescued one of your comments from the Spam folder (another reason I screen comments--it ensures that I don't lose good ones, either!). One of the MANY facets of architectural training is helping them understand the important role of a good product rep on a project, but to teach them about reps while they're in school is knowledge that they'll quickly forget. Why? Because in order to teach someone this facet of our profession, you need an actual project to work on. (This is also why it's hard to teach CA in schools.) As a matter of fact, I had never even heard of product reps until I started working. Now, after almost eleven years in architecture, I have a good relationship with many product reps (some of whom I hang out with just for the fun of it). You make a good point about the bad habit of calling reps only when you need something. It's better to think of product reps as a sprinkler system than a firefighter: instead of only calling on them in an emergency, get to know their skills, capabilities, and limits beforehand to make sure everything turns out well.

    When I refer to a product rep's calls as annoying, the annoyingness isn't necessarily their fault. If my boss is demanding that I get three things done in twenty minutes and I have a meeting on a differnt project with another boss in an hour, any unexpected phone call or visit is annoying, especially if as an intern I'm not the person making the decisions on whether to use this rep's products or services. The point of this post is not to say, "all product reps are bad," as that would be a gross generalization. The point of this post is to share some ideas regarding how to deal with and work with a group of design/construction specialists, and the post is written for an audience of just-starting-out professionals. Again, thanks for the input and insights, and thanks for stopping by.

  8. About your comment, "The receptionist doesn't know if this person calling in is a rep, an engineer, or whatever..."

    My experience is that few business of any kind have a live receptionist anymore. Too bad. A well trained receptionist should be trained to screen calls, to know when to take a message instead of just passing it along, and should know what is going on in an office so s/he can optimize communications.

  9. Michael: I totally agree. A live person can make all the difference. It blows my mind when I call an engineering firm or a construction product company and get an answering machine-like service. No, I don't know what is the extension of the person I'm trying to reach, and sometimes I don't even know who I'm supposed to talk to if I have a question regarding product use versus ASTM testing, etc.

    But as you point out, a live body isn't enough--that person needs to know how to handle calls properly. We have an office of 85 design professionals (architecture, landscape, and interiors), and when the phones aren't ringing off the hook, our receptionist can better screen calls and ask for more information. When the lines are full, though, it's sometimes necessary to patch folks through. In the interest of this type of screening, our admin staff has had some discussions with the design staff on how to direct calls better to avoid sending calls to the wrong team members. They've also been better trained in how to deal with the occasional annoying, pushy person who shows up cold and *insists* on seeing someone *Right Now* to talk about their product. It's these folks that are giving your profession a bad reputation, and I know it's the kind of product reps that you're against as well.

    (And while surfing your website, I love the post you made about "How Not to Comment"--brilliant!)

  10. The interaction between Architect and Product Rep is predictable. If Architecture firms were proactive, they could manage this better for ease on all sides. They could post on their web site and active project board, design phase and contact email, and allow reps to begin the dialoge with an email. I know this is horrifying to most, but otherwise the P.I. work (private eye) required by reps demands lots of phone calls, and the dreaded cold call. Architects must understand Product Reps, or as I am proudly titled- SALES CONSULTANTS promised their firms a level of activity as well as a dollar sales goal most of the time. We aren't trying to be pesky- just honor the committment we made our own employers when we asked them to let us work there.
    Chris Morrison