Monday, January 31, 2011

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

Last week we discussed how to screen and deal with initial interactions with product reps and vendors. (We also got some great input and advice from product reps reading the site, and I'll address that at the end of this post. Also, check out the comments on the aforementioned post.) Sometimes, a product rep or vendor will want to take things a step farther and try to get more face time with you. They might ask to take you to lunch or to do a presentation for your office. These invitations can be good ways to learn more about a product or service as well as a person, but there are still a few things to keep in mind when accepting these invitations.

First things first: know who handles product presentations and continuing ed seminars in your office. If you're in a small office, that might mean you (or whoever's being asked by the vendor). As someone who handled every aspect of seminar coordination for ten months, I highly recommend that the scheduling, lunch deliveries, and presenter setup (e.g., if they need an LCD projector for a PowerPoint presentation) be handled by an administrative assistant or office manager, but the yea-or-nay on having the presentation in the first place be decided by an architect. (Trust me--even as an intern, you don't have time to do your actual architectural job plus field all the phone calls and coordinate seminars.) Ask the vendor if they have any AIA-approved continuing ed seminars. Even if your colleagues aren't AIA members, some states still require continuing education credits in order to maintain licensure, and these presentation can be a good way to get those credits as well as learn something that really helps you in your day-to-day jobs.

Second, check with your boss or firm principals if you're unsure about accepting a lunch invitation or an activity invitation from a product rep. In particular, ask him/her how much, if any, project information you're allowed to share. Bear in mind that part of taking you to lunch is sometimes to find out about possible leads, so they may want to know if the Thus-n-Such Elite Condo project is about to go out to bid or if it's still in DDs, and can they get their products in the project or help you with the specs?* If a vendor asks about a project, you may be able to at least say when construction is slated to begin and who is handling product inquiries. (For example, I do a lot of healthcare work with health systems and HMO companies that have contracts with various product and equipment vendors. In those cases, I tell vendors, "Those decisions are made at a national level--I have no influence over whose storage cabinets or autoclaves they use. If you want to get on their list, talk to X person in Minnesota.")

There are ethical rules in place that keep architects from buying work from a client by donating to that client's organization or favorite charity. Your firm principal(s) may have similar rules about accepting gifts, lunches, dinner/drinks, or golfing or skiing outings from vendors and potential consultants as well. Ask first just to be safe. Also, let your manager know if and when you'll be meeting with product reps regarding a specific project. Chances are, your manager has had experiences with similar products and materials and will have questions that they'll want to ask of that rep themselves (or want you to ask on their behalf). It's a good way to learn about the kinds of information you really need from product reps as well as gain a better understanding of how materials work in a building.

Bad product reps call you and leave a voicemail, then email you ten minutes later to see if you got the message, then show up unannounced at your office to see you two hours later (and yes, this actually happened to me recently). Good product reps, however, are much more than salespeople--they understand the forces and issues that affect their product and how it works in your building. Sometimes they were architects, engineers, nurses, teachers, etc. before they were reps, so they can bring an extra layer of knowledge to your project and product selection. This is why bringing some product reps in as early as possible into a project--during early DDs, for example--can be important. You can (hopefully) get the right knowledge and the right product for the job. Some of the best reps I've ever worked with have flat-out told me when their product was not the right one for the job. It made me want to use them again on another project as soon as I could. And frankly, there are a couple that I've worked with for so long that I actually hang out with them socially, just for the fun of it.

*Many product reps will help you in part or in whole with certain spec sections to make sure that their product--or at least one that works as well as theirs--is in your project, thereby assuring a certain level of quality. This happens a lot with door hardware, where the consultant who assembles and assigns hardware groups to your doors will also write the spec to make sure certain products (or at least products of a certain quality) are specified. I've also seen this happen with concrete mixes and admixtures, thermal insulation and waterproofing, and lighting.

If you have a question or a topic you'd like to see discussed here, let me know in the comments or drop me a line via email in the sidebar. Thanks!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Common interview flubs (and some unusual ones too!)

This article on MSN's CareerBuilder website lists some common interview mistakes and also provides links to some other good articles on handling interviews with eloquence and aplomb. But I'm linking it here partially for comic relief--did an interview candidate really throw his beer in the trashcan outside the office before coming in for an interview? (I actually think we had a guy like this at my office for a while....)

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!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

...architect's hair is on fire, please stand by...

Apologies for the lack of posts, all--we're getting ready for a bunch of meetings next week with some big clients, so my hair is on fire and I haven't composed a decent post all week. (Wait, have I ever composed a decent post?)

So in lieu of being original and creative, I'd like to suggest a few little website and blog posts worth reading, considering, musing, etc.:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Putting the "perform" in performance reviews

I got a performance review at the end of 2010, which was nice since I hadn't had one since 2008. Overall, I like performance reviews, and when they're done right, they can be very useful (or even enjoyable). First of all, they serve as a great opportunity to have some uninterrupted time with you manager(s) to just talk about work: what's working, what's not, and what are some ways to improve. If you take a moment to prepare for your review, it can be a conversation that works in your favor.

Note that I said "conversation". It's true: a good performance review is a conversation, a back and forth between you and your manager(s) about your job, your career, the company, and even your manager's job and career. It's a chance to ask them for their perspective on the company and the economy as well as how they've handled the kinds of challenges that you're facing now. By making this a true conversation, you can learn things about your boss' point of view that might help you do your own job better: does she see work as something that permeates every aspect of her life? Does she buy into the "work hard, play hard", or is she interested in just putting in her time and going home?

Before you go into a performance review, have ready the answers to some basic questions:
  • What do you most like doing and why?
  • What were some tasks or experiences you really enjoyed or at least valued in the past year?
  • What would you like to learn more about in the coming year? What do you still need some experience in (CDs, code study, CA, etc.)?
  • What are some tasks you've struggled with in the past year?
  • What are some problems or gaps in responsibilities/tasks that you've noticed in the office? How would you fix them?
  • What were some achievements you had this year that you could point to as being positive?
As you're wrapping up, ask about doing this again in three to six months. Performance reviews are supposed to help an employee know what they're doing well and what they need to improve, and it can be hard to know how well you're doing on both of those fronts if you only get feedback once a year. Touching base more often--even if it's over lunch or a mid-morning coffee--can help you know if you're on the right track. Performance reviews are also supposed to protect companies, by the way: if you get fired for a performance problem that no one ever brought to your attention, you could sue your former employer for not giving you a chance to rectify the problem. that being said, if your manager gives you some ideas on ways to improve your performance, then you need to act on those suggestions or expect to have problems with the manager later. (If the suggestions are things you're not sure you can do for whatever reason, then now is the time to discuss them, up front with your boss, not later at the bar with your pals.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year, new chances, and new challenges

Happy New Year to all my readers, and many many thanks for continuing to visit this nonsense of a blog and sending me questions. I was sent some great questions at the end of last year, and I know I need to get to them (and so I shall). As we step into this new year and say goodbye and good riddance to 2010, I do have a few observations, comments, and predictions:
  1. 2011 is shaping up to be a decent year economically, but don't dare expect a good, solid recovery to 2007 levels. Here in Colorado, we've seen a sizeable uptick in healthcare and smaller movements in educational work, but it might be a while (six months, perhaps) before we see movement in other sectors. Real estate has to get moving again for some sectors to move forward.
  2. That slooow increase in work should add some entry level jobs in architecture for interns, but some of you may benefit in unexpected ways from the downturn. Some of your cohorts have left the profession due to being laid off for too long, or due to being laid off from a profession that they've realized they really didn't like. Either way, depending on your market, you might be able to find a job more so than in 2009 and 2010.
  3. Tired of the public debating who designs better museums, Frank Gehry will fight Daniel Liebskind in a no-time-limit MMA match on pay-per-view. I predict that Gehry will win by tapout.
  4. Personally, I think some firms are going to lose people as the economy comes back, especially if those firms didn't treat their employees very well. (Some of you may fall into this category. If so, I say carpe diem.)
  5. Some of you who are still at firms will find yourselves getting stretched a little thin when the work comes back but your firm is scared to hire more folks. While this can be frustrating and exhausting at times, use this lack of staffing as a reason to learn about more/unusual parts of a project and a firm and get those overdue IDP credits.
  6. If you haven't had a performance review, now is a good time to ask for and/or schedule one. It's a good opportunity to ask for feedback on what you do well and what you could better as well as share your thoughts on what can make work easier and more productive for you and your colleagues.
I don't really make resolutions each year, but I do plan to learn how to set some limits and use my energy a little more wisely this year. What about you?