Product Representatives Helping Architects… Or Not

A great way for construction product representatives to get to know architects and specifiers is by offering technical assistance in the form of reviewing specifications and details during the construction documents phase.

A great way for architects and specifiers to feel comfortable that they’re properly incorporating a particular product into the project design is to ask a person who represents that product for the manufacturer to review specifications and details during the construction documents phase. This is appropriate when there’s a specific product that the drawings are based on, a basis-of-design product.

This informal review process is great when it’s done right. No one can possibly know a product better than a good product representative. Knowledgeable product reps can be tremendous resources for the design team. Some reps observe construction and advise contractors on installation for purposes of warranties. Some do forensic work on their products. Many are very familiar with their products’ limitations and proper construction details and specifications.

Not all representatives are technical experts, though. A rep doesn’t have to be the most knowledgeable in order to be a good rep, but a good rep does need to know when to ask someone else for assistance with reviewing details and specs.

Architects, be suspicious if you’re told by a rep that all your specs and details “look great!”

Product reps, if you don’t have the technical knowledge to review specs and details in which your product is the basis-of-design, pass this work on to someone on your team who does have the know-how.

Manufacturers, make sure that your reps know who to turn to when they need technical info.

Fixing things during construction, rather than during the construction documents phase, is a lot messier and more painful for everyone involved.

7 thoughts on “Product Representatives Helping Architects… Or Not

  1. One of the keys to being an effective spec reviewer is to be an “honest broker”. A self-serving review does no one any good in the long run. For instance, in government work, a number of equal products are generally required. A well-informed product representative knows who the “equal” equals are.

  2. I suspect there are many product representatives who feel like the Maytag repair person that no one calls. But it’s not because there aren’t things to fix. AE’s can be surrounded by expertise at their fingertips that they never use. Making the connection so important.

  3. I am sympathetic to the plight of specifiers lacking information and needing product reps to solve these difficulties. But at least two things need to be kept in mind. First, product reps should not do design review or design peer review unless they have a manufacturer that is willing to insure them for professional liability exposures. Remember, neither the specifier not the product rep who has engaged in design review, approval, or assistance will determine if “design” has been undertaken by the rep requiring liability insurance, the court will determine this (probably as a result of a court fight). I have seen a great deal of this discussion about product reps should do x and y to please specifiers to get their products selected. Much of this is misplaced and amounts to a basic misunderstanding of business practices related to brokers versus advisers. It is not the job of the product rep to supply the specifier with design help (though this is commonly done by misguided reps) and such design advice or review will put the rep into a situation where they cannot escape professional liability attaching as a result of anti-indemnification statues in most states. Remember also that much design activity cannot be delegated to anyone else since these are non-delegable duties involving the health and safety of the public. It is clear that the history of this relationship has never been addressed and exists as it does by the grace of momentum alone.

    A product rep is there to act as an intermediary for his product only and its attributes. How the product may interact in an assembly, or even the core design elements of a product placement cannot be the responsibility of the product rep but must be the responsibility of the designer’s judgment. A product rep may know all there is about his liquid vapor barrier, but cannot in fact help the architect/specifier “design” the envelope except at his peril. The fact that this is such a very grey area is reason enough to realize that there are many traps for the unwary here.

    Second, just because a product rep knows all about the market competition (after all, this is his job and the core of his value based on possessing relevant information) doesn’t mean he has to share this with the specifier. Remember, the specifier’s job is to know how to design the building using all the materials, products, and assemblies necessary to deliver the product to the owner. It is not the reps job to educate the specifier for free about the competitive market for his product but only to educate the specifier as needed about his product in the market. The product reps duty is to his employer and his family first, not the architect/specifier depending on the commission structure in play.

    This is a much bigger topic and the relationship between the architect/specifier and the product reps (and independent product reps) needs a more coherent and detailed understanding of the economics of information and common business practice. The current relationship between these two areas is full of leftover problems promulgated by the architectural establishment and often unwittingly capitulated to by product reps who have been told this is how it is done.

    The idea of the trusted adviser is important, but highly confused in this area. Without a proper first principle foundation for the idea, it will only increase the confusion.

    A small thought experiment might help. If I am the owner and I come to you as an architect. I ask for a great deal of information from you about your firm and its capabilities. You spend a great deal of time with me at the end of which I make it clear that I expect you to tell me about all your flaws in comparison with other firms in town. In fact, I need you to tell me as an “honest broker” that another firm is better at design and actually is cheaper with a better track record since that is the only way I may ever consider you for another project. Frankly, I would encourage owners to demand this during the architectural selection process, after all, architects are always saying they are doing things for the good of the owner, then why not send them someplace better suited to their needs for architectural services? This is actually the kind of thing that you are demanding from a trusted adviser product rep. Very odd indeed and worth thinking about clearly. Especially if the product rep has to feed his family on the basis of these sales. Not the place here to discuss sales, versus marketing, versus business development, versus brand loyalty issues and payment schemes for product reps, but it should make specifiers a little queasy to demand product reps adopt a servile attitude in hope of future business.

    In many ways this kind of superior attitude toward product reps is misguided and may be the result of a confused notion that they are, like contractors, money grubbing low-lifes, while architects and specifiers are white-collar servants to fulfill the public good. Not a view you share I know, but many do.

    It seems to me that the relationship between product reps and architects/specifiers has been asymmetrical for a long time and as the vastness of the knowledge and information needed by architects continues to grow, the profession is unable to keep up for a variety of reasons and is trying to shift the responsibility of this knowledge to product reps.

    • There’s a lot to think about here. You make some great points. I need to mention 2 things:

      1. In my post I indicated that a review is appropriate when the product is the basis-of-design. So here I am not advocating that a rep advise a design professional on her competitor’s products.

      2. I should have set the scene. I know that you were writing about the big-picture issue, but I should explain this specific situation for readers: I wrote this post the day I found out about 2 problems during construction on one project. In one issue, a rep whose product was the basis-of-design (requested by the owner to match existing products on the same building), had reviewed the architect’s details prior to construction and said everything looked great. Then during construction, someone from the same manufacturer had to come out to the site and advise the architect and sub on construction because it turned out that the details weren’t right after all. In the other issue, I asked a rep to take a look at my spec section, in which her product was the only named product. She said it looked great. Then, shortly before installation of the product, we found out that an error in my spec (components that don’t make much sense together) had caused the sub to bid something different – not what was intended, and not what was specified, and not what was appropriate for the project. So a different person employed by the same manufacturer got hauled out to the site for a meeting. By the way, this project has a negotiated contract between owner and contractor, with preconstruction services.

      As with so much in construction, in this particular case, a little more time up front could have saved pain, money, and time during construction. Not all the same people’s time. But the time of people paid by the same manufacturer. And in this particular case, with one rep having basis-of-design and the other rep having the only named product, it seems as if it would have been time well spent.

      Perhaps I should start suggesting more specific question-and-answer exchanges in lieu of spec reviews. Maybe I should have asked the rep “Is this the proper way to spec this system of yours” and then just sent Part 2 of my section to the rep. The ironic thing is, I’d ALWAYS rather find this info on my own, and would rather that it be printed on the manufacturer’s website. I don’t even contact a rep if everything is clear on the website. It simply wasn’t.

  4. Liz,

    We are talking about something that is very important and it is worth discussing in detail. In short, it is important to remember that the product rep is a vendor, the architect/specifier is a professional. This creates the fundamental scope of the duties of each party. Even when the basis-of-design is a particular product, the vendor has significant limitations in providing approval or validation of a design. The problem you are referencing is one that very clearly indicates what happens when product reps confirm or validate design in an effort to consumate a sale or keep a sale. The situation is different after the sale since the commission is already booked and other parties must solve in-construction issues. These issues can be articulated fully by understanding the business, legal and insurance issues associated with product rep activity and architect/specifier activity.

    I am sure that you are right to say that more communication would be useful but it is important to understand the limits of what can be asked for and what should be provided by a product rep. Often this topic gets side-tracked by anecdotal and long-lived assumptions that don’t have an appropriate first principle basis. Your willingness to discuss this is a real boon to the conversation.

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