Many Might answer the title question: “I am a professional contractor.” That means you at least install fire alarm systems, maybe even design your own projects. If that alone constitutes your answer, you routinely miss a huge amount of sales. 


Responding to an owner’s request for a fire alarm system, a testing and maintenance contract, or a system upgrade, what are you really doing? The answer should seem clear: solving a problem. 


Master motivational speaker Zig Ziglar recently wrote: “Fortunately, problems are an everyday part of our life. Consider this: If there were no problems, most of us would be unemployed. Realistically, the more problems we have and the larger they are, the greater our value.”


Apply Ziglar’s statement to our profession, and see why it is important to think of ourselves not as “contractors” or “designers” but as “problem-solvers.” 


When an owner calls you, he or she actually needs help solving a fire protection or a code problem, and the request requires you to ask the owner questions rather than simply provide a quote to perform the work. 


For example, ask such questions as “Why do you need a system upgrade?” Or, “Are you experiencing an unacceptable level of false alarms?” Or, “Has someone informed you that the system is no longer code-compliant? If so, with which code does your system need to comply?” 


You must have the knowledge, skills and resources to help the owner find the proper answers to these questions. Thoughtful, probing questions actually provide a significant value-added service to the owner and might help transform the owner into a customer.


Examining your potential role as a problem-solver, see what tools you bring to the table? The first answer is that you have years of experience in solving problems and understanding customer needs. But, in every case, you must define the problem at hand. That’s why your questions of the owner/customer are important.


If you keep up with the latest codes and equipment, you will be in a position to quickly solve the problem. Of course, that means you need to invest time and money into learning the code changes by reading or attending update seminars.


Asking the customer questions might reveal that the only problem stems from the excessive number of false alarms produced by the existing fire alarm system. Review the system and documentation to discover the cause of the false alarms and fix that problem; you don’t need to replace the existing system.


On the other hand, you may discover the existing system has reached the end of its useful life, parts are unobtainable, or initiating devices are needed. Tell the customer his system has become obsolete and merits replacement.


The Annex A.17.7.1.9 in NFPA 72 2013, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, offers guidance on the causes of false alarms. Use this information to generate more questions for the owner/customer. You might ask if any of these conditions exist. The code states: “Smoke detectors can be affected by electrical and mechanical influences and by aerosols and particulate matter found in protected spaces. The location of detectors should be such that the influences of aerosols and particulate matter from sources such as … moisture, combustion products and fumes, atmospheric contaminants, engine exhaust or dust accumulations, or incomplete combustion.


“Similarly, the influences of electrical and mechanical factors such as vibration or shock gusts or excessive air velocity, radiation, radio frequency, intense light, lightning or electrostatic discharge … While it might not be possible to isolate environmental factors totally, an awareness of these factors during system layout and design favorably affects detector performance.”


Explain to the customer that each of these items can cause problems that may or may not be solved by equipment replacement. For example, if lightning presents an issue, the real problem may stem from improper system grounding. 


Many factors listed in the annex arise from poor installation or design or a combination of both. But, to effectively solve problems, you need to ask questions and possibly provide some investigatory services to get the answers. However, once you display your questioning skill and exhibit your expertise, most owner/customers will gladly pay for these investigatory services. This is particularly true if, in the long run, the answers help avoid a total system replacement. 


You may want to get creative and offer to credit the upfront investigation costs if the process discloses that the system needs replacing. Doing so may cause the owner to accept your bid and have your company finish the job, since you performed the initial work. 


And, if your investigation discloses that you only have to move some devices or change a portion of the system to fix the problem, the owner will likely choose to use you for all of his or her fire alarm system needs. Why? Because you are a problem-solver, not just someone providing a quote to repair, test, maintain or install a system.