Don’t Sell Yourself Short: Tips for selling fire alarm and mass notification systems

I recently received an email from a reader who wanted advice about how to become a salesperson in the fire alarm systems field. To answer, I need to address issues on many levels.

First, a salesperson needs the ability to sell. But, in my opinion, we all have that talent to some degree. It just becomes more apparent in some of us than others. So, assuming you have the skill, I believe you must possess a passion to save lives to be successful in the field of fire alarm systems. If you just want to make a living, then you should probably sell something else, such as appliances or cars.

Having the passion to save lives will drive you to read and try to understand “dry” code books, such as NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code; NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code; and the International Building Code.

Consider joining the organizations of the local fire marshal or fire prevention officer. These represent the authority having jurisdiction, and it is important to become familiar with the people who will eventually review and, hopefully, approve your work.

Codes and standards drive the fire alarm and mass notification system (MNS) design and installation business. But there is a lot more to master if you want to successfully sell these systems.

Another reader asked me if one needs to have skills and training as an electrician to sell fire alarm and mass notification systems. In my opinion, you do not need an electrician’s license. However, a technical aptitude for electrical things is necessary. Accompany an fire alarm equipment installation crew and follow them on a job site. If you do that often enough, you will develop a feeling for how to install fire alarm and mass notification systems.

Familiarity will make you a better salesperson. By reviewing what equipment was purchased and observing the installation process, you may even figure out mistakes inexperienced salespeople make that cause the installation crews headaches.

In addition to having a passion to save lives, understanding the codes and standards and having at least a minimum technical comprehension, a salesperson must also understand construction and know how to read a set of building plans.

Are you ready to sell? Not yet! Get to work and apply the basics.

Study the code books to determine the minimum systems required in each commercial occupancy you plan to sell. You will also need to contact the AHJs, directly or online, to determine if there are any modifications to the codes and standards for fire alarm or mass notification system installations in their jurisdictions.

During this research, you may find that other codes, such as the Life Safety Code, may apply. For MNSs, you will also need to comprehend the risk analysis process. You will find that by reading and studying NFPA 72, and some of the other documents referenced in the code. This will lead to a better understanding of these necessary concepts.

Once you know the minimum requirements, determine if you have a strong enough fire protection background to recommend more than the minimum. Don’t fall into the trap of only selling the minimum system simply because “that’s what the code requires.” Strive to build the knowledge and understanding so that you can properly recommend better protection to meet customers’ needs.

Reading and studying the codes is one way to gain an understanding of what they require. But, to better serve your customers, you must understand the “why” behind detection, audibility and intelligibility.

Asking good questions and carefully listening to the answers is one of the best ways to serve your customers. Ask the customer, “What fire protection goals have you determined?” Nine out of 10 times, the customer will not have a response beyond “I just want to meet code” and they won’t really know what that means. So, keep asking questions that will guide them to a fire protection goal.

For example, ask how much of an interruption to their business they can tolerate. After a fire occurs, can they afford to wait to rebuild while their customers find another source for the product they make or service they sell? Help the customer understand that the customer might not wait for them to get back to normal operations and may move on to another company.

Explain to the customer that if they just install a fire alarm system that meets the minimum code requirements—instead of installing a system that truly meets their actual needs and carefully thought-through fire protection goals—they run the risk of harming their business.

You must also learn how to become a credible adviser to your customers. How do you react when a local fire marshal tells your customers that they must install a certain high-end product? Hopefully, you have established a relationship with the fire marshal to determine what minimums will satisfy the jurisdiction’s requirements. Attendance at the fire marshal organization meetings may pay off, in instances such as this one, if you know the fire marshal on a more personal basis.

Before you attempt to discuss anything with the fire marshal, go back and study the code books. NFPA 72 will help the most at first. The Handbook of the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code is also useful. If you have decided that this is the profession you wish to pursue, and you have the passion for the “why,” buy the handbook. It includes the complete code text and illustrations with additional information that will guide you as to why certain requirements are in place.

As you read and study the code, pay attention to the Annex A portion. Anytime you see an asterisk next to a requirement, you will find additional information in Annex A. These explanatory paragraphs will help you better understand why a particular requirement has found its way into the code.

All these recommendations are just a few of the means and methods necessary to develop your fire alarm and mass notification systems sales abilities.

I do have one more obvious recommendation. I urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to seek as much education as you can get from every possible resource.

First, start with the manufacturers of the products that you will plan to sell. Learn the products inside and out. Understand all their applications. Compare their applications with those related requirements outlined in NFPA 72.

Then, as you launch your sales career, start small. Do not try to sell a 20-story high-rise voice evacuation fire alarm system on your first day. In this business, you absolutely must know the code requirements and take responsibility for the design decisions you initiate in the sales process. If you make a mistake, own and fix it. Don’t blame it on the AHJ.

You can succeed as an effective salesperson if you heed my advice. Once you earn the reputation for being a trusted adviser to your customer and a responsible sales engineer in the field, your sales will grow exponentially.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. He is a vice president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office and can be...

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