Know Your Goal: Are You Selling Fire Alarm Systems Or Fire Protection?

Hand lifting a red scarf from the palm of another

How do you sell fire alarm and emergency communications systems and services? If you have been doing something for a while without any change, it might be time to examine that process and whether it still works, is relevant or could be done better.

I believe the way you sell now, you bid to meet a specification or you bid to meet the code. In the first instance, you had no design input and assumed the owner explained to the engineer what the fire protection goals were, and the engineer designed accordingly. You take the position that what the engineer laid out is all you should bid on, and you simply you perform a takeoff from the plans to create the list of equipment needed. You provide the list of equipment to one or two fire alarm systems equipment suppliers, and unless you choose not to review their bids in detail, you use the lowest bidder for your installation quote to the owner. You, of course, based your installation quote on the list of equipment from your takeoff.

Let’s assume that this is a potential new client. If you approached the bid in this way, then you have not differentiated yourself to the owner, and he or she will inevitably judge your bid against others based on price. And when you find out you lost to another contractor whose bid was higher than yours, you scratch your head and wonder what happened.

The first mistake you made was assuming the engineer had asked the owner what his or her fire protection goals were. You also assumed that the design was code-compliant. What difference does this make in the grand scheme of bidding on systems? If the design is incorrect and does not meet the requirements, you will get the opportunity to submit, and charge for the change. Additionally, if the owner is not happy with the design, that becomes the engineer’s problem and not yours, right?

As I suggested, it might be time to reexamine your current sales process. For example, what if through self-exploration, you determined that the engineer made some clear errors in the design. You also know for a fact that the local authority having jurisdiction will not approve the installation if you follow that design. You know this because you took the time to get to know the AHJ and what he or she looks for in a quality and code-compliant installation.

Your first option is to discuss the issues with the engineer. Again, if you differentiate yourself to the engineer, you will probably be asked to work with him or her again. After all, if you save the grief of being responsible for the delayed occupancy permit becaues of fire alarm system design errors, the engineer should be grateful and impressed with your attention to detail. You may even get called in during the design stage of a future project, which will give you the opportunity to be better prepared for when the project is out for bids.

Sometimes you deal directly with owners. When you have these opportunities, it will benefit you if you start off differently than previously. What do you do if the owner states he only wants to meet the code? In that case, review his operational plans. You know that he’s not a fire alarm system expert nor aware of the AHJ requirements. In fact, he does not even know what questions to ask.

Armed with this knowledge, take the time to explain why you think simply designing the system to meet code is not the right approach. In other words, sell fire protection. Make sure these owners understand you are trying to ensure their project meets their overall goals, not to line your pockets. Moreover, this approach will ensure the approval of the AHJ the first time the system is acceptance-tested.

You win because some owners have multiple buildings or multiple existing systems that they want you to replace. So ask them about their false alarm experiences. Typically, they have probably suffered through false alarms, tenants being upset at the interruptions in their activities, or, worse, the owner has lost real dollars with business interruptions or had trouble getting workers to refocus on their work after responding to false alarms. Additionally, the AHJ can fine owners for false alarms.

Determining what the owner’s hot buttons are helps you sell a better fire alarm system. If the existing system did not meet the code, you can show again why your bid merits a more serious look. This discussion may also lead to opportunities to “audit” the other fire alarm systems the owner may oversee. This approach takes a little extra time but most owners, like the previous engineer example, will begin to look at you as a trusted adviser rather than just another money grabber.

Ask owners about other systems they may be upgrading. This questioning could lead to upgrading the fire alarm system to an in-building fire emergency voice/alarm communications systems (EVACS). With that change, launch a discussion regarding mass notification system (MNSs). You can explain that the loudspeakers used for the EVACS system can serve and also be used for the MNS.

Can other processes be re-evaluated or perform better? Sure. In the sales process, you are always attempting to position yourself as the best choice for owners to use for all their systems work. This is a good time to determine if you want to offer additional systems that will complement, or be integrated into, the fire alarm system.

For example, you may want to offer access control or security systems. If you do not feel comfortable performing that work, then seriously look at collaborating with a contractor who can perform that work as a subcontractor to you. Or reverse the process and collaborate with sound and communications contractors who may be installing a public address system that could be integrated with your work.

Selling your services must be evaluated given the current changes in technology and the code. In addition, you want to sell all your services to every potential customer. You should be able to service what you sell and, assuming you do, then you should be writing service contracts before the installation is finished. Maybe you offer to extend the customer’s normal one-year warranty for your systems installation to two years and include a two-year testing contract. This technique will cost you very little, especially if you use reliable equipment and perform a quality installation.

The bottom line is that now might be a good time to examine your sales process to determine what still works or if you should make changes. Someone once told me that if you rest, you rust. Don’t rest on your sales process without revaluation regularly. After all, increases in sales lead to increased profits and growth.

That’s the real bottom line!

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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