When I was growing up, I remember a TV commercial slogan made famous by Sy Syms, the founder of Syms clothing stores: “An educated consumer is our best customer.” I believe we can adapt this slogan to the fire alarm system installation. How often do we try to educate the consumer?
I have found, when I’m face to face with a potential customer and really listen, I learn what the customer does not know. In part, this is because they don’t have much firsthand fire alarm experience beyond TV and misinformation provided by other contractors.
We know how to bid new systems designed by others; follow the requirements outlined in the specifications for the fire alarm system, possibly ask a question or two for clarification, and then bid the installation. In this bid scenario, most owners assume, if they make a show of asking for only what the code requires, they will get the biggest return on investment. So, in this first example, the customer might not have direct contact with you, so you will not have a chance to educate the customer in making their buying decision.
The second example can be approached in two ways. First, we assume the customer makes the call and asks for a quote on either installing a new system in an existing building or to upgrade an existing system.
What is the protocol here? Do you allow a customer that is uneducated in fire alarm systems dictate the types of detection they want and the number and locations of horn/strobes? I’ve written in the past why it is important to do the right thing, as well as why it is important to ask the customer what they expect from the fire alarm installation.
One of the first things to address (especially when replacing an existing fire alarm system) is to ask what problems the customer has with the existing system. For example, was the old system false-alarm-prone and why? If the false alarms were coming from spot-type smoke detectors, review their placement relative to the environment—that is, are they in a dirty environment, a high ceiling location, or an unheated area? Are they too close to a supply air or return air vent? Is a process occurring near the smoke detectors that is causing them to alarm?
All of this is especially important if the owner has been told by a competitor that they will change out the system doing a one-for-one replacement of all the devices. If the customer was having false alarms with the system before, they will continue to have false alarms with a one-for-one replacement. If the customer is educated about this issue, they will now suspect the other bid is wrong right from the start and should not be used as a guide for the system replacement costs. Other important questions include: Has the customers’ operation changed since the fire alarm system was installed? Also, have they renovated any part or all of their building? Additionally, you will want to know if the authority having jurisdiction has issued any violations on the existing system installation or performance.
As far as what the customer expects for the new fire alarm system, advise them that partial protection will rarely result in early warning.
Finally, there is bound to be a discussion regarding “meeting the code.” As stated earlier, the customer thinks those magic words will result in the least costly but most effective fire alarm system installation. If indeed the customer has a bid already stating that the other bidder will meet the code, ask them which codes were referenced. Of course, going in to the meeting, you should have a good background in what the jurisdiction requires as well as the correct editions of the building code and, of course, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.
I firmly believe that following Sy Syms’ advice will lead to a better relationship with customers. This will put you on your way to becoming a trusted advisor for all things related to fire alarm systems.