The business of selling and buying building controls

fig 1
Fig. 1: Selling the integration of packages such as HVAC, security, lighting etc. requires a relationship between the systems integrator and the end user to reduce life-cycle costs and solve business problems (red dots), whereas selling open protocols to enable one package to communicate with another is arranged at the contracting stage to reduce the cost of system installation (blue dots).
Marketing building controls is different from other products and systems. Appreciating the differences between packaged integration and selling open protocols is important to those marketing building controls and also to those buying the services of systems integrators. John Nicholls explains.What makes building-controls marketing different from any other product or service marketing — apart from poor dress sense? The answer is that research undertaken during a recent survey showed that successful engineers of integrated systems were, beyond question, trusted by the end-user. I wonder how many other industries can lay claim to such a statement. Integration, the hot topic in the building-controls industry, would traditionally be marketed taking a 3-pronged approach. • Lower-cost installation — fewer networks, co-ordination, training, documentation, sales overheads, communication etc. • Lower life-cycle cost — single service visits for multi-disciplines, reduced stock levels and single system thinking for training, holiday and sickness cover. • A smarter building — applications interact, swiftly, without the need and delay of human consultation, all of which results in greater utility savings. However, life has moved on from the 3-pronged pitch. Feature-based selling that favoured the seller is making way for an application-based approach that considers the needs of the customer and its business. Customer-biased thinking is far from being new. We have all read the books, so we all know that we ought to put ourselves in the customer’s shoes — but the years pass by and good habits fade. The marketing definition of building controls integration has also changed. ‘Package integration’ brings together HVAC, security, lighting etc. There is, however, the integration of differing systems using open protocols. These two concepts are entirely different, but are often not differentiated when marketed to a confused end-user. Selling package integration There are two aspects to selling package integration — vertical market selling and process selling. Vertical market selling Package integration selling is vertical market selling; they are one and the same. To sell ‘packaged integration’ you need to understand the applications within specific markets such as hotels, airports, universities, hospitals etc. The key to vertical selling is to understand the way in which applications within each of these specific markets co-exist. Conversations are end-user biased and the integration sales engineer needs to demonstrate his/her knowledge of the client’s business. For an airport installation for example, the integration conversation will cover air-bridges, tenant utilities, airfield lighting, baggage handling, ground power units, and more. Often, vertical market selling requires a dedicated person or team — someone who lives, breathes and dies, airports, hotels, telecoms, or car manufacture. Process selling Map out the customer’s business processes and design the integration around the business — not just what they provide (be it a finished product or service) but the processes involved in taking their product/service to market, now and in the future. Effectively, you are solving their business problems. This approach is also known as ‘consultative selling’, with the salesperson winning client trust by demonstrating that they genuinely care about solving their client’s business process problems. They do not act like gung-ho double-glazing deal makers! As a result, they get invited into the client’s inner circle. Systems integrator survey Vertical and process selling lend themselves more towards the building life-cycle (75% of a building’s cost) rather than the construction phase (25% of a building’s cost). They require greater communication towards the end-user rather than transient contractors. When researching the sale of integration, a considerable number of systems integrators who have repeatedly sold integration were consulted. No magic formulae exist, but there are some notable correlations. Systems integrators who have successfully sold package integration (HVAC, security, lighting etc.) reported that over 50% of total company turnover came from end-users. The successful sellers of open-protocol integration interestingly stated that over 50% of turnover came from contractors. Package integration organisations appeared more comfortable with the life-cycle sell (red dots in Fig. 1). Open protocol seemed sharper at the construction/new build phase (blue dots in Fig. 1). However, it is possible, but rare, to be proficient in both categories. We could call these organisations purple dots! Inverting the pyramid The vast majority of sales courses since the 1920s are tailored towards sales of low financial value They follow the pyramid model shown (left in Fig. 2). The emphasis is placed on closing techniques, as decisions can then be made during a single sales call. There is less transaction time, sales heroism is required, and it is sometimes easier for the client to say ‘yes’ than argue a point — particularly where the financial consequences are not great.
— Fig. 2: The traditional approach to selling (left) based on ‘closing the deal’ for low-cost products is not appropriate for selling package integration. Much more time and effort has to be put into identifying the needs and building trust (right).
Selling systems, integration or otherwise, turns the pyramid upside down (right in Fig. 2). The greater financial value involved in selling a control system means the decision is made when the sales person is out of the room. The transaction time is longer, perceived value has more importance, the process is staged, and there are multiple points of influence. As the salesperson is not in the room when the decision is made, he or she needs to give the client sponsor the script to sell in their absence. Additionally, the initial ‘trust’ between salesperson and client, together with any early actions that need to be taken by either party, need to be thorough so that sale closing is automatic. Consequently, the traditional closing techniques become redundant and are left to the photocopy machine industry. Open protocol selling I have predominately concentrated on package integration and life-cycle selling. On the other side of the coin lies open-protocol integration. This type of integration was originally marketed as a horizontal link between competing systems — an end-user’s panacea, freeing them from the shackles of a single manufacturer. Such integration, however, is better suited to vertical applications, combining non-competitive packages, such as HVAC controls/chillers/AHUs or access/CCTV/lighting. This is a construction-phase sell — dealing more often than not with contractors and reducing the cost of system installation. In the survey, ‘trust’ was a recurring theme. Whichever type of integration we are selling, taking time to understand the client’s processes is essential. Those who have succeeded have been granted the trust and confidence of the client. The survey findings, therefore, may not have been all that surprising after all. John Nicholls is managing director of John Nicholls Consultants Ltd, a member of the Building Controls Industry Association. His company specialises in management consultancy for small and medium size companies, enabling organisations to grow acquisitively and organically.
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