Consultant Says: Improve Our Specs / Design And Maybe Win?

There is an interesting article from consultant Bob Grossman.

Here's the conclusion and key claim:

it is frustrating to listen to bidders complain that we only look at price when all you give us to look at is price. Everyone has great references, a nice Web site and some really sharp people working there. But not everyone has the product knowledge to improve upon our specifications and add value based on their “real world” experiences. If you have that kind of knowledge, let it show in your bid responses and proposals. We’re all looking for happy customers and a reasonable profit margin, and if you’ve got ideas that can move a project in that direction, you may just have the “special sauce” the client is looking for.

The net/net is: if you can improve the specifications / design, you may get yourself the job.

The most likely counters are (1) the consultant is already set it stone what they want or (2) they will take the information provided and turn around and use it to find the lowest bid to implement that approach.

But, on the other hand, if a consultant was really open and willing, his advice could be very helpful for knowledgeable integrators.

What do you think?


As a consultant, I advise my clients to look at a lot more than price when selecting an integrator. Experience with similar projects using similar products is very important to me, as well as the depth of the integrator's overall project team. Good references and the integrator's demonstrated track record in solving problems when things go wrong are also big factors in my recommendations to the client. (All integrators look good when things go well, the real test of an integrator for me is how well they respond when things go badly. In many cases, this is due to no fault of their own, such as a bad product from a manufacturer.)

In many cases, I can convince a client to pay a 15% to 20% premium to get a more qualified integrator. But if the price difference is higher, it is difficult to convince the client to select the higher-priced integrator no matter how qualified he or she is. In public works projects, usually the client's hands are tied - he must choose the lowest bid unless there is material proof that the low bidder is unqualified or has made a major mistake.

Sometimes (believe it or not) the client chooses to ignore my advice completely and selects the low bidder or someone he has a previous relationship with. Remember that in most cases, the client, not the consultant, makes the final decisions.

When I specify a specific product or group of products in a specification, integrator's need to understand that this is not something I pull out of the air - the decision is usually based on many weeks or months of product research, visits to existing sites where the product is installed, and factory product demonstrations with client representatives. At this late stage in the process, final decisions have already been made, and we are generally not willing to entertain other products or design approaches.

That being said, I often allow bidders to submit two proposals: one that fully complies with my specifications, and a second that utilizes alternative products or a different design approach suggested by the bidder. Within this second proposal, a strong case needs to be made as to why this alternative proposal benefits the client. Being significantly less expensive usually always gets the attention of the client, but other benefits can sometimes tip the scales as well. Alternative proposals that benefit only the bidder (Milestone is specified but the integrator sells only Exacq so proposes it instead) are rarely successful.

I discuss this topic in more detail in my article How Security Integrators Can Succeed Working With Consultants

I often allow bidders to submit two proposals: one that fully complies with my specifications, and a second that utilizes alternative products or a different design approach suggested by the bidder. Within this second proposal, a strong case needs to be made as to why this alternative proposal benefits the client.

Good feedback. How often do you think this works out for the integrator? i.e., the second proposal wins? And would you straight award it for that off spec proposal or would you typically rebid?

If I have done my job right, the products that I specified are what best meets the client's needs and it will probably be difficult for the integrator to come up with something that is significantly better or cheaper. This may sound arrogant, but is generally true. As a result, it is rare that that the second proposal is accepted, but it does happen.

In one case, we specified a "Brand A" access control system at a new facility because it matched what was used at the client's existing facility. One proposer wanted to use a "Brand B" access control system at the new facility, and within his second proposal, agreed to replace all existing Brand A panels at the existing facility with Brand B panels at no charge. The owner liked this approach and accepted the second proposal.

In another case, we specified several major brand name access control systems, but in an alternative proposal, a bidder proposed to use a lesser-known access control product that was part of a building automation suite of products. I thought that the system proposed was a poor choice and locked the customer into a single provider, so recommended that the alternative proposal be rejected. But the client liked the approach and proceeded with the alternative proposal despite my objections.

If I decided to accept an alternative proposal, I would normally award the project directly to the proposer who submitted it. Taking the ideas from the alternative proposal, writing a new spec based on it, and rebidding the project is not something I would personally do. I suppose that some public works laws could require something like this, but I would consider it unethical.

If I have done my job right, the products that I specified are what best meets the client's needs and it will probably be difficult for the integrator to come up with something that is significantly better or cheaper. This may sound arrogant, but is generally true.

I believe that. I also suspect that whether or not the consultant is good or bad, they will likely come to the same conclusion :)

That leads to my main concern: Should you invest time in doing a free alternative design? Especially considering the probability of success...

Actually, many of the unqualified consultants out there (particularly the A/E types with no security system expertise) are probably praying that a qualified integrator will come along and tell them how to do it right..

I agree that the decision to invest time in preparing an alternative design is a tough one for the integrator to make. For me, it would depend largely on how I felt about the integrity of the client and the potential for a profitable long-term relationship.

IMHO, at best it's wishful thing, at worst it's bad advice.

While offering a part sub, or an alternate vendor might be accepted, as your "design improvement" starts to resemble an actual change to the architecture, i.e., "I think that retina scanners are a better fit than prox cards in this case", the odds of acceptance plummet, even if the suggestion is sound.

There's a hundred ways to skin a cat, and a good integrator might know a few options that a strong case could be made for. But making that case to 'show your sauce' is most likely a dead end, and possibly detrimental to your chances, even if you submit 2 bids.

Let's face it, the consultant is being paid to be the 'brains' of the project, and unless he is an extraordinarily confident expert and unusually humble, he will naturally be resistant to anything that could lessen his value or abilities in the eyes of the client.

Integrators are no different. It's like when one of their junior tech suggests that 568-B might be the way to go here, or makes any number of reasonable suggestions that are not in line with the integrators way of doing things.

It just ain't happenin'

Some of this misses the point I was trying for in the article. Not all changes need to be wholesale design changes; some are "tweaks" that can give us a sense of how and integrator selects products and speak to their strengths in supporting their installations.

Cameras were an example I used. We often specify Axis cameras because they are a known quantity, widely distributed, and easy to cross. We've had great success with other brands and an integrator using their "house brand" may be more responsive than one who doesn't ordinarily carry the brand we specify but ordered the product because they were afraid to substitute. I'm talking "like" products here, not unproven low-end imports.

We also had a bidder decline to bid on a project recently because we specified performance for wireless networking without picking a brand and model number. In that case there were a lot of products that fit the bill, the wireless equipment wasn't a significant portion of the project, and we wanted them to use products that they supported. Still, the integrator wanted us to specify something which told me that they may not have much experience in that area. We got enough other bids on the project, and I honestly can't remember which brand the winning bidder was using. Their track record was sufficient for me to go with their experience on that project.

Again, many consultants (including Michael Silva, it sounds like) are looking to recommend the best alternative to their clients, and that's not always the low bidder. Sure, there's a limit to the premium a client will pay, but you need to help us understand why you're worth that premium and it needs to be more than slick marketing material and an overly long response package.

We often specify Axis cameras because they are a known quantity, widely distributed, and easy to cross. We've had great success with other brands and an integrator using their "house brand" may be more responsive than one who doesn't ordinarily carry the brand we specify but ordered the product because they were afraid to substitute. I'm talking "like" products here, not unproven low-end imports.

So if an integrator responded with a lower cost camera than Axis you would consider that? What would they need to do to convince you to go with that brand?

We would look at the specs and validate with our own experience and feedback from peers. It happens often - we just finished a project in Las Vegas where Sony cameras were used and are starting one that subbed Samsung cameras. I would say Axis, though specified, is actually installed about 25% of the time. There are a lot of good cameras out there, and many are going into areas where lighting and environmental considerations are not a concern, so we're not really taking much of a risk.

We routinely specify a 3-year warranty with our projects, and if an integrator has been around a while, is willing to support the alternate, and will swap it out for the specified camera if there's a problem, I think it's a win/win. I don't think we've ever has to take them up on the swap out, either. The integrator doesn't want to go to the expense of added service calls so they tend to be careful.

I would say Axis, though specified, is actually installed about 25% of the time.

Do you include a list of equals or acceptable alternatives or do you just list Axis to start? How does the integrator know that others would even be considered?

We provide a performance specification and the Axis model that meets that particular specification. Listing Axis is like listing Belden cable - everyone knows what you are talking about and has no trouble crossing it.

As far as encouraging substitutions, we often include language in our specification that is similar to what was included in bullet point 2 in the article:

We understand that many bidders work with other brands of cameras and bidders are encouraged to substitute cameras with comparable or better performance, construction and reliability. In such cases we ask only that the bidder be prepared to substitute the listed camera in specific areas where the substitution they intend to use does not meet the required performance level, at no additional cost to the project

From what I have seen at least, integrators are not necessarily shy about proposing brands and/or products that do not fall within the spec, and therefore might not need blanket encouragement there.

Perhaps then, one of the aims of the article is to discourage those who do this for solely their own gain, by emphasizing when it actually is appropriate?

You are absolutely right. The consultant needs to "trust but verify" and the integrator needs to act like a team player, not a trunk slammer.