Customers Stealing Designs

Does anyone else deal with this problem?

Its very unusual if a customer has any remote clue how much time goes into a comprehensive design - particularly if they have never hired a security consultant to write up and create a scope for a project.

I have had several large scale designs submitted in a proposal stolen by customers who in essence took my scope and design and then put it out to bid.

One time I was able to raise objections and I was partially reimbursed when it was sent out to bid, but it took a lot of angry and frustrated phone calls in order to do so.

How often does this happen to you, and how do you deal with it?

It happend to me once before. I submitted by proposal, which included drawings and equipment lists to the client. The client in turn used my work to set the job requirements to other installers. I was surprised, to say the least. Someone else got the job anyway.

Happens to me all the time. Not sure what to do to prevent it.

Scott, this post addresses this: Stopping End Users from Shopping Quotes

And yes it definitely happens and it is a very frustrating experience.

There are a number of things you can do, which i do regularly. 1) Treat information as confidential and get the customer to sign an NDA which prohibits use of your work on any other projects by accepting the terms of the NDA. 2) include statements in your contracts that such work is proprietary and licensed only for this project. 3) Ensure your documents include statements of non-responsibility for work outside that which you are contracted to do, 4) Copyright your work. In fact, this is the best way, because you don't have to make your customer to do anything, but now you become the owner and as an owner, you are in a position to govern how the work is used and by whom. 5) put words or phrases or even marks on the documents that define them as your work. For example, put some text in the document and then change the font to white (Kind of like disappearing ink). 6) beware of "Work for Hire" clauses in any contracts you sign. This clause could give ownership of anything you produce in the course of the project to your customer to use how he sees fit. This could extend even to any copyrighted work as well. I usually try to strike this kind of language or at least limit it to stuff that is customer-specific (i.e. floor plans). Personally, i think copying someone's proprietary work is very unprofessional and the one time i had that happen, i told the client so (or at least my attorney did).

Jim, do you regularly get customers to sign NDAs? If so, I suspect you are the exception rather than the rule. I think most customers would be hard pressed to sign an NDA for an integrator's quote.

Copywrighting is typically implicit, though I think it would be a useful tactic to include a copyright reference in the footer of one's quotes/proposals. However, how are you going to enforce it against your customer? Sue them for copyright infringement? I am not even sure you would win unless they someone re-published it.

Scott, folks 'round these parts of the Midwest, have been known to use something they call 'short sheeting', based an old mapmaker trick. From what I hear them wily cartographers used to make little mistakes or additions, like a stream where there ain't never been one, just so they could catch copiers later who would just blindly copy the whole map with the mistakes to boot!

Anywho the way they do it varies, but a common one is just to make all the measurements short by some constant amount, say an inch, so you can still use it, but god help the lazy 'slammer who doesn't check the work himself...

Won't put a stop to rustlin' altogether, but you can sleep well knowing that somebody else is gonna have to 'show some plumbers crack' too, if they wanna get the numbers right and not just take your loot for nutin'

A few integrators that I know of charge a fee to do a systems design, and then credit the full amount of the fee back to the customer if they are actually selected to do the work. Most customers who recognize the value of design work are actually happy to pay such a fee.

You almost always have to assume that once you submit a proposal, its out there for anyone to see, use or copy in any manner that they see fit. Not right, but reality. While technically someone could sue if their designs were misappropriated, this would almost never be worth the time, expense in legal fees, and negative energy that such an action would create. My stuff gets copied/stolen all the time, and while tempted, I have never taken any type of retalitory action.

There is also a difference in the level of detail necessary to submit a proposal, and the level of detail necessary to provide a full-blown set of submittals and shop drawings. I recommend that only the required amount of information be provided at the proposal phase, with a more detailed design provided after the contract is awarded. Many integrators get excited and go overboard in their proposal preparation.

In my experience, VERY FEW people are looking to pay for a proposal even if it involves a lot of work. The consumers don't care about how much work is involved in you getting a contract! They are just shopping around and they don't see a need to pay for that. I had people swear at me and hang up when trying to get paid for such.

"VERY FEW people are looking to pay for a proposal even if it involves a lot of work"

I agree with you. In fairness, though, this is driven by so many integrators that are OK with giving away a detailed proposal for no cost, no conditions, etc. This has encouraged / taught by buyers that this is acceptable.

To that end, actually getting paid for a proposal not used is unlikely but, as others have mentioned here, at least calling their attention to this and offering a condition that they pay you if they decide to have someone else 'do' your proposal / design may work, e.g., Stopping End Users from Shopping Quotes

Well, one way one can deal with such situations is to tell the client that the products quote is free (provided the client knows what he/she wants, brandwise and everything else), but for professional on-site evaluation/consulation the fee is $150 / hour.

At my previous job as a Sales Engineer we didn't really do too much. All our prints had our logo and information on it but that was about it. If someone took it and used it to shop around or for whatever purpose we just shrugged it off. It helped us win a lot more than it lost us and if someone is going to take your design and shop it are they even worth pursuing as a long term customer or someone you want to try and sell RMR to?

In my opinion, the best way is to talk to your clients about their needs in a very thorough and technical way ... but on the written estimate, you include the least amount of details. There's no way they can remember everything you've told them orally. The more you talk to them in a technical way, the more confident they'll have in you as a professional integrator.

Holy crap is that bad advice! The last thing I want is someone speaking technical babble to me and then giving me a quote lacking detail.

You're right, that wasn't well thought out.

What do you suggest then to prevent prospective buyers from simply acquiring free knowledge as DIYourselfers? Online shopping is tempting ... and cheaper then what integrators actually pay (but buyers don't know that) via distrubution channel.


How much detail do you expect on a quote? We all agree its getting common to leave part numbers for products off the quote. I think if we could come to a consensus on what exactly a "detailed quote" is this would be a better discussion.

What I expect and what I normally get are not always the same. I also disagree with your “We all agree its getting common to leave part numbers for products off the quote” statement. I would NEVER go with a project that just listed Thirty AXIS cameras for X amount of dollars. Or heaven forbid, Thirty IP cameras for X amount of dollars. What good is that to anyone? All quotes I receive include part numbers.

What I expect is exact part numbers along with quantities as well as a detailed explanation as to what is included and what is NOT included. Not included should contain all the things that the project/system requires to function that is not included in the quote. This piece is what is often missing and is as important, if not more important, than what is actually included in the quote.

I don’t expect this for single camera jobs or smaller jobs, but anything over say 10-15K it better be as complete and detailed as possible.

Well, look on the bright side: the customers who take your quote and shop it around to the trunk slammers, are probably going to be hell to deal with in the long run (nothing's ever right, this camera needs adjusting AGAIN, is my DVR still under warranty after a lightning strike, blah blah blah) and you're better off NOT getting their work as any job you take with them will likely end up costing you more than it's worth.

So true! <s> It is those who want to pay the least that demand the most.

The only salespeople I personally take advantage of are the telemarketers. I show no interest at first, yet they really insist in meeting me at my place regardless. I just received one of them on Tuesday. Interesting stuff that Frenchy from France offered, but there's no way I would ever invest $150/month in something I can do myself ... building a 5-page website and optimizing it for search engines. Did I abuse this guy? Yes, but he insisted that I do ... <g>

Speaking as an end user (and devil’s advocate) what makes you think you are the only one who has suggested that particular course of action? When I do a walk through with potential vendors they all get the same maps, drawings and spiel. It is not uncommon at all for them to come back with pretty much the exact same plan. Perhaps the models or even brands used will be different, but the general design and implementation idea is the same.

If someone is copying your plan/design word for word via a cut and paste, OK I get that, but unless it is actually word for word with exact copies of the drawings you submitted isn’t it feasible that you are not the only knowledgeable person they brought in?

Again, playing devil’s advocate here.

If you don't want other people stealing your design then don't steal theirs!

I see no account here of anyone refusing any design provided by customer even if its clearly a free quote. For everyone of you that say that you have been violated, dare say that you have not 'worked off' or at least 'double checked' with someone else's quote?

I am witnessing Joe the Dealer and Jeff the Integrator saying 'the big, bad customer stole my design' and wallowing, even though in reality they both took from each other, with the proximate cause that each one got the job was being the 'Last Man In'.

Try this instead: (when handed a document that you believe to be non-remunerated)

"I can not in good conscience use another professional's unpaid design work since I would not wish mine to be used likewise."

Reputation Points: +10. This probably clinches the deal, if it doesn't then it still makes it more likely that the customer will abide by your wishes.

Or be there 'no honor among slammers'?

Where's the like button! :)

'no honor among slammers' .... lol

If you don't want other people stealing your design then don't steal theirs..

I recollect a similar sentiment was once uttered by long ago by an old-school master Carpenter, he called it using the Golden Ruler, I think.

I love this post. I typically have not been handed designs from customers listing everything I need to give a proper quote. I have however been handed a someone else's "quote" to "bid" on by a customer. I looked at it and wrote the customer that I refused to provide a quote on a bill of goods. The list of items desired did not address their current problems. It looked like someone went to Guitar Center and said I need new loudspeakers that are of lesser quality than I have now. When they were ready to talk about an appropriate design that would address their biggest issues, I would be happy to discuss those options. Two years later, they hadn't made any decision other than to meet and discuss. The design is currently being worked on.

Deliver all of your proposal and documents via Docusign, and to access the documents, they'll click OK, and within the documents they'll be signing your non disclosure agreements. Let me also advice you to place in clear public view the value of your work. Without that in the agreements, you'll never collect a dime. You must also specify the use of these documents, and define the misuse of these documents.

The Documents need to contain these limitations of use, and strictly forbid the use and viewing of these documents except by the need to know members of the team at ABC company. Any use by anyone other than these is strictly a no-no and strictly enforced.

Every industry has fought this battle from landscapers, etc... But you need to set the ground rules early in the sales process, you need to a budget, how else can you know if they can afford you or your product. Don't let them wiggle off the hook and not share a budget, and challenge them when they do. $25,000, uh, is that to include three years of onsite support too?

Place a value on the proposal right up front, and you're happy to present a full proposal on one condition.

try this too.

1. You want to be the last proposal they review, and when you arrive with the proposal you want to leave with your proposal or a signed sales agreement. You'll bring you sales engineer and price book if we need to make any changes right there.

Over the years I have had many a customer call me to meet and discuss security at their location, and they immediately go to predetermined locations saying they want a camera here, a camera there, etc etc.

I usually try to put the brakes on that and change the meeting to discussing what they need to do, what challenges they have and obstacles that they have had in the past to implement security changes, I try to get a good overall picture of what they do, what they need, where they are vulnerable, where they need help and support, etc. How can I differentiate myself from anyone else that is coming in and essentially becoming an order taker. Its better to set the pace of the discussion rather than follow someone else's footsteps.

I have gone into locations where they pointed out an elaborate camera system, had great maps and locations picked out, where i knew multiple bidders were being brought in at different times. In one of those instances, I took 2-3 mins to look at the maps, sat them down, got to know alot more about them and how they operated. In the end, I didnt submit a quote for cameras like they had requested. I gave them one for access control and explained why the solution they were really seeking and needing was not going to be on the maps and bids that everyone else was going to be giving.

I ended winning that bid, and I also got the camera system that they were looking for the next year.

The best defense is a strong and disciplined process of qualifying project opportunities during the selling process. This includes asking what the customer process will be for review of the proposal, buying process and award. If they stumble, then first red flag just went up. Secondly, possesion of detailed design documents should be carefully considered based on customer qualification. A presentation of documents and review in person to show work and detail doesn't mean you need to leave them behind. If someone wants your detailed work without a commitment, you need to ask yourself one question..."Do you feel lucky, well do you?" Third, if you can get Clint Eastwood to ride along on your sales calls, strategy #2 becomes really effective!


You say, "The best defense is a strong and disciplined process of qualifying project opportunities during the selling process."

So let's say multiple red (or even yellow) flags are raised in the qualifying process. Are you recommending integrators walk away?

In my experience, many sales people really struggle with walking away from a deal and are determined to fight to the end. Thoughts?

I believe it was the American poet-philosopher Kenny Rogers who once said "You've got to know when to hold them, and, contra, know when to fold them", or words to that effect.

We all know good companies that chocked to death on the Sunk Cost fallacy. Some of us worked for those companies and went down with the ship. You must be able to walk away from a deal if it starts to smell hinky, or you're going to find yourself up to your neck in hinky eventually, which is a lot less fun than it sounds.

Besides, a customer who steals your design is a customer who will screw you when the bill comes due. Let the guy down the street break his head against a wall trying to collect from that customer.

So true. I was so desperate for contracts that I accepted anything and God knows I paid the price for it ... Not only is it very difficult to get paid by those ruthless people, but some of them may even sue you with false allegations.

It happens pretty often... But then again i win more bids than actual times people steal my designs...

But majority of the jobs that we win is because majority of the customers are honest and appreciate the hard work and the design you do for them...

Everyone has their own way to design and charge for it... But if something has been working for you to win the sales, even if the 1 dis-honest customer shows up, why would you change the strategy that has been working for you...

Here's a new one, maybe. I just got an estimate for one of them Jacuzzi's from somebody I went to school with. The bid took about 3hrs and had measurements and some parts and labor costs. I told him I wasn't gonna get another bid on it, but asked him just to see what he would say about people who would take his quote and shop it out.

What he said shocked the bejesus outta me. He says he encourages them to! I guess there are only 4 or 5 of those guys in the area to start with and one is his brother-in law and the other his former partner! Both of them won't turn down the work but they will push him back a commission on the sale.

I noticed also that he also name dropped these "competitors" to me in subtle ways, like saying "well you could do it that way, thats what they do over at ABC or even XYZ, and don't get me wrong those guys know what theyre doin', but i think..."

You get the idea...

Ethical? You can't cheat a cheat right?

My baby brother used to do something like that. For a long time, he was the only guy in town for commercial fire alarms. Lots of electricians and prime contractors advertised it, but they just subbed it out to him. So he couldn't care less if a customer wanted to shop around, and let every contractor decide how much profit they wanted to make, he wasn't going to make a dime less.

Even when other companies came to market, they were all one small step above trunkslammers who repeatedly failed inspections and were generally incompetent. Baby bro had all the work he wanted, and let the bargain hunters get stuck with semifunctional fire alarms.