A Walk on the Dark Side

Technical writing opportunities with product manufacturers

David J. Wyatt, CDT

Within the community of specification writers, both the craft’s future—as it is presently understood—and the uncertainty of steady employment are ongoing concerns initiating lengthy discussions. Some foresee dystopias in which computers managed by an elite few perform all the brainwork. Certainly, the economic problems we have endured the past five years have something to do with this negative perception. More moderate views hold there will always be work for skilled technical writers. But for whom will they work?

Quality management expert W. Edwards Deming said, “Any manager can do well in an expanding market.” The same might be said of design work in general. Are we as good as we think we are? Does specialization place us at the center or near the fringe of the architectural/engineering (A/E) disciplines? Are few specifiers a good thing, or a bad thing?

In the construction product sector, outside the comfort zone of many specification writers, substantial consulting and writing opportunities are available. The design and industrial spheres need each other to advance their respective interests, but they do not always communicate well. The special skills of a talented specification writer can bridge the perceptual gap separating them.

Since manufacturers understand well-conceived guide specifications increase the likelihood their having products used for a project, they become the foundations of architectural marketing programs. (At the same time, design professionals and their clients recognize the benefits of guide specifications well-prepared by manufacturing concerns.) Therefore, the need for specification writers exists, and manufacturers usually pay well for their services—often better than the wages paid to technical staffers in A/E firms.

However, getting used to the way things are done on the other side of the divide—the ‘dark side,’ as it is called by some—takes patience, and not all specifiers who attempt the move are suited for it. Remaining on good terms with manufacturers under work-for-hire arrangements requires the specifier to get used to the general perspective of manufacturing concerns.

The perspective is radically different than that of most design firms. It is colored by the daily pressures of active competition (foreign and domestic), government oversight and regulation, public relations, and the near-certainty modest gains being quickly followed by immodest downturns. Thus, a guide specification is a marketing tool in the manufacturer’s eyes—it must somehow give it an advantage over its competitors.

Persuasive writing
As a product manufacturer’s primary interest is the bottom line, every dollar invested is made with profit as a goal. This is why specs originating from those sources often bear a promotional or marketing bias—the bane of firm-bound professionals and a reason a purist specifier might not last long in that world.

Here is an example of how a specification for a masonry restoration product clearly crosses the line separating ‘pure specifying’ as a trained construction documents technologist (CDT) might do it, and the style of a marketing-driven interest:

Rheoplastic, pourable, shrinkage-compensated repair concrete. It has a unique formulation that provides excellent bond, resistance to sulfates and chlorides, high electrical resistivity, low permeability, high-compressive strengths, and protection from corrosion.

From a business manager’s standpoint, this is well-written. The superlatives “high,” “low,” “unique,” and “excellent” do not offend those ears. However, to a design professional, very little of it is useful.

Here is how the specifier finally used the information in a specification:

Rheopolastic repair concrete, sulfate and chloride-resistant

… followed by the name of the product identified as the basis of design.

Who is right? The writer who receives his or her paycheck from the manufacturer on a regular basis must adjust.

Although specifiers may use manufacturer guide specifications regularly, actually writing a good one is not as easy as it may appear. For example, if you let a manufacturer have its way, Part 2–Products might read something like the long cetology chapters of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick—more details than you or anyone else needs, but still important to the teller. No one really wants to know how to get the oil out of the whale. We know it must be hard. We just need to know who knows.

Finding prospects
In just about every region, there is a tier of manufacturers who make well-designed building products, but who lack the accoutrements design professionals are used to seeing, such as standardized product binders, technical data sheets, and guide specifications that can steer them to the architectural mainstream. Sometimes this indicates they do not participate regularly in the design, procurement, and construction stage processes with which A/Es are familiar.

They may supply products directly to building owners through purchase agreements, and have all the business they can handle. Or perhaps they may manufacture specialized equipment and do not need architectural marketing programs to maintain their market share. Others may have tried marketing to A/Es, but failed by using the wrong approach. Finally, there are manufacturers who are new to the architectural world, are unfamiliar with its customs, and need some guidance. The two latter groups might benefit best from the specifier’s technical writing skills.

Qualifying leads and making contacts
Previewing manufacturer websites and pre-qualifying potential clients is fairly easily. Lack of technical documents, or at least ones in conventional formats, indicates the need (if not desire) to communicate better with A/Es.

Next comes exerting one’s own marketing talents, if any, by contacting those prospects and scheduling face time. This alone helps the pioneering spec writer understand how rejection feels—perhaps the same kind of rejection he or she doled out for years while luxuriating on the design side.

Treating the person who answers the phone with decency increases the chance the caller eventually gets to a decision-maker. Hours, days, and even weeks of marketing effort is wasted on well-meaning but powerless people in low-to middle management positions who are happy to give an utterly false image of their importance in their company. To really get somewhere, the specifier needs the ear of the man or woman who made the company what it is—the one who invented the product and brought it to prominence through years of unrelenting, sleepless effort. This takes patience, because those key decision-makers are often so busy, they may not be heard from for a long time after initial contact. But when they do come around, one usually finds the wait was worth it. The question is, once you have their attention, what do you do with it?

Selling yourself
Should this situation happen for you, it becomes crucial to tell that person you are a specification writer. You may be surprised to find he or she has some idea of what that means—much more-so than your friends, relatives, or even your spouse. This gets the conversation started. At this point, you should close your mouth, open your ears, and let this person tell you how real things get done in this world—with real materials, time, effort, and bona fide risk.

When it is your turn to speak, you can explain how relationships with architects and engineers might expand the business if the company had the proper tools. You could begin with something simple, like a data sheet, which, for our purposes, is the simplest and purest specification form. Since examples usually work better than verbal explanations, this is a good time to show them technical documents that work.

It is important to let the manufacturer know early on that architectural marketing is a cold process. The design stage lasts for months and often years. At its end still lies a fairly long procurement process, followed by a protracted payment period (especially in public-sector work). It’s a long time between drinks, one might say.

While a specification is an effective architectural marketing tool, the manufacturer should know it must follow certain conventions in order to fix the A/E’s attention. Superlatives that hold sway over the mainstream consumer usually have the opposite effect on design professionals. An A/E’s comfort range is something like Death Valley or one of the polar ice caps, whereas the manufacturer feels more at home in the tropics. In spite of these factors, the astute manufacturer can realize a satisfactory return on the investment in the specification writer’s skills.

He or she who broadens the definition of ‘specification writer’ to ‘technical documents writer’ may find lots of opportunities to write. In addition to specifications per se, there are construction-related documents of several sorts, including technical data sheets, maintenance instructions, product certification letters, and even continuing education programs.

While manufacturers offer specification writers new and welcome business opportunities, such work also helps them develop skills and gain awareness of the product supply chain they otherwise might not have.

In the end, it is humbling—but good—to suffer rejection, being ignored, or simply having to wait in a long line only to discover one’s talents need a fair amount of honing. A long walk on the ‘dark side’ of manufacturing can provide the specification writer those experiences.

To steal another line from Deming: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

David J. Wyatt, CDT, is the specifications writer for TC Architects (Akron, Ohio), where he is responsible for product research, technical specifications, bidding documents, preparation of project manuals, construction contracts, construction bulletins, shop drawing review, and contract close-out for all project. With the late Hans Meier, Wyatt co-authored Construction Specifications: Principles and Applications. He can be reached at dwyatt@tcarchitects.com.

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