Understand and incorporate the emerging role of the "salesmantendent."
by Gregg M. Schoppman
December 19, 2013

Many people often draw analogies between the front line of a war-torn battlefield and a construction project. More specifically, the stereotype of the construction superintendent is that of the rigid field general with the demeanor of Patton and the social graces of Genghis Khan, barking orders to his or her troops. Subcontractors, suppliers, laborers, foremen and operators either fall into ranks or line up on the opposing battle line. Aggressive, “old school” superintendents take the perspective of “us versus them.” In the heat of battle, subcontractors, suppliers and, unfortunately, the customers tend to fall victim to the aggressive and unrelenting assaults of the superintendent.

Regardless of the industry, the customer should always be the focal point of the transaction. The customer pays for the contractor’s services, and his or her needs are paramount. However, contractors will argue that they perform very little negotiated work, which they claim justifies their flippant attitude to the customer. “Who needs customer service? If we are low next time, they’ll use us again.” While this mentality may have some credence, trends indicate that project delivery via alternate methodologies such as design-build and various negotiated means is ever increasing. Placing less emphasis on low bid and more on project quality, communication and team experience is becoming commonplace, even within public, institutional and governmental entities. What does this mean for firms that have operated on hard bid work, managing and supervising projects with the same hardened instinct that has served them for 20 to 30 years? More importantly, what happens to the inveterate field general?

More often than not, the attitude that pervades many construction firms is that the project managers and salespeople in the office complete the project rather than the men and women in the field. The field is viewed as merely a cog in the construction machine that helps generate revenue. The truth is that the field is not merely a cog, but the locus, the very center of the construction firm’s universe. Furthermore, sales or repeat sales, the “Holy Grail” of every sales development staff, are not generated in the office; rather, they are generated in the field. But, how do you increase sales through repeat clients with superintendents who fail to recognize the customer and solve his or her problems?

The Salesman Superintendent

The construction industry can learn many lessons from other industries that have expended resources to reach and serve the customer at the “field level.” Retail firms such as Starbucks, Target and Home Deport have instilled an entrepreneurial instinct in their associates. For example, Home Depot management has ingrained in their associates the importance of the customer. Floor associates will not only greet you but also stop what they are doing and escort you to the product you desire. How can this same attitude correlate to a construction project? Oftentimes, construction firms view the customer as an impediment—an impediment who will ask silly questions, waste precious time and distract you from building the project.

As a former project manager, I was amazed at the responses I would get when speaking with my superintendent. “I couldn’t get anything done today. The customer never left my side the entire afternoon. It drove me crazy!” Is this the attitude that a company should have when describing a customer? Business developers would covet the opportunity to spend days with their customer. Ordinarily, they would have spent six to 12 months cultivating a client relationship, learning their business and idiosyncrasies, all for the sheer hope of spending an hour at lunch to discuss a potential project opportunity—thousands of dollars and countless hours spent for lunch and a mere possibility of work. On the other hand, our misguided superintendent has spent six to eight hours of quality time with the customer, and he acts as if he has endured agony. The old adage “it costs more money to find a new customer than it does to retain one” has never been so true.

Yet, why do so many firms fail to capitalize on this opportunity? Entrepreneurship is a trait that a firm’s management team usually seeks in the project managers they employ. Firms that stress this same instinct in their superintendents are more likely to reach their goal of repeat clients as the source of greatest profitability based on their influence and proximity to the customer.

Communication drives a successful project. However, the majority of communication on a project is reactionary and serves to extinguish the “fires” that arise. The “old school” superintendent is a veteran firefighter. Conversely, a “salesmantendent” is a master of proactive communication. This does not mean calling or emailing when a problem arises. Proactive communication means keeping the customer informed long before a problem appears: “Mr. Customer, I just wanted to let you know that we erected the last two tilt panels this morning,” or, “Great news! We completed the roof this afternoon, and we are a week ahead of schedule.” The power of positive news has an impact that is irreplaceable to firms that rely on repeat business. The message delivered by proactive communication is that the salesmantendent is on top of the project. Customers can rest assured that their investment is safe and secure.

In the world of construction, however, the good news is often dwarfed by the not so good news. The old school field general will either clam up and hope the problem will go away or worse—convey the bad news with the same eloquence of a messenger delivering a telegram: “Mrs. Owner, we are four weeks behind because of the rain,” or, “The fire marshal shut us down because of your architect’s design.” While not every problem is the contractor’s or subcontractor’s fault, the superintendent must take ownership of the project and act as if the problem was his or her own. A superintendent who can give a customer bad news with a great solution generates repeat business: “The fire marshal shut us down for not having the proper egress on our plan. After reviewing the building code with him, he has agreed that we are in compliance if the architect makes the change on the egress plan. There should be no cost for this plan, and it will solve the problem. Is that acceptable?” Solving a customer’s problem creates loyalty and trust. Why would customers go to a competitor when they have a superintendent with whom they have such rapport?

Image Is Everything

Construction superintendents tend to be hands-on, process-driven people. They understand the elements needed to create a building. They see the end result—a school, a factory, an office, a warehouse, a bridge. Superintendents who are goal-driven tend to be very successful. However, superintendents who charge forward with the single priority of finishing each task regardless of their surroundings fail to see critical customer service opportunities. Their myopic supervisory strategy focuses on what they think is important rather than what the customer thinks is important. But by extending a deep passion about his or her project, a superintendent conveys a message of “we care” to the customer. If it weren’t for the customer, the superintendent would never have a project to be “distracted from.”

In many instances, customers do not possess the same knowledge of construction methods and processes as the construction firm’s management and supervision teams. They come from different backgrounds and are more focused on their own products, processes and bottom line. A surgeon building a medical center, for example, understands medical science but may not understand the science of structural engineering. A superintendent offers the opportunity to educate a customer. The salesmantendent’s passion with which he or she educates and informs the customer says a great deal about a firm’s commitment and drive.

The attitude of the superintendent directly correlates to the image of the jobsite. A positive, proactive customer service salesmantendent will exhibit many of the following features:

The “Selling” Jobsite – Salesmantendents understand that the customer may visit and that a customer’s customers may visit. How welcome they feel, how they are treated and how the site looked during that visit have a great impact on their perception of the superintendent and the firm as a whole.

The “Telling” Trailer – A trailer tells a great deal about a superintendent. Organization and cleanliness not only present professionalism but also exhibit an inviting atmosphere to the customer. A trailer that looks more like an office and less like the stereotypical construction trailer reveals a great deal about a construction firm.

The “Safe” Environment – Many firms preach about safety but fail to live the sermon. Customers notice and appreciate superintendents who demonstrate a commitment to safety and can often see this dedication through the quality and schedule. Most importantly, a customer appreciates efforts to avoid a stigma that could result from an accident.

The “Productive” Methodology – We have all seen it: twelve men with hands propped on shovels gathered around an excavation, jabbering about Sunday’s game, doing everything but working. What image does this send? Does the customer see crews needlessly wasting time and their money? How does a superintendent prevent this scene? The root of the problem does not lie with the employee but with the superintendent’s inability to give the plan to the men. Great superintendents set their team up to succeed through planning and communication.

People like working with individuals with whom they have a positive relationship. By the end of the project, the superintendent has had the most opportunity to be with a customer. Has the opportunity been lost or capitalized upon? The opportunity for repeat business hangs in the balance.

The Subcontractor Salesmantendent

Throughout this article, the term customer has almost exclusively represented the property developer, office manager, facilities director, construction manager, owner, etc. Why does customer service have to stop at the general contractor/owner boundary? Think back to the example of the field general barking at the subcontractors. The general contractor/subcontractor relationship is truly one of the most intriguing examples of a dysfunctional partnership in business today. Never have two groups of people been so reliant on one other yet still managed to conduct their affairs with such disdain for one another. Some subcontractors think, “Why bother to give good customer service? They’ll bid us against eight other mechanical/electrical/painting subcontractors on the next project anyway or beat me out of my rightful change orders, pay me 50 cents on the dollar for them and then act like I am cheating them.” These are the prevailing attitudes on many jobsites. This is a cancerous attitude that compromises the foundation of the customer service model.

As the trend of negotiated, alternative delivery projects becomes more popular, customers will look toward a project team rather than a general contractor and twenty trade contractors. The subcontractors who are best-in-class will rise to the top of every list. The customer service a general contractor’s superintendent deserves is in the form of effective communication and productivity. Neither one of these costs anything, but the dividends they provide are priceless.

For general contractors who are ultimately dependent on subcontractors, trade contractors are extensions of the promises made to the primary customer. As a result, a subcontractor salesmantendent has a direct influence on a project’s delivery. The same traits that defined a general contractor’s salesmantendent will describe a subcontractor’s salesmantendent. The ability to be proactive, to be a problem solver, to plan and to communicate are just a few traits that the new generation of trade superintendents should possess. A project that is comprised of a corps of trade salesmantendents will not only create a successful project in terms of schedule and finances but also many successful long-term relationships.

In the same way that a tradesman learns ductwork, wiring, concrete placement, roofing and carpentry, he or she learns soft skills like communication and salesmanship: through practice, repetition and discipline. People learn from the examples set by their peers and superiors, so the firm’s management, foremen and other superintendents should exemplify these skills. A trade contractor who is staffed with salesmantendents—as opposed to hardened superintendents—tends to find a dramatic increase in requests for their services. More often than not, they are busy doing work rather than bidding it. They are winning work based on the talented staff they employ and the experience they have gathered rather than by a low-margin, high-risk proposal.

An Army of Salesmantendents

While most contractors, general and trade alike, would agree that they need strong, proactive “salesmantendents” with outstanding interpersonal skills, the vast majority settle for the tyrannical field general. “Well, she gets it done,” they say, or “He is a bulldog—not much on finesse—but we never have to worry about him not finishing a project.” Winning the race is important, but being able to race repeatedly also is critical to a construction firm’s success.

The quantity of qualified supervision/management is in short supply, so firms must train and cultivate superintendents in the art and science of business development. Budding salesmantendents will learn their greatest lessons from the mentors they emulate. Salesmantendents recognize the customer as something more than a “one-hit” wonder. The old school superintendents, on the other hand, feel the customer is a distraction and that business development is “the job for the office.” These individuals are a detriment to the organization.

Training the rookie superintendent and retooling the veteran are critical tasks for management. If the construction firm is to continue pursuing work in the negotiated market and relying heavily on repeat business, management needs to staff the firm with superintendents that possess the same values. Superintendent selling involves honesty, integrity and empathy, which have a long-lasting and positive effect on both the firm and its customers.

The Salesmantendent Trend

Firms spend countless dollars searching for talented young managers and salespeople. Curriculums in engineering and construction management schools across the country are slowly starting to incorporate courses that teach future generations skills in management, sales and, most importantly, communication. However, superintendents are faced with the daunting task of learning these softer skills through alternative means. Promoting a culture of salesmanship must pervade every aspect of an organization. This includes forcing the superintendents to shift from a process-driven mentality with a single finish line and small prize to a goal-driven mentality with multiple finish lines and the grand prize. The grand prize is a customer who cannot live without your services. Salesmantendents do more than build buildings; they build relationships.