20 February 2017 by Tony Hanley, MD of Fire Pro, a fire detection and alarm company
What does your business bring that no other does in the market? It is certainly a question that every business owner or manager should consider.
In this world, we are all consumers. We all make purchase decisions – simple things such as choosing an Apple product over a bootleg copy or a cheaper version of the product we’re searching for.
As businesses in the fire industry, we’ve all got to be competitive. Consumers shop around for cheaper petrol prices, better service, or a more reliable product by checking out reviews online. There is no difference in the customers that procure – and spend money on – fire detection and alarms. Every brand has got to have value, but at the same time, value represents quality as well as price. Customers want things that are going to be fit for purpose and that are going to last.
What is the price of competency?
There is often talk about ‘wannabe’ or ‘cowboy’ companies that may be low in cost but poor in quality. The key thing is that you have to be careful with the term ‘cowboy’. People have this misguided perception that fire alarms are easy – a bit of cable, some boxes with some lights on, and a couple of smoke detectors and ‘Hey presto!’, it’s done. It is just a sad fact that in every profession in almost every industry there are people that can do it cheaper by using substandard materials.
What is missing in this instance is the value of quality service, of competence. Unfortunately, the barriers to entry in this industry are very low – so if Joe Bloggs without any prior knowledge of fire alarms wanted to start working tomorrow, there wouldn’t be anything to stop him doing so. There are many instances where a visit to a site has revealed some sub-standard work.
However, without there being a way of determining competency in the form of some kind of competency check, those companies will always exist in the market. And they will always exist to the detriment of the more bonafide companies that follow Standards, doing the work the best that they can, to the best of their ability. There will always be people that muck about with electrics in bathrooms, when they shouldn’t, just as there are people that muck around with fire detection and alarm systems when they shouldn’t. In that sense there are two economies – the ‘low-cost budget’ or perhaps ‘black market’ variety, and the market of those companies that offer more than just a cheap price.
Gaining value in the marketplace
The way to winning customers is getting them to see and understand the true value of what they are purchasing. It’s the difference between buying a ready meal from Lidl or Aldi, and doing your grocery shopping at Waitrose. The expectations behind those purchases are different. When you’re in this business, you have to be confident about the value – and quality of service – that you are offering to your customers.
I ask you this: how valuable is competency?
Quite often, the customer doesn’t understand what they’re buying. Socially, things have changed. Businesses are ruled by budgets and spreadsheets and the people that make the spend decision may be completely unaware of anything other than the price. So long after the alarm is installed – is it fit for purpose? What’s the cost of a false alarm and 2000 employees turning out three times in one week? All simply because the spend decision at the front end was wrong.
Can you really compromise safety for a lower cost? In this instance, the old adage is true – you really do get what you pay for.
Once customers understand the true value of what you offer – the competency of your staff, the recognition gained through certification schemes, then their spend decision may swing in your favour.
Proving competency to your customers
The problem is that it can be very difficult to physically demonstrate competency. We have Standards and third party accreditation schemes that give us guidance and recognition, but ultimately the individual fire alarm technicians that are doing the work are the ones that deliver the system – whether that is design, commissioning, installation, or maintenance. Even with the best certification schemes, that doesn’t stop human error. Even if you have third party certification for your company, that doesn’t necessarily translate to or prove the competency of every single individual employee.
At the moment there is no roadmap to competency for the individual fire alarm technician. What does competency look like? How do you begin obtaining that status?
Quite frankly, I’d like to be able to tell my customers that not only is the company certificated, but the individual technicians are fully and comprehensively qualified in what they do. As a consumer, it is very reassuring to know that the company is sending you an expert in their field to do the job – and that is the value that getting your team of fire alarm engineers qualified could bring to your business.
Right now there isn’t actually a qualification for fire detection and alarm systems, but if there was, it would make a huge difference to the business. As a company, you would be able to clearly evidence that the people that you’re employing are actually certificated individuals.
You may have read other blogs about the need for a qualification, the desperate need for new blood in the industry, and the new standard EN 16763 that sets out a minimum level of education for fire alarm technicians. It’s all pointing in the direction that the industry needs a qualification.
But from a business angle, a business perspective, this could be a real opportunity to demonstrate your own value in the marketplace by bringing people on board, getting them through the exams and getting them qualified, and making that part of your business model. The promise to your customer base that every technician they have contact with on site are actually qualified and certificated individuals.
In this instance, competency becomes your leverage, your value as a company.
When other companies may be offering cut-price work without the guarantee of qualified individuals, or even a third party certificated company but without the qualified technicians, the guarantee of qualified technicians may just be the thing that tips the balance. There’s just not a like for like comparison. That’s when customers start to realise that what you offer is a much more reliable and comprehensive service. You can be confident about what you offer, at the price you’re offering it.
I get customers ringing me to say, ‘You need to get your price down.’ To which I say, ‘Okay, well you tell me which part of the safety measures you’d like me to cut out. I can get the price down all day long, but you tell me which part of the safety you no longer want.’ Suddenly there is no more bargaining. The price is the price, but the price is competitive based on what you’re getting for the money.
When it comes to qualifications in fire detection and alarms, and getting your staff trained, all it will do is add value to your company in the long term. When you can say that you’re using equipment that is properly certificated, the company itself has accreditation, and additionally every single fire alarm technician is qualified, that’s when customers will see that competitive value that you bring to the market. Value is not just about price, it is about reliability, quality, and longevity.
The industry needs to step up. We all need to get to this level where we are confident about what we’re offering and not pandering to people’s demands to cut prices. We should be able to say that the price is where it is because this is the brand, and this is the brand quality. When it comes down to it, a ‘cowboy’ market vs a stronger more comprehensive service – you get what you pay for.
If qualifications do become available at any point, that, my friend, is how you will add value and drive business to your company.
Tony Hanley is the Managing Director of Fire Pro, which is an FIA member company.
MD of Fire Pro, a fire detection and alarm company