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How to be the FF&E Supplier Everyone Wants to Work With


Anyone can design great-looking FF&E. Offer lower prices? Sure. 

No matter how many boxes you check on paper, though, you can’t guarantee that designers, project owners, or procurement firms will pick you for their next project.

“When we talk about assemblings teams, you have to have a great beginning to read a good ending,” says Lori Horvath, Managing Director of JLL, a real estate investment and management company.

That’s because “we’re truly going to spend more time with the teams that we assemble than we do with our families, our friends, for two, three, four, five years, depending on the project,” Lori explains.

It’s also a matter of finding the right people for specific jobs. “Certain consultants and certain design teams, architecture teams, they’re right for certain projects, and we really have to know that and think it through and make sure we’ve got the right people at the table.”

So what makes a certain person, team, or company the right fit for a project? 

Besides expertise in specific areas, you have to be likeable. Here’s how to do that, according to four hospitality procurement specialists at HD Expo.

Put Up Guardrails

Alan Benjamin is the Founder and President of Benjamin West, one of the biggest FF&E procurement firms in the world. When working with a client, one of the first things he gets asked is, “What’s the lead time?”

“If the case goods vendor says the lead time is 20 weeks, you gotta be really careful when you’re talking to the client,” Alan says. “It’s not 20 weeks from the phone call. I’ll say 20 plus eight.”

Seems overly specific (and necessitates unnecessary math), but there’s a good reason for putting it this way.

“This is the first phone call we need to get hired,” Alan explains. “We need to get a contract, we need to get a bank account set up. We need to get the first drop. We need to get a deposit. You know, it's literally the first phone call.”

In short, there’s a myriad of elements that need to be in place before the first FF&E item ships. And you need to make that clear to whoever you’re working with, so you can set the right expectations. 

Not only do you save yourself a lot of possible grief down the road, you’re also creating a reputation for yourself as the vendor that thinks ahead and foresees potential problems. And that goes a long way in making customers feel secure and at ease with you.

Say No … 

“The best thing a vendor can say to us is 'no,'” Alan says. “If you're not 110% sure the answer is yes, say no. Don’t sit in the meeting when the owner's telling you it has to be done in eight weeks and you know it takes 12. That's not a smart decision not to raise your hand and challenge that.”

It’s solid advice. BS-ing your way to get a project is also the quickest way to get you kicked off of it.

Besides, if the client already trusts you, you’re probably going to get another project “usually that week, if not that day.”

Which is a pretty sweet spot to be in, but again: You don’t get there if you’re not trusted. So you have to be honest about what you can and cannot do.

“Look, don't try and be a hero every time,” Alan says. “You're not gonna always have the FF&E rabbit to come out of the hat. So if you think the fabric for the launcher is going to be late, as soon as you know, that let the entire team know.”

… But Don’t Stop There

“You can't just report the weather,” says Alan. “I would get fired if I called anyone on this panel and said, ‘Hey Meredith, if you won't believe what happened, the Dalton had one of those every-20-year snowstorms and the carpet factory had a roof cave in. You're not gonna get your carpet.

“That's reporting the news,” Alan laughs. “I might say that, but before she can react, I'll say tomorrow you are gonna get three samples we have on hold through FedEx, we're gonna still make the delivery date.

“So I think bad news doesn't get better with age, but always come up with a solution. And there is always a solution. I'm not embarrassed to call one of my peers who also does procurement and say, ‘Do you believe this happened? What have you done in this situation?’ You know, use your network to figure out the best way to solve the problem,” Alan says.

“From an ownership perspective, what we would look for is for you to help us solve what you think you can't do,” says Meridith Zimmerman, Senior Vice President of Design for RLJ Lodging Trust. “You know, we wanna work with you and figure out, hey, what do you think about this? Or what do you think is the best way to do it? Or what, what can help you get there? 

“And we are more than willing to absolutely try, just so you know, because obviously if you're already at the table, then we think you're a good fit,” Meredith says. “Whether or not you feel like you can do it or not, you know, that's a separate discussion.”

“Say the owner says we need this done in six weeks,” says Alan. “If you can’t do it in six weeks, don’t just say no and walk away.

“Say, ‘I can’t do it in six weeks, but I can do this with this modification if you need six weeks. Or I can do this if that’s what you really want, but it’s gonna be 10 weeks.’”

In other words, you want to be the ally that can help provide options to the owner. “Sometimes we'll go back and challenge and say, ‘Hey, owner or project manager, six weeks is really it. You're not gonna get A and you're not gonna get B, we're trying to get to a B minus C plus solution.”

Allow Yourself and Others to be Human

“It’s good to go out to dinner with them and get to know them,” says Adrienne Scribner, Principal of Baskervill. “I think one thing with the pandemic that happened is that we all got to see everyone's inside of their house. And like what was going on in the background. Some people were educating children while trying to work and it was, it was real. 

“And I think a lot of times being in hospitality and FF&E we're like all fancy, looking good all the time. And I think we all saw the other half, the dark side, which I don't think any of us want to go back to. But really celebrating what we do and who we're with and what we're all about, creating that atmosphere is the way to go,” Adrienne says.

Treating others like they’re human beings, and not robots who only live to help your bottomline, has all sorts of crazy benefits. For one, it allows you to create a no-BS environment while still getting the best out of the people you work with.

“Honestly, it's really just having a sense of inclusion,” Meridith says. “I think people just inherently want to have approval, right? They wanna have approval, they wanna be understood, they want to be heard.”

“Obviously one downside of COVID is we didn't have the chance to take the team to dinner,” Alan adds. “But when people did see what you call kind of the dark side or the human side, like, oh, you know, this person has a dog, I have a dog. Now you have another point of something to talk about. And I think a lot of good things came out with all the teams in the Zooms is that you had other points of connection as a human. 

“And as Lori said in her opening comments, it's really critical to get humans interacting with humans, not just the phone number, email address. And, you know, it's great to do it in person, but at least it was an interesting way to get to know people.”

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  • Save days of work with faster specification
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  • Track budget against cost in real time.
  • Prepare for asset valuation
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Published May 16, 2023