What keeps me up at night? – Nov/Dec 2008

Choosing the Right Detention Equipment Vendor and Product


When it comes to choosing a detention product supplier and detention equipment contractor, I get the feeling many people spend more time researching their vacation destination.

At AECOM Design, we begin developing our project execution plan long before pen hits paper in the design process. Part of our planning involves a due-diligence search of products and services that will best meet the specific needs and requirements of our client.

On renovation and expansion projects, our checklist begins with an examination of the facility’s existing products and systems. Should our survey reveal outdated systems or discontinued lines, our focus turns to finding compatible products that can be integrated seamlessly.

We have a very large product database from which we develop our master specifications and a workable alternative or equal list to the baseline specifications.

An important part of the service we provide to the client and a critical element of the detention equipment process involves establishing which vendor or supplier can meet the client’s requirements and the project’s cost and schedule demands.

It is a lot of work but the results benefit the client.

Products aside, finding the right vendor can prove difficult. A good vendor or supplier can be measured in how well they respond to the specific requirements of your project. Before you commit to a specific product that will form the base of your design, you should ensure the manufacturer has a history of providing reliable products and dependable service before, during and after project completion.

I have been in the criminal justice industry since 1986 and see the same faces at industry conferences like American Correctional Association and American Jail Association year after year.

Hunting for the right DEC 

One of the best ways to uncover the real industry performers is to do your homework. Part of this process involves pounding the pavement or convention carpet to visit every vendor at industry shows. I have gotten to know a lot about our industry and the firms operating in it simply by listening.

Canvassing vendors and suppliers can be a frustrating, if entertaining, task.

Some will quickly tell you they are the best. They say they have the best products, the best solutions, the best service, the best prices, the best quality, yadda, yadda, yadda. They’ll show you photos of successful projects — they never carry photos of the not so successful projects — and offer you a CD-ROM of their products.

Rarely do such representatives greet you with a, “How can I help you?” They have their polished sales pitch and get paid to deliver the company message. Have you ever wondered how Brand Y can stay in business if Brand X is the hands-down best on every metric imaginable?

Business relationships built on a foundation of listening usually fare better than those built on sales pitches, and in my experience the justice market compares favorably to other market sectors in terms of having the fewest number of B.S. merchants.

We don’t get many fly-by-night bandits in our industry, and if we have any, they usually don’t last very long — corrections industry professionals seem to have an innate ability to smell a fraud right away.

Most of us have our favorite list of vendors: the ones we seek out to learn about other products and services, and to find out what is new and what is being discontinued. 

When it comes to asking questions about product performance and service, most of the time you get the straight talk, not salesmanship, from these vendors.

Good vendors are good listeners and they ask questions before they try to sell you something. When the convention exhibit halls quiet down in the afternoons, the good vendors are out there finding out what is on the market to help their customers. Many times my go-to vendors have directed me to competing firms who they believe can better service my projects.

You get what you pay for

Generally speaking, most project-specific requirements in our industry boil down to two elements: cost and performance. Cost is usually the overriding factor and many vendors and contractors can help you find cost-effective solutions for your specific project requirements.

When you find the right product, you also find there are similar products, better products, more reliable products and more expensive products on the market. At times dealing with some vendors can resemble the used-car buying experience.

I recall taking my daughter to purchase a safe, reliable used car for her. We had settled on a used Honda as the best option. However, the salesman — getting paid to do what a salesman does — kept moving us toward safer, more reliable automobiles, which just so happened to be newer and more expensive. Long story short, we came home with a new Acura!

Cost was a factor but when measured against the possible consequences of purchasing the low-priced, less-dependable option that offered less safety features for my daughter, the choice was easy.

Whether used automobiles or security products for detention facilities, I believe in making sure I have the safest and most dependable product on the market. In corrections, the safety of the staff, inmates and visiting public should never be compromised. When you find the right vendor, one who listens and understands your needs, consistently provides the right product at the right price and delivers it on time, you keep going back. 

One quality I look for in a sales professional is experience.

There are many former corrections professionals working in the private sector of our industry. I pay attention to these folks because they have been on both sides of the fence for the majority of their career and have developed an insider’s understanding of the client’s essential needs and demands. They know what is appropriate and what is necessary on a project, what works and what doesn’t. They get what needs to happen and they know how to get it done.

There are several other attributes I look for in a top-notch vendor, none more important than recent project history and stellar performance references. I don’t care what the vendor or manufacturer did five years ago, I want to know what they are doing today. I demand a list of their last 10 projects and try to get references from the project architects, construction managers and facility owners.

The omission of a project or reference from the list may be an indication they are hiding something. Everyone has a bad experience with both people and projects, but good companies learn from their bad experiences and when asked, reputable firms will tell you what went wrong. 

Value-added is another important aspect I consider in assessing the attributes of a potential vendor. I usually look for a vendor who has manufacturing capability and also provides engineering, installation and service as part of their product portfolio. There are several of these companies in the market. 

I tend to shy away from brokers: if you make it and sell it but don’t install it, or provide it and install it but don’t make it, I’ll consider it, but chances are you may not be my vendor of choice.

The old saying, too many cooks spoil the broth, holds true in almost every case. I want a vendor who controls their entire destiny in their own hands, a single source of responsibility and accountability.

Finally, geographical proximity should be a central consideration for cost efficiency and service effectiveness during construction and after installation and activation. The vendor may be the best perimeter security contractor in the United States, but if they have to travel more than six hours to install, service or repair my system, I would not usually consider them.

It pays to advertise

I preface this section with an assurance to the reader that recalls the immortal words of LBJ in 1968: I have not sought nor would I accept any inducement or compensation from Correctional News for the following passage.

With that said, Correctional News maintains a fantastic list of products and services that I use regularly — one of the many benefits of being a subscriber. When I need to find a product, I look at vendors who list and advertise in Correctional News. Links to Web sites make it easy for me to see what’s out there.

There are about 180 vendors who advertise regularly in Correctional News; vendors who clearly believe in their products, their service, their people and experience. I am not implying that a vendor who doesn’t advertise in Correctional News is not a good company; I’m simply pointing out that not advertising makes it more difficult for me to find out about their products and services. I have worked with a great number of vendors who advertise in Correctional News and many who don’t. There have been good experiences, and not so good experiences, so feel free to contact me at any time for an opinion on a particular product or service.

Before you call, however, keep in mind that I’m the guy who went shopping for a used Honda and came home with a new Acura. I may steer you toward spending a little more money than planned but you will get the solution that is right for your facility and, like me, you’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep knowing you chose the safest, most reliable product you could afford. 

Gregory J. Offner is vice president of AECOM Design in Arlington, Va. He is a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.