Technologies and Business Techniques that are Making CIs Successful

February 2, 2015

As we all continue our quests to charge into 2015 with renewed energy and a conviction toward better business practices and product buying decisions, Residential Systems surveyed a collection of leading custom integrators to see what business lessons they’re carrying into the new year and what products and/or technologies are influencing their buying decisions. The answers varied greatly, but perhaps they will provide your company with a reassurance about the track that you’re headed down or provide insight into new ideas for the future.

John Clancy, executive VP and CTO, Audio Command Systems Inc. in Westbury, NY, noted that much of his company’s installation work originates from design and engineering contracts sold directly to developers, architects, and clients who may not be in the position or ready to “buy a system” when the home or project was years away from occupancy.
For example Ben Larkin, technical services manager for ListenUp in Denver, noted that the influx of high-bandwidth digital video distribution products over the last few years has really pressed his company to follow cabling and infrastructure standards to the letter of the law.

“In the past, standards such as ANSI/EIA/TIA- 568 were loosely interpreted. However, as data rates increase, cabling and infrastructure standards need to be precisely followed,” he said. “Simple concepts such as, cable length, horizontal vs. work area cabling, and proper patching will make all the difference in the world when it comes to reliability.”

ListenUp recently finished a project with a large copper and fiber optic video distribution system that was installed and terminated using exact industry cabling standards. This included patch panels for both the copper and fiber optic cabling. According to Larkin, the video and control system in this project has remained reliable and trouble-free since the day it was installed.

“The cost of doing it right up front is far less expensive than the multitude of free service calls that will ensue if you don’t,” he noted.

The products that are currently dominating ListenUp’s integration designs are mainly in the digital video distribution and networking hardware categories. Customers are gravitating toward products that can provide the digital experience and remain highly reliable.

ListenUp recently finished a project with a large copper and fiber optic video distribution system that was installed and terminated using exact industry cabling standards. This included patch panels for both the copper and fiber optic cabling. According to Larkin, the video and control system in this project has remained reliable and trouble-free since the day it was installed.
“Products from companies like Cisco Systems, Ruckus Wireless, Crestron, Control4, and Savant are currently going into our more sophisticated project designs,” Larkin said.

John Clancy, executive VP and CTO, Audio Command Systems Inc. in Westbury, NY, noted the development of focused and dedicated departments and staff as one of his company’s focus areas in the past year.

“By having internal departments that focus on service, design and engineering, IT services, programming, lighting and shading along with the typical sales and installation areas most companies are geared around, have allowed us continue to grow our business as the landscape has changed, even after almost 40 years of being in business,” he said. “Our size has allowed this, but it has become so important to have groups, not individuals, directly accountable and focused in these areas. Each group has redundancy and is scalable as the business grows, not to mention they’re really good at the roles they’re involved with.”

For example, much of ACS’s installation work, Clancy said, originates from design and engineering contracts sold directly to developers, architects, and clients who may not be in the position or ready to “buy a system” when the home or project was years away from occupancy.

“Being hired for this initial design phase almost guarantees us being awarded the implementation portion–the core of our business,” he added.

Clancy said that his company’s programming department has helped to increase business as well. “We probably ‘take-over’ 20-30 projects a year where the previous integrator just didn’t perform this task well or couldn’t support it afterwards,” he explained. “In most of these cases, we’re not replacing equipment. You have a frustrated owner who thinks they bought terrible hardware that doesn’t work, and we’ll spend a few days there, and they now have a functional, reliable system that we can support fully moving forward. We’ve also won their confidence by not trying to sell them new hardware that they did not need. This scheme has helped us get their next project or referrals for others. Service and IT also play into this.

Specifically speaking, remote resettable power controllers are one of the most important product areas for ACS.

“When a client calls me or emails me because they are having an issue with AppleTV or cable TV, we can reset those set-top boxes easily from a smartphone anytime of day or night regardless of where I am or anyone on our service team is,” Clancy said. “Panamax and SnapAV have been the manufacturers of the products we use for this. Additionally, adding an active monitoring device like ihiji to the mix helps keep a proactive approach toward things that are on the network like WAPs, media servers, etc.”

Shawn Hansson, CEO of Logic Integration, in Lone Tree, CO, noted that one of the bigger frustrations for the industry–and his company–is finding a proper software package that can help run a CI business.

“We implemented this low-cost solution and it is improving our management,” he said. “I can log in each hour, day, etc., and see where the company is at in many aspects (cash on hand, AR, AP, workin- progress, leads that came in, etc. It uses data imports from many of the below sources. I can have my PMs and sales manager view their own version of the dashboard depending on permissions, etc.”

Regarding specific products, Hansson said that Crestron’s Pyng is “very exciting.”

“We have an amazing staff with great programming skills, but the flexibility to the end user along with our installers is going to be great,” he said about Pyng. “We are just starting to see the benefits of this technology. Especially to get this into spec homes and builders’ showrooms is an incredible opportunity and creates awareness for automation.”

Logic Integration is also using a program called Simple Help to manage all its internal computers along with its job sites, without needing a static IP. “We use this and Panamax in all our projects,” he said.

Jeff Jenkins (right, center) president of The FX Pros, in Little Rock, AR, said that due to his company’s location in a “relatively small” (less than 500,000 people) that is “saturated” with competition, differentiation is critical for its success.
Dave Raines, president of Osbee Industries Inc., in Harrison, NY, said that people in his company often use the phrase, “manage the client’s expectations,” as a reminder to make sure that a client fully understands what you are proposing and when you will complete the project before you start any work.

“Even if this means that you will need to reveal some weaknesses about your company such as being understaffed at the time,” he said.

Also, Raines emphasized the need to always write a scope of work before signing a contract with a client. “Be sure to clearly outline who is responsible for what (contractor/client/your company) and what the client is getting,” he said. “This gives the client an opportunity to come back to you with comments before you get too far down the road with them.”

Most of Osbee’s projects revolve around the Crestron ecosystem, such as DigitalMedia and SmartGraphics

In 2006, David Lloyd founded Mogul Media Systems in Cary, NC, as an “antithesis to “the big guys” who, in his observation, were failing their clients all too often.

“My primary goal has always been to deliver superior system performance, reliability, and ease-ofuse via meticulously installed and “over-engineered” componentry, concise and reliable control and fully optimized and calibrated AV systems,” he said. “This ‘no-corners-cut’ formula has served our clients well and continues to generate referrals.”

Lloyd used Sonos as an example. It may be simpler and cheaper to implement than other systems, he said, but that doesn’t mean Mogul should abandon the acoustical, power, cooling, networking, and control system paradigms that have served it well for so long.

“A client with Crestron whole-house audio and a client with Sonos whole-house audio are equally unhappy when their system fails,” he noted. “The basics of a bullet-proof system remain the same, regardless of the nametags in the rack.”

Mogul is sticking with the fundamentals that have worked thus far, even if clients occasionally struggle to see the “value add” in the planning and specification stages of a Sonos installation.

“The value of expertly designed and implemented supporting systems becomes readily apparent as clients swipe into Deezer and enjoy a rock-solid, high-performance system again and again,” Lloyd stated.

Mogul’s mainstay offerings remain Denon/Marantz AVRs, Lutron RA2 lighting control, and RTI control systems. “RTI’s XP series processors are unflappable; I have yet to encounter a control scenario I could not accomplish reliably with XP series controllers,” Lloyd said. “RTI’s aggressive foray into two-way control via both internally developed and third-party drivers has served Mogul and its clients well. The support I receive from RTI, Lutron, and Denon/Marantz continually reaffirms my decision to stick with these brands.”

Jordan Wills, director of marketing and administration for Cloud9 Smarthome, said that his New York City firm likes to treat projects as a creative collaborative with its clients.

“Constant expansion of our product offering allows us to react to client needs with ideas rather than limitations,” he said. “We find that when homeowners are involved creatively with their project from the outset, the whole experience is more fun for them.”

Technically speaking, Wills says, Cloud9 has moved from a solution involving “multiple cable boxes in a cabinet with a distributed video solution,” to Apple TV and its apps.

“The rise in online content has made broadcast TV less of a necessity,” he said. “We’ve also seen resurgence in vinyl, and in music listening as an active rather than passive activity. This has led to increased interest in dedicated listening rooms. Fortunately, leading audiophile brands Bowers & Wilkins and McIntosh are embracing and integrating with home automation.”

Scott Fuelling, president of Phoenix Unequaled Home Entertainment in Memphis, said that his company has refined its management of client expectations on large custom integrations by fine-tuning deliverables through spending more time asking the right questions and using better documentation practices.

“Simply selling the products and installing them isn’t enough,” he noted. “They must be configured to properly serve the clients needs. The clients must also be shown the end result in a relaxed atmosphere. We also spend more back-end time on changes, tweaks, and adjustments after the client has had a chance to live with and experience the systems. The results have been very positive with more client satisfaction as well as more adds during and after the project closes.”

Control 4 continues to be a very important part of the product mix for Fuelling. One year ago it become the company’s sole control line.

“We only have a handful of clients with other brands and have most of them scheduled for replacement due to age,” he said.

LED lighting has been a newcomer over the past year for Phoenix, as well. The Energy Squad team has been very helpful as we continue to fine-tune our offerings,” he stated. “We are pushing this forward in a big way this year.”

Shawn Hansson, CEO of Logic Integration, in Lone Tree, CO, said that his company is very excited about the potential of Crestron Pyng.
Jeff Jenkins, president of The FX Pros, in Little Rock, AR, said that due to his company’s location in a “relatively small” (less than 500,000 people) that is “saturated” with competition, differentiation is critical for its success.

“In 2014 we focused on continuing education and expanding our product offerings to include custom product lines that aren’t available from other integrators in our market,” he said. “In September we attended the CEDIA EXPO in Denver and in October we attended various manufacturer sponsored training events and seminars in Dallas. As a result we now have a leg up on the competition in our consultations by presenting new, innovative products that the potential client can’t get anywhere else.”

For example, in October Jenkins’ company was awarded the winning bid on a high-end automation project over three competing companies. When asked why they chose his company, the client responded, “You knew what you were talking about and could handle everything we need yourself.”

“In this case the competing bids contained outsourcing of certain aspects of the installation, whereas we offered a comprehensive ‘in-house’ installation,” Jenkins recalled. “Several years ago we may have lost this bid for the very same reason the competition lost it this time. Our company is coming off its most successful year to year to date in 2014 thanks to an increase in sales of 50.9 percent over the previous year (2013). I attribute this to our desire to differentiate and continue our education in relation to innovation.”

Last year, The FX Pros experienced significant growth in the whole-home automation category. Its sales of RTI control products accounted for 12 percent of the company’s total product sales in 2014 and helped it become the only Certified Platinum dealer of RTI home automation systems in the Little Rock market.

“The attractive appearance, fully customizable interfaces, and ease of use of the RTI products are especially appealing to our clients, and the installation flexibility, cross-category compatibility and reliability appeal directly to our integrators,” he said

Over the last six months Jenkins also has expanded its product lines to include more “custom” brands in an effort to attract a higher end client. For example, in Q4 of 2014 the company picked up Qmotion Advanced Shading Systems, Leon Speakers, and Seura Vanishing TVs.

Mike Roberts, from ievolve technology, in Houston, TX, offered that one of his company’s most effective practices is providing an in-depth consultation to a client. “We listen intently to their needs and give them what they want, not what we can sell to make us the most profit,” he explained. “We ask the right questions and focus on putting their money to use for the best products, allowing them the most rewards based on these discussions.

I see a lot of the competition losing out on projects because they just simply didn’t listen to what the client wanted.

Roberts said that he recently won a large project only because a dealer included a very expensive video distribution system in their quote, which was never discussed with the client, and they had nothing to benefit from it based on how they were going to be using the system.

“If you put yourself in their shoes and carefully design a system that is right for them, then you will find yourself closing most of your projects in the pipeline. Treating prospective clients with respect and honesty leads to life-long relationships and more importantly, referrals.”

Roberts also believes that one of his company’s best business practices is simply not putting all of its “eggs in one basket,” by having several different streams of business. One of these being a large contract with a homebuilder who includes a simple security and automation system with every home which consist of everything from pre-wire to the final installation of the 2GIG system and various Z-Wave devices in all 2,000 homes.

Mike Roberts, from ievolve technology, in Houston, TX, believes that one of his company’s best business practices is simply not putting all of its “eggs in one basket,” by having several different streams of business. One of these being a large contract with a homebuilder who includes a simple security and automation system with every home which consist of everything from pre-wire to the final installation of the 2GIG system and various Z-Wave devices in all 2,000 homes.
Another important business decision, Roberts said, was partnering with and opening a design center in the city’s largest furniture store, Gallery Furniture, placing iEvolve in front of thousands of people to show what we can do for them in their home.

RTI has been a premium solution for most of the technology that iEvolve provides. “RTI is the only system that gives me full control of the interface,” Roberts said. “This is important because everyone has different needs. Whether they are a power-user or very technologically challenged, I can create a completely custom interface that makes it easy for everyone to operate. I refer to my designs as the “babysitter layout” meaning anyone should be able to use the system without a full-scale orientation.”

Eric Thies, a principal with VIA Home, in West Hollywood, CA, said that his company’s most notable best practice in 2014 was getting back to basic sales fundamentals.

“As an industry, we are too eager to jump to the technology conversation,” he said. “Most of us tend to skip past the most important parts of the sales meeting, ie; developing rapport, listening to the client’s needs, repeating those needs back to them, etc. We also tend to talk over our clients’ heads from a technical standpoint. Instead of making you look smart, it makes your client feel stupid. Overall, we realized that most of our sales team could really benefit from getting back to sales basics with some very easy behavior modifications. Our new focus on how we sell has resulted in a double-digit improvement in close rates.”

For Thies, three technologies came to mind, as successful options for his company last year. He said that Lutron’s new battery-operated shades have opened up a world of possibilities in the retro market. Sonance Landscape Speaker systems also have been “huge” for the integrator, having “raised the bar” on outdoor audio quality. Lastly, Dolby Atmos and Auro 3D are also “two really important technologies” that are creating a lot of excitement and also making a lot of speaker and amplifier manufacturers happy, he said. “Not a lot has happened in home cinema audio recently so this is an innovation that client’s are embracing and opening up their wallets for,” Thies noted.

Jeremy J. Glowacki is editorial director of Residential Systems.

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