Did You Hear Something?

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It seems that listening has become a forgotten skill in our industry. I have had several experiences recently that have reminded me that we are not in the business of selling audio, video, and control systems as much as we are in the service business. And how can we be successful in a service business if we dont really hear what our clients want and need?

I have a fairly dramatic example of what happens when a client doesnt feel like he is being heard. About six months ago we were invited to submit a bid for the preliminary design phase of a new large luxury home. We were told that three or four companies were being considered. After we submitted our bid, we were told that the owner selected one of our competitors but that we would be contacted when the actual systems are put out to bid.

The clients rep called us a few weeks ago to invite us to submit a bid, based on the consultants (our competitor) design. What we received was less than a page of text to describe the entire low-voltage systems package and an incomplete equipment list. Our preliminary estimate for the project, based on the equipment list provided to us, was well over a million dollars, not counting the various items and interfaces that were conspicuously missing.

When we asked the client rep if the client had preferences for specific products on the list, he said absolutely not. Further, he said that the client is not an A/V enthusiast, and what he wants is a good-quality, simple-to-use system. Based on this input, we changed many of the components to lower priced and in some cases, better performance choices for our bid. We got the price down significantly compared to the consultants equipment list.

Next, the owner requested that the contenders, including the consultant, make presentations to him. In the invitation, they asked for us to present a lower-cost version of our proposals. When we met with him (for the first time), we briefly reviewed our bid, then I proceeded to ask him about his preferences. We covered his lifestyle, TV watching habits, music listening preferences, his past experiences with systems, and other related subjects. It was obvious that no one else had asked these questions, including the company that was hired to design a system to meet his requirements. He even mentioned that he felt like no one had been listening to him and that people in our industry just seemed to want to tell him what he needs.

At this stage, some things seem pretty clear: 1) They elected to specify expensive components that have limited distribution, both to limit competition and to improve their margins, 2) The prices for the systems as specified were way out of the range that the client would consider, and 3) They provided as little information as possible, perhaps because they thought it would make it harder for other companies to compete with them.

I dont know what our competitor was paid for their design services, but whatever it was, it was too much. Apparently the owners rep, the contractor, and the owner all realized that they had not been served well by their consultant, and as of this writing, the contract has not yet been awarded. It seems that the consultant is no longer in the running, and that we are looking very good.

Over the years I have learned to listen to the customer, and this experience just reinforces that lesson. People will generally direct you toward what they want and need, even if they dont have experience with details of our offerings. If you focus more on profit margins, increasing contract sizes, and sneaky ways to try to limit fair and even competition, it will catch up to you. It is my belief that if you strive to take care of people, then the profits will follow (along with referrals and repeat business).

I used to carefully plan complete presentations for initial meetings with potential clients, leaving only a few minutes at the end for questions and answers. I no longer do that. Now I go with the goal to learn as much about the client as possible, including his or her goals, preferences, past experiences with technology, and specifically what they want and dont want from their technology systems. That way we can propose systems that will meet their needs and budget. In the end, isnt being really heard what we all want?

David Epstein (davidepstein@integratingdesign.com) is president of SEi/Sound Solutions, in Santa Monica, California.

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