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4 Case Studies in Managing Customer Expectations

As an industry that prides itself on doing custom work, we like to promise the moon and stars. No wish or desire is too grand, no hope or dream too elaborate or unobtainable. “You want the lights to turn on, the thermostat to drop, the blinds to raise, and the music to start playing the Rocky theme at full volume every time you walk into this room? Yep, sounds totally reasonable to me!”

As an industry that prides itself on doing custom work, we like to promise the moon and stars. No wish or desire is too grand, no hope or dream too elaborate or unobtainable. “You want the lights to turn on, the thermostat to drop, the blinds to raise, and the music to start playing the Rocky theme at full volume every time you walk into this room? Yep, sounds totally reasonable to me!”

And the truth is, when the budget and timeline allow, there isn’t much that we can’t make happen. Just flip through the annual CEDIA Lifestyle awards book for some of the magic that your brother (and sister) installers have pulled off.

But there are other times where you might need to dial-back the customer’s – or even your own – expectations a bit so that they are more realistically aligned with what they are getting. For instance, after they sit through a demo in your six-figure theater and then say, “Wow! So my system will be just like this, right?” when their budget is a fraction of what just the chairs in your room cost.

More likely, expectations need to be tempered when you are taking over another project. What hopes and ideas are you stepping into that might not be true, or even possible?

I had four real-world instances recently where managing expectations (or not in one case) were crucial…

Job Takeover #1

A customer came in and said he needed a new receiver. His was apparently blown and needed to be replaced. He had been working with another company that had come out, spec’d everything in, said they ordered the products, and even set an install date but then just…poof! Vanished. Wouldn’t take any more calls, wouldn’t return e-mails, just dropped off the face of the earth. Thanks for the new customer, buddy! So as the gentleman was describing his system and his expectations, he continually said, “And the other installer said…” and, “The other installer promised…” So after a few minutes of this where it was clear that some of these other promises were not accurate (like being able to use the receiver’s basic remote as a full system controller), I politely stopped him and said, “The other installer also said he would come back and finish your job. And he hasn’t. So let’s stop focusing on what the other guy told you it would do, and talk about what the system really will do. And what we need to install to make sure it does what you want it to.”

Job Takeover #2

Due to a family emergency on the part of another installer, I inherited a pretty sweet home theater install. The pre-wire hadn’t been done, but the homeowner and the installer had spoken several times. The first thing I asked the customer was if they could share the previous system design or proposal with me so I’d have a better idea of where they were headed. Turns out that nothing had ever been given in writing and she had only the vaguest ideas of what they had talked about. But she definitely wanted a projector and she wanted it to be hidden and said they had talked about the Draper Revelation folding mirror system and a basic 120-inch motorized screen. OK.

So I headed up to the job site to take a look at the project and it turns out that the projector is going to be installed in a library where one wall is almost entirely windows with a 30-foot ceiling. With zero window treatments planned. So I called the customer and asked if they had ever owned a projector before (they hadn’t) and I explained how projectors work and that part about how they can’t project BLACK and that with the lighting conditions in their room, they were not going to be able to use a regular screen if they wanted to, you know, see it while that great big ball of happiness we like to call the sun was out and about. I explained that the only way to have a projector they could enjoy during the day would be a Screen Innovations’ Black Diamond. (Or invest thousands of dollars in window treatments. Which I could totally automate, BTW. So, your call…) I sent them a video demonstrating how the screen worked in high ambient lighting conditions and explained that we would also want to couple this with a high-lumen projector to get as much light on the screen as possible, but that it would mean dropping to a 110-inch, the current Black Diamond maximum.

After seeing the video and better understanding how projection works, she agreed this was the right course. We also talked about her expectations for how the system would look, and it turns out that she didn’t want the mirror system at all. She thought the mirror was the projector. She wanted it even less when she found out it was $5200 and that it would lose 6 percent of the projector’s light output. Turns out she just wanted the projector to fire through a port hole in the soffit like in a commercial theater. Done and done.

Guy That Loves Bose

An older gentleman purchased a home that we had wired years ago and asked me to come over and look about installing a home theater system for him. I pulled the old file which was filled with wiring maps and notes and headed over. As soon as I get there he starts going on about the old Bose system he used to own. How great it was. How it was the best sound ever. How it was just like being at the movies. How there wasn’t anything that could possibly ever be better than his Bose system. Seriously. Like every time he opened his mouth, more praise for this old Bose system came pouring out. If there was a music system that was fit for Valhalla, heaven or Mecca, by God! It was his old Bose system. The very voices of angels would be shamed by pink noise playing from those things.

Finally, I closed my notebook and said, “I have a lot of systems that I could sell you, but I don’t think that you are going to be happy with any of them unless they say Bose on it.” Despite all of his protests, “Oh, no! I really am open to different ideas. It was just, you know, that Bose sounded so good…” He was so pre-disposed to a Bose system that even a full Krell Evo would have come up short when compared to the beautifully hand-crafted marble pedestal he had built up in his mind. So, managing his expectations meant a Bose system. Hope he likes it.

Delivery Dates

Late into the pre-wire of my Mega Job, the builder called and inquired about automated drapery. (I guess the seed that I planted months ago finally germinated, sprouted and grew into a full on sequoia overnight.) So, they wanted to see a sample of the drapery track and mounting hardware for the drape track system stat. Like that day. I called my factory rep and said I needed to order a sample for overnight, get-it-here-as-fast-as-possible delivery. She said I should have it on Monday, so I called the builder back and informed her that I would get the track on Monday, but our Fed-Ex deliveries usually arrive later in the day so I would arrange to get it to them some time on Tuesday.

Monday comes and no track. Tuesday morning comes and the builder calls me. “When are you coming with my track? We are holding up drywall to get this resolved.” So I tell her that since I didn’t place the order, I can’t track it, but I will call my factory rep and get the tracking info. I call my rep and good news! Not only hasn’t the track shipped, it isn’t even in production yet! My rep tells me that it should be made that day, go out the next day and I will have it Thursday, but that she can’t get any information on it until it ships. Which is totally perplexing to me. I mean, I can order a pizza on-line, follow it through all stages of preparation – “Oh, look! They are adding the pepperoni and it just went in the oven!” – all the way to it arriving at my door, but apparently finding out the status of a drapery track from one of the industry’s largest manufacturers is a feat akin to dividing by zero.

I call the builder and relay the news and she is apoplectic. (Apoplectic looks and sounds so much like “apologetic,” but is oh so different in meaning…) I offer my apologies but tell her the simple truth is that no matter how sorry I am or how upset she is, I don’t have the track. And the only place I can get the track is directly from the manufacturer and that I won’t have it until Thursday, but AS GOD IS MY WITNESS! I will deliver that track to her on Thursday, even if it means driving up and bringing it to her home after I get off from work. Except, Thursday comes and there is no track. Or follow-up call or e-mail from my factory rep. So, thanks!) (And, by the way, it is now Tuesday and still no track. Or follow-up. Fortunately, we reworked our schedule to meet Friday morning to start wiring for the drapes. Meanwhile, our external factory rep, rock star Eric Feus from Carolina Controls Group, agreed to save the day by removing the drapery track from his own system and driving it the two hours to the jobsite to help close the deal. The moral is, be very careful when you are making promises for things that lie outside of your control.

With proper communication, you can set realistic goals for your clients and even prepare them for the possibility that despite your best efforts and the best equipment, the system may have issues. (Borrowing a line from fellow blogger, Heather Sidorowicz, “Technology is not a perfect science…”) Doing this will help ensure that you make it to the part at the end where you get the check and we all live happily ever after…

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.