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At Your Service

How Custom Installation Firms Can Benefit From Going Above and Beyond

When a guest at The Ritz-Carlton Resorts of Naples was about to miss an international flight because he had left some precious belongings in his hotel room, a hotel staff member personally collected and delivered the misplaced items to the airport. On another occasion, a Ritz-Carlton concierge booked a last-minute helicopter to whisk a frantic guest to his sons baseball game.

These are two of the wow stories that illustrate The Ritz-Carltons legendary customer service program, said Bruce Seigel, director of marketing for The Ritz Carlton Resorts of Naples and a certified international speaker for The Ritz Carlton Leadership Center. At the end of the day, service involves taking care of customers who have needs and objectives, no matter what the industry, he said. The idea is to get to the point where youre not just like anybody else in the business; it comes down to anticipating the customers needs prior to them asking you for something. Be proactive, and let the information be there before they ask for it.

Its often in the details, Seigel said. Understand each customers preferences by keeping notes on the simple things such as the name, how they wish to be addressed, and when they like to receive deliveries. If you know that a particular customer doesnt want to be contacted before 10 a.m., be aware of that. Or, if theyre really into the newest technology, send them information about their specific interest. Have data about them that not everyone they do business with will have.

Although custom installation companies arent generally called upon to make last-minute helicopter reservations, many have gone beyond the call of duty as part of their own customer service regimens. Most of our service calls come in because of something simple; a button just needs to be pushed, said Robert Eitel, president of Roberts Home Audio & Video, Los Angeles. Instead of trouble-shooting the problem over the phone, [Roberts system manager Leif Pehrson] or I will take a tech guy out there at no charge to the client. We try to get out there within half an hour. We know that its just a button, but we also know the client is busy and its a way to show him how important he is to us. We have a great time, and the client says, Wow.

Theres a fine line between becoming friends with a client and maintaining a professional relationship, however, and its a line that shouldnt be crossed, Eitel said. Im old school and have learned a lot through the years, he explained. We prefer to keep relationships on a professional level. Leif and I remind each other to keep that distance to ensure that our clients always are comfortable if they have to confront us with a problem.

Providing stability is another element of Roberts customer service protocol. We have many loyal clients and we always want them to be able to call us and ask for a particular salesperson or tech, he said. Most of my staff has been here for many years, and clients love that; its refreshing.

Roberts clientele includes many successful fund managers and real estate investors. A small percentage of our clients are celebrities but many more are old-fashioned successful business people, he noted. The bottom line is that our clients need us when they need us, and we need to react.

The challenge comes when emergencies arise, when a client is having a party, for example, and something breaks, he explained. We perform as many miracles as we can. We purposely farm out electrical and satellite work to other vendors with whom we have long-term relationships such as Jerry Radowick of Satellite City, in Woodland Hills, California. They can send a tech out quickly, and its another way for us to thank our clients.

Customer service is where its happening, noted new CEDIA president Ken Smith, owner of Custom Electronics, in Falmouth, Maine. I believe that at some point service will be the core of our business, or darn close to it.

A few years ago, Smith contacted some of his early customers, all glad to hear from him, and all with the same response. I noted that 100 percent of them said, Ive been meaning to call you. The system is great but theres a little problem. Every one of these calls turned into a service call with a high percentage of them becoming up-sells, including one client who upgraded to Dolby Digital with a great processor, new projector, and screen. This client is extremely happy, and we had a super up-sell. A light bulb went off.

The result is Custom Electronics Extended Service Agreement (ESA), which is designed to create recurring revenue and to assure the client that the system is proactive and always runs correctly. Well come back every six months or once a year, depending the on terms of the contract, to make sure every function performs correctly, that home theater sound is balanced and optimum, and if the client has a media PC, well physically check it, making sure virus definitions are correct and that it is de-fragged, Smith said.

The ESA is automatically recurring unless canceled by the client. Because many Custom Electronics customers vacation at their Maine homes, the companys agreement also may provide for powering up the system for the home55owners arrival. Im a huge proponent of service agreements, Smith noted. They also provide a way for us to get in the door to show our customers whats new. We are just starting to bring on highly skilled sales/service technicians who are trained to offer upgrades. The sales techs will be in a different division from sales; they will reside in the service department. We will continue to pay commission on the ESAs for as long as the customer stays with us, and we believe they may contract for additional services. Im very excited about it.

In Vancouver B.C., La Scala president Marilyn Sanford created a service department a few years ago with a customer service rep who receives calls and owns those calls through to completion. I also have a service tech to solve the problem, but no service manager; thats the next step in growing it, she said.

Sanford explained that many companies make the mistake of viewing service as a by-product of installation. Until you learn you need a dedicated service team, she said, youll never be able to service clients effectively because their needs will be secondary, and the crew will be thinking of it as something they need to get out of the way.

A dedicated service department operates on a different paradigm from other departments, Sanford added. It requires someone who can make a decision and act with accuracya tech who gets it and will go the extra mile, making a follow-up call to ask how everything is, and a service plan to offer, especially for larger homes with recurring revenue.

La Scalas optional service program, serving its high-end B.C. clientele, includes preventative and ongoing maintenance. We are also bringing our newsletters back to life, she said. Were going to send a semi-annual review of whats new in the market. And weve started advertising on the radio, with a radio host who reviews movies and talks about home theater. In our industry we tend to elephant hunt, to put our energy into the great huge projects. But this gets the smaller projects turning faster, and it keeps us in the loop.

At Baumeister Electronic Architects in Niles, Illinois, the mantra is take the high road, explained marketing director, Paul Baumeister. We let our customers know were here, but were not hitting them over the head. Our marketing is referral based, so we look at recurring revenue.

BEA sends out e-notifications, dividing the formats between customer and trade. A lot of our work is trade; architects often bring us in early on for bigger projects, he said. Weve raised the bar a little to position ourselves as consultants for design and service as well as for installation. We have an e-mailer that goes out to our partner architects, designers, and builders that educates them on relevant technology such as millwork design or the basics of a mechanical room.

An e-client newsletter, sent to customers a couple of times per year is centered on a particular theme such as home theater, and might include information on new projectors or other equipment, with an emphasis on product details, not sales or pricing.

Our goal is to have a peer-to-peer relationship, Baumeister said. Were selling lifestyle technology with a goal of helping clients live their lives more creatively. We get to know them and keep a pulse on who they are. Our senior design consultant, John Brisk, sold a whole-house system to a client in Chicago who collects folk and outsider art, so the goal was to pay particular attention to lighting. Its about asking questions, and about a sense of knowing that every client has different aspirations.

Asking the important initial questions is crucial in customer service, he added. We have a high-end client list, and we want to make sure they can see themselves with us four or five years down the road.

[All of these things] are what you do to become a better student of your customers, Seigel said. They mark the difference between good and great, because customers want to do business with those they know and trust. The way you speak with a customer will likely influence future business dealings, and the way you set yourself apart will give you opportunities to retain their business.

Karen Mitchell is a freelance writer living in Boulder, Colorado.