One of the keys to running a successful custom installation business is maintaining strong links with building contractors — and hopefully getting involved at the early phase of a construction project. Indeed, the Home Technology Association (HTA) has made fostering relationships with builders a priority for its members. But how do AV professionals “get in” with building professionals, and how do they ensure that they’re on speed dial whenever a project gets green-lighted?
“Being established members of our local chamber of commerce has given us the opportunity to earn the trust of several builders in our area,” explains Jesse Silva, owner and president, The ProView Audio Video Experience LLC. “The chamber hosts weekly meetings that allow us to network regularly, and we have established new relationships.”
Silva and his team have also used social media to contact builders, mainly Instagram, as it’s an easy way of observing how projects are progressing; what stage they are at, etc.
“The platform makes it very easy to see what they are doing on their projects by way of their posts, and in many cases provides us insight into what extent they are using technology in their builds. If we notice a builder is not really implementing technology or offering very basic options, we can contact them and let them know how we as home technology professionals can help.”
There are lots of others ways of contacting builders, of course, with some taking time and long-term commitments. Associations such as The National Association of Home Builders are a good start, but there are other less obvious “ins.”
“It’s worth joining Remodeler’s Councils of local HBSs,” says Scott Koehler, president, Dream Kitchen Builders, LLC. Visit Parade Homes and learn about their product, and visit Remodeled Home tours. Both of these last two are about the only time a GC will chat for an extended period of time.”
Koehler also suggests “touching base” with the realtors that list a builder’s home, as well as volunteering at events that the builders volunteer at, like Habitat for Humanity, and getting to know subcontractors that already work with builders.
“Last year there were 500,000 new homes built in the U.S. and 10 million remodels built,” he adds. “So there are 20 remodels to every new construction. Residential remodeling is more difficult than new construction in every way, and that’s the good news and the bad news.”
Sean Skelley, CEO and owner of Definitive, is convinced of the importance of finding like-minded builders to work with before making the AV contribution to builds invaluable.
“We believe it is critically important to identify builders who share your core values and approach to custom projects,” he says. “We are a performance specialist at Definitive, offering premium solutions in lighting, shades, networking, audio and video systems. We work to identify builders with similar qualities and work hard to get to know them. Becoming a true resource to the builder takes time to establish, a consistent effort, and coming through when it matters most.”
Landing the Approach
How you approach builders is important, however. They get hit up by many different trades, so it’s easy to rub them up the wrong way if you go in too hard and fast. This is perhaps why a lot of integrators prefer to work with third parties, rather than approach building firms direct.
“One of the most consistent things I’ve heard from builders, especially custom home builders, is how frequently they are hit up by salespeople for every imaginable subcontracting trade,” confirms Steve Stary, executive vice president at Brilliant AV. “But, the AV trade is the most frequent. They also tell me that they are very unlikely to choose a trade based on a job site walk on. For this reason, I focus on getting referred to new builders from designers, clients, and other trades.”
Once a connection is established — directly or indirectly — is when the hard work of maintaining the relationship and proving just what an asset to building projects an AV professional can be. To be successful in maintaining these relationships, it’s imperative to understand how construction projects work, from an architectural level up to final build — and also to educate the building professional in the magic of AV, showing how invaluable it can be.
“Once a connection is established, we are able to share the many benefits there are when working with a home technology professional who also happens to be a CEDIA member,” says Silva. “We explain that today’s home technology systems provide entertainment, convenience, security, and comfort — custom-designed to suit homeowners’ lifestyles — and when planned for in a new build or remodel, can provide a great experience for years to come. Furthermore, we advise that we are professionally trained and always strive to continuously expand our knowledge in the latest technological innovations, so they don’t have to.”
Skelley adopted an architectural approach to system design in the early ’90s, as part of his business’ performance strategy. Understanding architecture when it comes to AV is crucial, particularly when you consider that building projects require a variety of different design and management services from several third parties — a complicated process.
“In our experience, all good projects start with a good design,” he explains. “Those builders that plan well, we work well with. We review the specifics of why, what, and how we approach custom system integration, providing examples of current engineering documentation and completed work.”
Listening to and understanding the challenges builders face is also crucial to a successful, ongoing relationship. As mentioned, construction involves a number of third-party stakeholders, including AV, and this creates huge challenges and headaches for building contractors.
“Construction projects are fraught with problems,” says Stary. “We should be a part of the solutions, not the problems. I think it is always imperative to listen to the challenges a builder is experiencing with their business and existing trade relationships.
“A builder is only as good as his or her subs, so they are reluctant to change unless there is a really clear benefit. I believe the best thing we can do is be a trusted partner to help them improve their business. A builder should never be treated as a single-sale relationship.”
“First, learn about their construction business from others and from them,” adds Koehler. “Next, determine if you and your product are a good fit for the builder. The best way to convince a builder to try your product is by telling them about another builder that you already work with.”
Also by Rob Lane: Building a Robust Network
Getting in Early
Of course, being involved in a project from the get-go is hugely beneficial, and once relationships are established, this is obviously much more likely to occur. But while it’s best practice that AV is specified at the start of a build, and that building professionals can see the importance of this — in the same way that electrics and plumbing needs to be factored in and planned for before construction begins — sometimes AV professionals have to adopt a softly-softly approach.
“This is a big challenge because each phase of the project seems to occupy 100 percent of the builder’s and client’s attention,” explains Stary. “In my experience, the best way to start the project is to only bring the required decisions to the table at each stage of the job.
“As designers, we want to figure out the whole scope up front, but it’s very difficult to get those decisions before the deadline for those decisions is looming. Not to say we shouldn’t have a budget, but not pushing for too much detail too early is a good practice to keep the door open.”
Obviously, once relationships are established, and trust cemented, it is a lot easier to become involved at the early stages of a build, and with today’s building professionals being a lot more educated about AV, early stage involvement is more commonplace.
“Once you truly become a trusted resource to the builder, getting involved early becomes much easier,” says Skelley. “If you have not established that bond, it rarely if ever happens. It’s critically important to continue to re-evaluate and modify your offerings/process to meet the demands of the market and your builder partners.”
“These days it is actually becoming a bit more painless to get builders to see the benefits of what we, home technology professionals, have to offer,” adds Silva. “That doesn’t mean we have it easy, but many are beginning to ‘get it’. We just have to continue to educate and build trust that bringing us into the process early is the best way to ensure the client gets what they want and, in many cases, demand.”
Can Certification Help?
As well as the hard work of integrators themselves, it’s thanks to organizations like HTA that builders are more educated than in previous years with regard to the value of AV, but opinion appears to be mixed as to the extent of the HTA’s influence.
“Having a certification is important because it helps build trust,” opines Silva. “Whether you are HTA-certified, CEDIA-certified, or not, it can be a great differentiator in ultimately being chosen as a partner in a project, and it shows that you care about your business.”
“Certifications may or may not be a door opener, but that’s where it ends with builders in my opinion — or at least that’s been my experience,” says Koehler. “Builders are very down to earth and very focused on actions much more than words.”
The issue is that building professionals are too busy with the business of building, as well as concentrating on their own professional organizations, to appreciate AV industry certifications.
“Honestly, builders don’t know enough about our industry to recognize the value of certifications,” says Stary. “I think certification is as valuable as we can make it in our marketing.”
Stary reckons that a referral from another trade that they respect holds a lot more weight than any certification, so perhaps it could be viewed as added value at the very least when it comes to building trust with construction pros. Relationships and referrals always tend to trump awards and certificates, and ultimately it’s a results business: it’s a truism that you’re only as good as your last job.
“In theory everything that you do — if done well — should lead to additional work,” says Koehler. “I did a high volume of new construction from 1992 to 2000, and had great relationships with a small number of builders.”
It’s also true that those businesses that continue to educate themselves, and to evolve within new working environments — as well as helping to develop and educate those they work with — tend to be the most successful.
“Working with builders has taught us to be a better subcontractor,” explains Skelley. “From design, documentation, project management, project administration, ongoing support, and repair: all aspects of these disciplines have driven our investment in people, process, and product.
“Our builder partners continue to provide new project opportunities. We value our relationships with the builder community and look forward to investing more time and energy developing them further.”