For many of our clients, luxury living is an aspirational goal — one that custom installers help move them toward. However, that aspiration works both ways, with dealers looking to move toward projects where money is seemingly no object and the builds — as well as the clients — are complex, but spectacular.
How do you know when your business is ready to take the next step? What preparations need to be done to take on the additional sales, technical, and service duties that serving the luxury market demands?
“You don’t wake up one day and decide that you’re going to start selling to the luxury high-end market,” says Yasin Chaudhry, sales manager for AVIR, Inc., in Palm Desert, Calif. “It should be an organic evolution that starts with a salesperson who ascended through the ranks to meet the needs of the higher-end clientele.”
Even if it is an evolutionary process, Chaudhry offers that there are things dealers can do to ensure a smooth transition into the world of luxury service.
Ready to Launch
What are the signs that your business is ready to make the move? It all starts with sales — having a passionate, knowledgeable team that will push the entire business forward. “The best car salespeople are ones that truly have an appreciation for cars,” says Chaudhry. “You may start selling Fords and Chevys, but if you’ve got a passion for cars, you will eventually find your way up to the luxury car market where you’re selling BMWs, Mercedes, or Porsches. In sales, it takes time to hone the skillset to get there, and as a passionate, professional salesperson, it becomes a career path that you end up following. It is the same with custom installation.”
Passion alone won’t cut it, however. The business also must be in an area that can support a high-end luxury dealer or, if there are already businesses covering that locale, multiple dealers. In AVIR’s case, its market was open for a luxury business — and was well underserved.
“In the Coachella Valley, where we are, many of the residences maintain a second, third, or fourth home,” says Chaudhry. “Quite often, we are asked to replicate an installation from their primary residence or are asked to design anew and work with an integrator elsewhere to bring a similar experience to their main residence. We have our competitors, but nobody is as large as we are, nor has the breadth of installation experience or line card with a competitive product mix. For example, speakers — we’re the only B&W, Focal, Meridian, Wisdom, D&B, and Void Acoustic dealer in the area. We are also the only StormAudio, Audio Control, and McIntosh dealer. When people here look up those luxury products, they immediately reach out to us for a consultation. Besides product, you need to know your locale and what your market can tolerate.”
Partnering With Vendors
The gear — and those wonderful, legendary, luxury brands — plays a large role in the move to the ultra-upper-class. Not just in name recognition, although that certainly plays a part, but also as a true partner to the business, with mandatory staff training once the business has been accepted as a dealer.
“You can’t be a McIntosh or Wisdom Audio dealer and not go to training,” says Chaudhry. “To be a Barco Professional dealer, one engineer and one salesperson both must go to training.
“Again, everything starts with sales, so the salesperson has to have gone through some level of training or had some dialog with the rep firm or the manufacturer, and he or she has to have a clear understanding as to the product’s potential and how it works with the other products in the system,” he adds. “If you are unfamiliar with new products and the potential of compatibility issues with existing equipment, and don’t have the ability to vet equipment carefully, you may end up driving yourself into a hole.
“Our company has an engineering department where they read white papers and work with vendors to borrow test equipment when possible to ensure new equipment compatibility. Our engineers spend a lot of time doing research.
“And then we have our installation staff. Whether they go through specific product training or not, most of the team has been doing this long enough that each person has a full understanding of how things should go together. Part of our engineering department’s responsibility is, on larger installations, to prepare line drawings showing I/Os and configuration notes to installers.”
These kinds of installations are fully a team effort that goes on well after the job has been handed off to the client. “Usually there is a service turnover where the service manager or a service technician is also working with the installation department,” says Chaudhry. “Ultimately, the service department will work with the client after the final installation and take care of them in the event of a problem. Everybody down the line ends up touching every single project that we work on.”
In some cases, the manufacturers will visit the site to help with the installation. “Companies like Sony, Barco, and Planar all have what’s called ‘assisted installations,’ where they expect the integrator to do the heavy lifting, but they will have one of their techs on-site administering your installation and helping you correct whatever deficiencies are encountered,” says Chaudhry. “They understand that most integrators have never touched their products before, so they are willing to offer installation assistance.”
Knowing Your Clientele
Clients at this end of the market are not easy to predict, but service them long enough and you’ll get a feel for the kinds of technologies that will excite them — even if they are not meant for the residential market. For example, the first time Chaudhry saw Sony’s CLED technology at InfoComm, a show for commercial integrators, he knew he had clients that would want the ultra-high-end tech no matter the cost.
“I saw CLED and thought every other screen at InfoComm couldn’t hold a candle to it,” he says. “I began peppering my Sony rep with questions, and he kept saying, ‘That’s not my market. CLED is considered business class.’ But he put me in touch with the Sony Pro side, and that’s how I met Neal Manowitz, who is now president of Sony Electronics.
“Neal put me in touch with a group of people on the pro side, and they invited me and one of the owners of AVIR out to experience the CLED screen at the Jimmy Stewart Screening Room at Sony Studios in Culver City and they asked if it was something we thought we could sell. I told them that I believe that AVIR has a client base where we could support this for them. So, they signed us up to be able to sell Sony Ppro gear — and we have sold several CLED projects.”
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How did he know that his clients wouldn’t balk at CLED’s extremely high cost? Because he knows them well: “I’ve got clients that will spend $2 million on a car they have never driven and will wait two years for it to be delivered,” he says. At least with CLED, there are plenty of commercial facilities where they can see it for themselves.
Luxury jobs carry high expectations and clients that do not have the time or interest to deal with excuses or poor performance. It can be a tricky path to catering to a client’s every whim while still looking out for your staff. In those cases, it helps to have a deep bench, as AVIR does.
“We try to protect our technicians as much as possible,” explains Chaudhry. “If there are basic questions that come across politely, the technicians are most certainly capable of answering them. However, if a client becomes combative or abusive, usually either the project manager steps in, because he is directly responsible for that installation team, or the salesperson steps back in because they were the one who developed the relationship with the client to begin with.
“In this industry, if worse comes to worst, one could simply say, ‘I appreciate the opportunity, but I don’t know that this is going to work out. We have two options — we can either give you a full refund or we can deliver the product that you’ve purchased and allow you to find someone else to install it.’ Most times when you present that situation to the client they tend to back down because they realize that they may end up needing you more than you need them.
“It is usually at that point where we get a different installation team in there to finish off the job because we’re trying to resolve an issue and maintain a relationship. We try to reboot the whole project and see if we can come to a resolution. It’s always awkward when an integrator has to fire a client — it is never a good deal.”
What is a good deal is making sure the client knows you are there even after the installation is completed. “From the sales standpoint we stay in front of our clients,” says Chaudhry. “We always make sure that the clients are aware that we offer a season shutdown and a season startup. Most of our clientele leave the Coachella Valley around Memorial Day, when temperatures start getting up into triple digits every day. We’ll go through the house and unplug any unnecessary devices, pull batteries out of remotes, and wind a system down. Then, between September and October, we will do a season startup where we will go out and install batteries in remotes, download new software in devices that require updates, go through the system to make sure the network is up and running, and ensure all the cable boxes are turned back on. We make sure that all systems are go so that, when they get here, they can just enjoy their lifestyle.
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“We make sure that we’re booking these services through our service department. This way, the salesperson always has their finger on their client and is working with the service department to make sure that the relationship is maintained.”
Why Make the Move?
While a luxury business can be financially lucrative, it does produce plenty of additional pain points for an integration business. Why put the company through that? According to Chaudhry, it goes back to the passion that pushes a pro to evolve in the first place.
“We’re selling things that are enjoyable,” he says. “People like to watch TV, people like to listen to music. Most enter this field because of similar interests. We also enjoy technology and selling it to people. It isn’t just a matter of numbers — having access to a broader and higher-end product line also means being able to offer an unequaled technology experience to our clients.”