By Josh Christian, Director of Certification, Home Technology Association
I get asked all the time by integrators, "Do certifications matter?" I used to wonder this myself when I was an integrator. If I won a project, I was unsure of why we were selected most of the time. Clients are, for some reason, not very forthcoming about why your company gets hired over another one. This still puzzles me.
In 2015 I left the integrator side of the business and went to the specifier side, working for Axiom Design, a design-only firm that did not sell or install hardware. As a consultant, I learned a lot about how integrators are perceived by clients, architects, builders, and designers. Unfortunately, their opinions in general are far below positive. Very far below. This was a sad realization for me. I really love our industry and the many great people and companies that are in it. Unfortunately, there are an enormous amount of companies offering really lousy technology experiences to consumers and trade partners. These types of companies are far more numerous than the integrators that I admire in our industry. The result is lack of trust and, in some cases, an outright hatred for our trade. As soon as an architect found out that I was no longer an integrator, I got an earful of what he or she "really" thinks about our trade. Not good! This happened over and over with clients, architects, builders, and designers. As a consultant, architects, builders, and designers started sending me LinkedIn requests, not the other way around! Strange, as I’m the same stand-up reputable guy I was when an integrator, but then I was perceived very differently.
The thousands and thousands of bad tech experiences have created a very untrusting public that fears the low-voltage subcontractor hiring process. They have a lot of anxiety around technology (they don't understand it), what this stuff should cost (they are clueless), and they fear hiring a company that doesn't know what they are doing and that will leave them high and dry. If you want to know why potential clients are seemingly difficult, evasive, or guarded in the first meeting…see all of the above.
Now back to our topic: Do certifications matter? The short answer is yes…definitely. Consumers want any validation point possible that they are making a good choice by hiring you. They do not have enough data points typically to make a good hiring decision and they desperately want something that makes them feel more comfortable with you and your firm.
In my life as an integrator, I spent most of my time in marketing and business development. I entered our firm in every award contest, made sure our techs were CEDIA certified, joined all the important trade partner associations, and was diligent about making sure we gave our clients every excuse possible to feel good about hiring a top-tier firm. We were a top firm, but we still lost plenty of jobs to companies that could not shine our shoes. My job was to prevent that from happening.
When we listed all of our tech certifications, our awards (a form of certification), and affiliations...it mattered. We won projects. Lots of them. Consumers could pretty easily distinguish us from the guy working out of his mother's garage with a 2-minute website comparison. It didn't work every time; there will always be the clients that believe the "too good to be true" bid price, but it worked way more than it didn't.
But, to make certifications work for you, you need to wear them on your sleeve. Don’t expect just because you or your techs have lots of letters and commas after their name that it will automatically mean something to your prospective clients or industry partners. You need to give them a quick elevator pitch on why the certification matters – what’s in it for them that you or your techs have this certification? Tell them and you should win.
As I look around other industries, I see all sorts of certifications that are accepted industry standards. Good mechanics have "ASE certified" placards all over their shop. If I walk into a garage without those, I’d be really nervous about hiring them. The funny thing is that I have no idea who ASE is or what it takes to get certified. But, if I don’t see that sign, I will not hire that shop. Plenty of mechanics are ASE certified, why not these guys?
I didn’t have a clue what GIA certification was for diamonds was until I invested a grip of cash in my wife’s engagement ring. The jeweler gave me a quick explanation of what GIA certification meant, and once I learned that there actually was a standard out there, there was no way I wasn’t going to choose an uncertified diamond. I wanted proof this rock was legit! The same goes for vehicle crash test ratings, board-certified surgeons, Michelin stars, etc. As a consumer, I want to feel comfortable with a purchase. We all do! The larger the purchase, the more sure I need to be. So do your prospective clients.
There are lots of badges in our industry. Savant just launched the Ambassador program, Control4 launched the Pinnacle Dealer and have a Certified Showroom program, Crestron has Elite Platinum and Elite Pro dealers, and Lutron has Diamond Dealers. Now some of these designations are simply based on how much someone buys, others are more about a combination of breadth of systems sold and proficiency. Either way, consumers gravitate towards badges and titles regardless of how deep they research what they mean (newsflash: typically not at all). You would be surprised at how powerful it is to utter the words, "I am a Lutron Diamond Dealer". When said with pride, it resonates with a client and they think, "I have no idea what a Diamond Dealer is, but it probably means he is really good with that Lutron stuff."
The biggest mistake we make is applying our own value system to our clients. Think like your client and think about what would be important to them. Talking about your accomplishments and certifications will be more meaningful to them then talking about technology since it has been proven that a client only understands 30 percent of a technical conversation, even though they nod their head 100 percent of the time.
There are all sorts of certifications that can be earned by you or your team. Here is a partial list: CEDIA, Cisco, MTI, ESPA, HAA / THX, ISF, AVIXA/InfoComm, Z-Wave, CompTIA, ESA, LEED, and NSCA. Beyond these, there are manufacturer certifications such as AMX, Control4, Crestron, Lutron, Savant, and more.
In my current professional role with the Home Technology Association, I have become an expert on certifications and how they are perceived by consumers. Our goal was to institute the first real standard of quality for an integration firm. Our goal was for it to be the gold standard. If a company passes the criteria, the company gets to wear the badge of being HTA Certified. This is a unique certification in that it evaluates a company as a whole.
The certification standard started with the consumer. What did they want in an integrator? The overwhelming majority of consumers had the same responses:
1. Consumers wanted a firm that had technical proficiency.
2. They wanted a firm that had great customer service and aftercare policies.
3. They wanted a firm with a reputation for being honest and fair.
These are the three pillars of which we built the HTA Certification standard. By “we,” I’m referring to nine influential industry veterans that helped create the standard (see the HTA website and click on the “who” link to see who they are).
In these three pillars, we created 60+ points of criteria to evaluate and assess a firm. Included in that is nine or more reference checks to vet the firm. We wanted the criteria to have real teeth and the system to be impossible to game. Those who have completely filled out the application understand that no stone is left unturned and that no imposter can make his way through certification. We wanted to give an integrator 100 percent confidence to say to a client "HTA certification distinguishes my company as not only one of the best in the city or the state, but also one of the best in the country."
See the “HTA Certification Defined” article on the Home Technology Association’s website (https://htacertified.org) to see the published HTA certification standard. When you read it, put yourself in a client’s shoes and ask yourself, “Is it worth gambling by hiring a company that is not HTA certified?”
HTA-certified dealers are using their certification as a tipping point to win projects over firms that are less qualified. The feedback from builders and architects is, "Finally there is a standard for your industry, this has been needed for a long time!" With the positive feedback from the building community and the evidence of certified dealers repeatedly winning projects, I can firmly say, "Certifications matter"!