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Close Encounters

Focusing on Customer Service Will Turn Good Luck into Habit

The Close: Sounds like a John Grisham book or a Matt Damon blockbuster. But in the residential systems world, The Close is a critical component of every projectthe official handshake. Its the stage where a client trusts you enough to invite you into their home, or building site, tangle with architects, plumbers, feng shui consultants, and install the A/V system of their dreams. The Close is also the fun stage where you get paid, at least a deposit, and ask the client to sign an agreement or contract.

Management structures differ from company to company. Often it is personality, rather than standards, that dictate day-to-day operations. So how does a custom firm take the voodoo out of sales and make closing a natural, systematic processone that isnt based on luck, but a consistent, repeatable result of sound business practice? Even for a primarily referral-based business, what skills are necessary to turn a potential client into a satisfied customer, every single time?

According to Joe Piccirilli, AVADs managing director, a successful close is actually determined before the home stretch. Seem bizarre? Not really. The way Piccirilli sees it, what guarantees closing consistency is a sales culture devoted to one thing: exceptional customer service.

The salesman must be a good listener and totally understand their clients needs, so that the closing becomes a simple, natural end, he stated. Be an active listener by asking the right questions. The control of the sales process actually lies with the person asking the questions, rather than talking at customers.

To explore the sales process, he compared custom technology to other professions, such as medicine and law. Watching how good doctors work is helpful, because of how much time they spend in the diagnostic phase. So much energy is spent learning the patients history and symptoms to ascertain the ailment.

Conversely, lawyers seem disturbed when witnesses ask them questions, not because they cant answer them, but because they lose control of the situation. Control is important, Piccirilli said, because its essential to guide the process of learning and drawing out the client needs, rather than inserting yourself into the sale. Taking yourself out of the sale sounds easy enough, but since most custom dealers entered the market because of their love of A/V, its easy to let passion get in the way.

Furthermore, why guess what clients want when you could ask them? Dont be surprised at the end of a diagnostic session. Address early issues of lifestyle and A/V enjoymentwhere and how often do they listen to music? Whats the center of activitya living room, kitchen, distinct entertaining space? Is the home designed for indoor/outdoor living?

Room configuration is often the wild card in audio performance, so ask about each relevant roomis there glass, a thick rug? Are there columns or a proscenium? Take the guesswork out of the sale by teasing out important details in the qualification stage.

Robin Courtenay is co-owner of SMC, one of Britains largest custom install firms. SMCs staff is 50-strong, and growing; the firm is also noted for sophisticated large-scale multiple-dwelling integrations, as well as private contracts. Even though his business is mostly referral-based, Courtenay says that the art of the sale hinges on trust, not just with the client, but also with other trades on the site.

Building trust is important, and a strong personal connection, Courtenay noted. Massive collaboration is often the key to success. The installer will be working alongside interior decorators, lighting designers, architects, landscapers. There must be a good marriageyou have to respect each others design philosophies.

Just as the various trades need to be comfortable and communicative with each other on site, the client needs to feel comfortable with the installer, especially if a big team is to be present on site for an extended period. Part of the comfort-factor, Courtenay suggested, is the care and professionalism shown in the consultation stage of a sale.

Heres another measurement reference used within the CEDIA circuit: If a custom systems sale has 100 units, 90 units should be spent on understanding the customers needs and desires. Only 10 units remain for demonstrating A/V gear and closing. The end is inevitable when the beginning and middle are properly executed.

When you do lose a sale, especially at the last moment, it can also be a positive learning lesson. Explore the What Ifs, but dont over-analyze failure. According to Piccirilli, its far more valuable to examine sales successes rather than failures. Dissecting what went right in a sale will help the repeatability factor.

Another important tip for salespeople is practice. Even for naturally gifted orators, practicing delivery skills and customer engagement will boost confidence and help sharpen that sales-floor persona. Compare a superficial, rushed exchange with a Big Box sales guy, to an informative, lush conversation with a custom systems specialist; there is no contest. That might be an extreme example, but isolating points of differentiation is beneficial. So why not offer a client what they will never get in a retail environment.

Other elements, which will help build consistency, fall in line with the professional mandate. Let everything about your business reflect absolute professionalism, from succinct contracts to equipped showrooms to neat fleets of vans with your logo. The subtler details give clients confidence in your abilities and dedication.

More competition in the residential systems market is a double-edged sword, as most dealers agree. Competition helps the general market by raising awareness and further expanding a hobbyist business to a wider retail channel. Savvy firms can benefit from underwhelming service from competitors across the street.

But, clarifying misinformation in the marketplace is a hurdle in the sales process. Tom Tierney, a sales consultant for Maines Custom Electronics, is noted for his successful closing record in the past two years. For Tierney, overcoming misinformation is a big obstacle, as well as helping homeowners understand what is possible. [A large obstacle] is educating the client on what the possibilities are for their new home. What is lighting control, Can I control the house from remote?

If the client has had an unsavory experience with a Big Box retailer, or a other custom firm, your job might be harder at first, but the potential is greater. For all the talk of high-definition, and DTV technology, most consumers still dont understand the basics. Turning that into a positive rather than negative experience might crack open a world of possibility for the homeowner and raise sales potential.

Making up for eroding product margins on displays is another obstacle. Margins on boxes are no longer primary revenue sources, stated Tom Vanthuyne, co-founder of T&W Marketing, a residential systems service and marketing firm based in Brussels. To ensure enduring sales success, custom installers must, Offer more services [to the client], such as whole-house integration and value-added service.

Diversifying will also help dealers stay poised for the future. We are heading toward a cash and carry future, Piccirilli added, and traditional high-end dealers cant make a living. The sweet spot in the market is the middle, the real growth is in the middle. High-end will not survive alone.

Margins are less, or the same, yet handling goes up. TVs, which used to be monitors (allowing for audio ad-ons), are now all-inclusive, incorporating tuners and speakers. To compensate for soft margins in a cumulative sale, explore the possibilities for distributed audio, and upgrade paths for specific products. All of this can be planted in the qualification/questioning process.

Many professionals are migrating into the CEDIA channel from security and construction vertical markets. Custom integration might be a new sensibility, especially contrast ratio and the subtleties of color and resolution. Joining ISF and learning calibration standards will add skill-sets and help dealers offer more value to their customers, Vanthuyne added.

Building a bigger tool box is beneficial in the short- and long-term, as the only brand custom installers can rely on is their own. Your brand is the only one guaranteed, Piccirilli said. He believes this maxim is key to business health and sales closings so dependable you can set a watch to them.

Innumerable books such as The Gingerbread Closer and Minor Close have addressed this subject. CEDIA and distributors like AVAD also offer valuable sales techniques seminars.

The Custom Close: if it were a movie it would be plot-led with an inevitable ending. It should just be as predictable as a Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks romantic/comedy, but with a much better soundtrack.

Margot Douaihy ([email protected]) is a freelance journalist based in London.