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Get Out of Your Office

I talk with companies all the time about what works and what doesnt work in the custom installation business. One thing that companies need to develop is a clear focus on the precise market they are targeting and how to reach them.

A call came to me from a new company just opening. They had leased an excellent location for their showroom near a retail center. They spared no expense in building beautiful home theaters in their showroom with all the architectural touches for a wealthy client to get the full treatment. They invested thousands of dollars for ads and color inserts in the Sunday paper.

It had taken more than seven months and a major financial investment to put it all in place. The gear was great, the sound was great, the lighting was great, the ambiance was great, and the staff was now ready to begin selling.

There was only one problem, the bewildered owner explained: they opened the showroom three months ago and no one was calling or coming in. In fact, after all of their hard work and expense, this new company had not yet made a single sale. The employees were literally standing around in their empty new showroom, waiting for clients to walk in. What to do next?

I sensed that I was hearing the last gasps of a drowning company that would be gone before another three months passed. I hope we can learn something from this new startup about what works and what does not work in our market.

The first problem here is a misunderstanding of how custom installation companies reach their market. We are not retailers like Circuit City with big storefronts, millions of dollars of inventory, and giant inserts in the Sunday paper. We know that this retail marketing model works on getting customers to the store to buy their A/V gear and take it home with them, but thats not really our business. The owners biggest error starting this new custom business was the false belief: If we build it, they will come. No matter how perfectly he had planned and executed the launch of his new company, it was failing by using the wrong marketing model.

In custom installation, we dont wait for the customer to walk into our showroom. We dont wait for our phone to ring. We dont expect our advertising to do it. We dont wait for customers to come to us; we go to them.

My company worked in the elite ski resort towns of Aspen and Telluride, Colorado. Every fall, I made it a point to analyze all of my competitors ads in the new yellow pages. This is an instant snapshot of a new company trying to establish a presence in town. I can see if a company had vanished and if any of the retail stores were gaining interest in installation work. The style of each ad also conveys something about the companys image and sophistication.

There was one company, however, that never ran a yellow pages ad. I thought it was funny that I had to search to find their name and number hidden in the basic free listing section after all of the big display ads. In fact, it was just plain maddening to me because every year this company sold the largest, most outrageously priced systems, had the most elite clients and the top-tier customer base that other installation companies could not penetrate.

I never saw this company advertise on TV, in newspapers, on radio, or any other method. How did they do it? They knew exactly whom their market was and exactly how to connect with them. Not only did they target Aspen, where they say the billionaires are pushing out the millionaires, but they targeted the top 10 percent of that market.

So, what are the secrets to getting started in this business? First, clearly define your market. Then position your products, prices, and company image to reach that market. Then, spend all of your sales and marketing energy in reaching out to these customers, building relationships with their builders, their architects, their interior decorators, and their real estate agents.

Finding qualified leads for new clients can be hard work. New construction is always the most direct signal that a client fits your profile. Get out of your office. Spend days driving around new construction sites so that you know exactly who is who. A custom house under construction immediately tells you a wealth of information about the owner. You know the price range, the affluence of the area, and can readily connect with the builder, architect, and other important contacts. You know the timing is right because a house under construction is the perfect time to make the sale.

Rich Riehl ([email protected]) is a Los Angeles-based consultant to the CI business and creator of BidMagicAV.