Get Out of Custom

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There were timeless words spoken to me by a white-haired architect who was at the top of his field. At lunch I routinely asked him if his firm was keeping busy. With the insight of an old prophet he zinged me back with a proverb that pretty well sums it up: We dont need more work, we need more money.

That statement resonates in my thoughts through the years. Our New Years resolution is, Work smarter, not harder.

Resolutions like this are notorious for being easier said than done. The only way to sell more profitable systems is to charge more and spend less. How can you charge more?

If you position your company well through product choices, smooth installations and a great reputation, clients will want to work with you. You have to differentiate yourself from the competition to earn the right to charge more. Low bidders are only chosen for their low price. You must develop strategies and solutions that make it clear you are better than your competitors. You must close sales based on customer confidence and a track record of delivering a higher level of satisfaction.

You can also charge more by improving the quality of the audio/video experience. In the main listening area, I recommend selling your customers the very best pair of speakers that they can afford. In your market, maybe thats $1,000 a pair, or maybe its $50,000 a pair. The point is: there is no substitute for a great pair of speakers and a great high-end listening experience. If your systems stand out in the way they sound, it will be good business for you. Always choose bookshelf speakers above in-walls and sell the best in-wall speakers you can where they are needed. Unfortunately, I have heard six-figure whole-house music systems with very disappointing sound quality from cheap speakers.

You can charge more by improving the value of the control systems that you sell. You can step up to keypads, touchpads, and touchscreens. The first step is to provide a great remote controller for your home theaters. Never sell a home theater system without a well-thought-out remote control system that delivers exactly what the customer wants at the touch of a button. Especially with the difficulty in switching all of the formats and sources available with HDTV, this is an area where your installation savvy can set you apart. One touch should turn on the TV, turn on the surround processor, set the TV to the desired input and resolution, set the surround processor to the desired input, volume level, and correct surround mode. Then the DVD player should turn on, start the disc, and the lights should dim.

Remember, to be more profitable, you must also reduce your costs. How could that be possible? There is only one way to reduce your costs: Get out of the custom installation business!

Stop customizing! If you want to make money in this business, you must design repeatable solutions that you can sell again and again and again. Develop your perfect system, then sell the same system a hundred times. Whatever level of gear you install, develop template systems using exactly the same components and control systems every time. Instead of selling parts and pieces that change every time, build system solutions that never change. The second time you sell that system you will save a bundle. Your salespeople will know how to design it, your programmers will already have the program done, and your installers will know how to install it. Your service men also will know how to fix it and because the next customer is getting the same gear, you will have spare components in your shop when needed. Yes, each job will be different in the size and number of TVs and the speaker choices, but the essential design must be firmly locked in.

My model of an efficient CI business is a company that builds fully wired and tested racks in the office like an assembly line. These racks are delivered and plugged in at the job, ready to turn on that same day. That is a future that can help us celebrate greater rewards in the new year.

Richard Riehl ( is an A/V systems expert and consultant from Los Angeles, California.