When you own a small-or medium-sized integration company, you juggle many conflicting priorities on a daily basis, including intense, randomly occurring urgencies that flare up out of nowhere. On bad days, you bounce between so many of these fires that you often feel like that juggling guy in the circus who is suddenly tossed a chainsaw.
Over time, successful integrators develop creative solutions or tools to help them deal with these kind of issues more efficiently, either as they arise, or even better, preventing those fires from ever flaring up in the first place. Maybe they heard about solutions from other home tech pros or via CEDIA training, or they came up with them on their own. But however they discovered them, the best tools have proven their usefulness over time and are a secret weapon to drive the success of their integration business.
It is these clever solutions that we sought to discover and share with Residential Systems readers. We asked a group of leading integrators a simple question: What are your top tips, tricks, tools, or tactics that help to drive the success of your integration company?
Not surprisingly, one of the first issues raised by our group of integrators was the challenge of managing people. Bringing on new techs–a process known in “corporate speak” as onboarding–is a good-news/bad-news proposition. The good news is that this new tech will (eventually) turn into a valuable resource, helping to shoulder the load of the growth in your installation business. But, as Joseph Allen, co-founder of Bellevue, WA-based Beyond Hi-Fi tells it, the bad news is that, initially, these new techs need a lot of training both in technology and products, as well as training in those processes that are unique to your integration business. That onboarding process is very time consuming and a heavy drain on management’s time.
“I don’t mind it, considering that our staff is our most valuable resource,” Allen said. “But I am always looking for ways to turbocharge the process.”
The trick? Allen has figured out how to provide a series of professional training videos that allow his new techs to learn the proper way to configure sophisticated network installations and the like, with zero impact on Allen’s time. The key, he has discovered, is that Allen can leverage YouTube to his advantage.
One mistake that Atlanta-based Hi Fi Buys founder Alan Jones sees integrators make is that they design residential automation systems that are too complicated for their clients to easily operate and fully enjoy.
“I like to peruse YouTube in my morning hour– that magical 30-60 minutes around 5:00 a.m. after I wake up and when I’m having my morning coffee. It’s distraction-free time, and I search for videos on any item or task related to some upcoming work, in the hopes that someone else has tackled the issue.”
And, to his surprise, he has found a veritable treasure trove of smart, professional videos centered on just about any issue that an integrator may face. By collecting and curating the best videos, Allen is able to put together a pretty powerful training program for his new techs.
As a bonus, thanks to the process of searching for and screening the training videos himself, Allen discovered some critical new tools that will save his teams hours of time. In particular he discovered an IT integrator who has his own YouTube channel called the FiberNinja. When watching one of these videos, the FiberNinja demonstrated a valuable tool he uses from Triplett, called the Low Voltage Pro. This tool has a Port Blink Cable Detection feature, which allows you to plug in one end of an Ethernet cable to the tool and see a blink indication on the port at the switch or router that confirms exactly which port that cable connects to.
“It will place a slow blink on the switch port of any network switch and allows you to quickly find exactly where the mystery run is plugged into the network gear,” Allen said. “So many hours of my time have been wasted trying to discover just that!”
Employees are clearly a key issue for almost any integrator. Not only are their education and capabilities issues, but their state of mind can play a key role, as well. Mike Silver, logistics manager of Acoustic Architects in Miami, FL, said that he noticed his team appeared to feel overworked, and that it was affecting their performance.
When your project pipeline is maxed out and your teams are operating at full tilt, it can be a stressful environment that affects the state of mind of each member of your team. And a stressed-out team may not always operate the way you would like.
“For a while, our team felt run down and overwhelmed because everyone was focused only on their individual responsibilities,” Silver said. Eventually, the company decided it was time to take action. “After we held a team-building exercise and a company barbeque, we were able to get everyone back into ‘team mode,’ and we are all now working toward creating a great environment to do our work in.”
Now, Silver said, the work environment is much more positive: “Every morning I tell myself that I am coming to work to be a part of a great team doing the greatest work in our industry,” he exclaimed. “When everyone engages as part of a team solving the problems that come up every day, then we all feel more engaged and get more satisfaction from our time at work.”
To state the obvious, clients are people too, and one mistake that Atlanta-based Hi Fi Buys founder Alan Jones sees integrators make is that they design residential automation systems that are too complicated for their clients to easily operate and fully enjoy. So Jones says his best tip to integrators is: “Keep it simple.”
“I think that most integrators try to make the home so automated that they mess it up,” he said. “For example, by using touchscreens instead of keypads for even simple tasks, it actually makes that task more complicated. Touchscreens take more touches [than a keypad].”
By simplifying design and operation, clients, Jones said, “actually find that the house works better for them that way.”
But it is important to note that Jones is not anti-automation. ���I’m not saying, ‘don’t use automation,’” he explained. “I’m just saying, keep it simple. We’ve had people that wanted us to hook up three items that all play Netflix on the same TV.”
Jones said that he sees it again and again: overly sophisticated systems are too confusing and clients end up not really knowing how to using them to their fullest extent. With simpler systems, he said, the client finds it easier to use and enjoy.
“I think we’re in a world today where we put in a lot of stuff that doesn’t necessarily sound or look fantastic, but yeah, we put all kinds of control all over it,” Jones said. “And I see this in the ‘Street of Dreams’ and all that kind of stuff all the time, where they have $100,000 worth of woodwork and a $6,000 system. I believe [what ’s most important is] the quality of what comes out of the system.”
Much like the Low Voltage Pro tool that Joseph Allen discovered via a professional YouTube video, a few of integrators shared stories about their favorite gadgets. For Eric Davidson, president of Bowie, MD-based American Automation, a very simple tool had a big effect on his business.
“Next to a screwdriver and a wire stripper, a tone generator and probe set is both necessary and quite versatile,” Davidson said. “It serves myriad functions that no tech should be without.”
Hi Fi Sales’ Dave Gilbert said soon after adding GPS to its vans, his company discovered an even bigger payoff to using the system.
Just how does Davidson use this recommended tool? “To name just a few uses, you can identify unlabeled/mislabeled wires, quickly identify a single wire from a bundle of cables, check continuity of security devices, and test speakers and speaker wiring,” Davidson said. “The probe will even pick up line-level audio on RCA outputs.”
Davidson said that good sets can run into hundreds of dollars, but a perfectly workable set can be found at Home Depot for less than $75.
Sometimes tools purchased for one use turn out to bring another completely unforeseen benefit. Such was the case of a tool initially acquired for pragmatic uses by Hi Fi Sales in Cherry Hill, NJ. Senior vice president Dave Gilbert said that the company added GPS tracking systems about three years ago for the purpose you might expect: to keep track of the comings and goings of the company’s vehicles. But soon after adding GPS, the company discovered an even bigger payoff to using the system, which is installed on all company installation and service vans.
“Besides the obvious benefit of knowing when a crew leaves or arrives, our GPS system gives our service, installation, and office managers the ability to know where our guys are at any given time,” Gilbert said. “Service calls come in at all hours, but now we have the ability to see precisely where our crews are and can redirect them to a customer in need.”
This ability to find the nearest crew and rapidly respond to a customer service call has come to be recognized by Hi Fi Sales’ clients as a very valuable benefit. However, the company doesn’t pull crews from scheduled jobs; this would trade the satisfaction of one client for the dissatisfaction of another.
“We don’t take our crews off of a scheduled job, but rather we make use of a crew that can ‘pick off’ a service call on the way back to the shop,” Gilbert said.
And with a little luck–depending on when the call comes in–some clients have a “sudden service” experience that Gilbert says makes the client extremely happy and earns the company a big gold star.
Many integrators don’t use GPS, and one reason for that may be the cost of the system. Upfront costs involved in installing a full, company-wide GPS system can be a little expensive, and there is an ongoing monthly service fee, as well. But Gilbert doesn’t question the cost one bit.
“The cost is far outweighed by a happy customer,” Gilbert claims. “Quick response to service calls sets us apart. And the many other features of a GPS system, such as time tracking, safety alerts, and the ability to help in tracking productivity, are all just icing on the cake.”
Tools for the Business Side of the Business
A few of the home tech pros talked about a different kind of tool, one that helps with the business side of an integration business. For example, Shawn Hansson, CEO and founder of Logic Integration in Lone Tree, CO, saw a need to make sure his management team was on top of the many daily details of running an integration business.
American Automation’s Eric Davidson said a tone generator and probe set had a big impact on his business.
“I think that good information is the key to a successful business,” Hansson said. “I have had bad info in the past, and steering the ship with a bad instrument panel is extremely dangerous and frustrating.”
After years of relying on a cobbled-together system using Microsoft Word and Excel, Hansson knew they needed to find a better way to keep track of their numbers. About two-and-a-half-years ago, he found an online “dashboard” solution called Guiding Metrics that helped him get his numbers organized and presented in a way that facilitated better business management decisions. Ever since then, Guiding Metrics has become Hansson’s top business tool.
“Having excellent KPIs [key performance indicators] that the management staff can rely upon is extremely valuable in helping us run our business,” Hansson said. “We know our over/under billing, our project costs ‘live’ every day, billable versus non-billable hours, sales, cash received, 30/60/90/120-day sales and production funnel, and more.”
In a different way, David Young, president of the Sound Room in Chesterfield, MO, has also found a software solution that has dramatically improved the efficiency of his business processes– in this case their sales process. And that added efficiency has helped them drive a dramatic growth in their overall business level.
After years of relying on a cobbled-together system using Microsoft Word and Excel, Logic Integration’s Shawn Hansson knew they needed to find a better way to keep track of their numbers.
The sales process in the custom integration business tends to be a multi-iterative process. A contact is made, clients are interviewed, architectural plans are obtained and studied, an initial concept is prepared and presented to the client, further revisions are made, and a final plan is developed and presented for final sign-off. Depending on the client, there can be multiple revisions to get to the final, agreed-upon plan. Young recognized that it would dramatically speed the process and reduce the load on his company’s resources if he could increase the efficiency of the overall sales process.
Then, Young discovered Bluebeam, a PDF markup software utility that allows The Sound Room sales teams to compress the sales process, eliminating interim iterations to get to the final contract stage quicker. It also helps to increase the engagement of the client, who takes a more active role in building their system and the resulting budget for that system.
Young explained how it works: “We import the client’s floor plan onto the Bluebeam–it can be virtually in any format, it can be AutoCAD, it can be in PDF form, it can be drawn on the back of a cocktail napkin–any kind of format. And then we set up a meeting with the client, put their plans up on the screen in the conference room, and then speak with them about what kind of technology they want,” Young explained.
As they go room by room discussing with the client what technology they want and where, the salesperson is dragging icons that represent the various systems onto the screen precisely in the room where the system will be. At the same time, a budget is being adjusted with every system added.
“It’s a drag-and-drop [process], so as we just build the system and put speakers here and lighting control here, and security keypads here. As we’re dragging and dropping all of these devices, it’s keeping a running total for budget purposes,” Young said. “And so you’re doing it with the client, they can see what the impact is of adding or subtracting...and it makes designing a system for them go much faster.”
In many cases, with one meeting you’ve compressed several weeks’ worth of potential back-and-forth discussions and proposals, Young noted. “You’re actually creating, not an official proposal, but a budget in real time, in that first meeting,” he said. “And you let the client control it. It’s very visual and the client gets totally engaged in building their system.”
After this meeting, The Sound Room sales team then goes through the process of creating a full-blown official proposal, based on this mutually agreed-upon budget created in conjunction with the client. Young said that this process gets his company to a “yes” much faster.
Young said they do a large number of production home projects, as well as custom residential projects. In the case of production homes, “Typically, we can [close the deal] in one meeting,” Young said. And that regularly happens with custom residential projects as well, although because of the greater complexity of custom projects, this happens less often than with the more limited option production home projects. “It totally shortens the process,” Young enthused.
Finally, Joe Barrett, founder of Barrett’s Technology Solutions, an integrator in Chicago, shared a clever idea that helps his company build its relationship and attract projects from multiple luxury trade groups.
“We’re having our blogs [on our website] professionally written, and they’re really good.” Barrett said. “And then we add a step and have each blog re-written or adjusted so that it reads as though it had been written for the interior design community.”
This tactic efficiently takes a key technology topic and modifies it to address two separate communities: Barrett’s potential clients visiting their website and the interior design community. Barrett said that they then go to their CRM (customer relationship management) software and hit a couple of buttons to send out the edited version as a newsletter to all of their contacts in the interior design community.
This strategy both lowers the cost of developing the content, and increases its effectiveness in generating leads and business for the company. And they don’t stop there; they take the same steps with other luxury trade groups, such as custom homebuilders and developers, architects, luxury real estate brokers, and more.
These tips, tricks, tools, and tactics meet the unique needs for each of these integrators. Most of them have been time tested and have proven their value many times over. You may want to consider giving them a try. They might just work as powerfully for your integration company as it did for the contributing integrator.