Brand Loyalty

Ask a residential systems dealer to name one or two manufacturers that regularly go out of their way to solve problems or to service them as customers, and an odd thing occurs. That dealer will either say, "Let me get back to you; I can't think of anyone," or "There is this one company who really gets it, and no one else compares."
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Ask a residential systems dealer to name one or two manufacturers that regularly go out of their way to solve problems or to service them as customers, and an odd thing occurs. That dealer will either say, "Let me get back to you; I can't think of anyone," or "There is this one company who really gets it, and no one else compares."

In an industry that is still in its infancy, it may come as no surprise that only a select few equipment manufacturers really "get it" with regards to customer service and product reliability. For a dealer who has been around the block, however, these reliable vendors are the ones who typically earn years of brand loyalty for their everyday heroics.

For Marilyn Sanford of La Scala/Smart fx in Vancouver, Lutron is the one company that has figured out the right way to treat its dealers. "Whether it's training or at our events, Lutron is just outstanding and really supportive," she said. "If our other suppliers want to 'get it' in terms of what works really well, then they should look at Lutron."

Sanford noted that when a dealer sells a certain quota for Lutron, they then earn special pricing on products, higher co-op dollars, more display products or free freight. "It's such a powerful thing, because that means that you can remain more competitive in the market, which is saying to the homeowner that 'these guys have more experience; these are your better guys'."

Mitchell Klein of Media Systems in Boston has never forgotten a time when Lutron came through for him in a time of crisis, thereby cementing what is one of his best vendor relationships to date. The problem occurred late one Saturday evening on Media Systems' first Lutron HomeWorks installation.

"We actually get Lutron tech support on the phone, and we started going through diagnostics; the bottom line, Lutron agreed, was that it was a chip problem. To make a long story short, we got through the night and then first thing Monday morning we got a Fed Ex package from Lutron with new e-prompts. Lutron technicians had burned the midnight oil all through Sunday to find and re-code the problem."

For Klein, several things came out of that experience. "Number one, you wouldn't believe how much money that client has spent with us over the years just from that one experience," he noted. "But look at how much we've bought from Lutron as a dealer. That type of support has been continuous ever since; it was not a one-shot deal. There is no one who touches that in our industry."

Unfortunately, Tom Wells of Integrated Media Systems in Sterling, Virginia, says that most dealers no longer expect good customer service. "We don't count on having a manufacturer support us the way that we support our clients," he explained. "We've gotten to point now that when we get any kind of help at all, it's much appreciated. But when we get the kind of help that we're used to performing, we feel magnificent!"

Wells said that Lutron is the one manufacturer that makes him feel magnificent. "We had a client whose house got hit by lightning a couple weeks ago at 5:30 on a Friday afternoon. Somebody from Lutron got in a car and went to Fed Ex to get a new processor to us for Saturday delivery. That's really what it comes down to."

Wells also acknowledged Lutron's new Experience Center, a training and demonstration facility in Ft. Lauderdale, as an example of a manufacturer "putting their money where their mouth is" by building a facility that will help funnel business through the doors of their dealers.

For Hometech's Larry Dashiell of Santa Rosa, California, Lutron deserves credit for its product reliability as well. "Everything they have is tested before it goes out, down to their last switch. You never get bad product from them," he said. "When you get a product from Lutron, the last thing you think when something is wrong is that it's a bad product. You're always thinking, 'Okay, maybe we wired something wrong or somebody addressed something wrong'."

Many manufacturers, however, seem to fall short in their testing of gear and product burn-in policies. Shipping deadlines often take priority over quality control in the manufacturer's constant race to be first to market. Leif Pherson of Robert's Home Audio & Video in Los Angeles agreed with this assessment, but says that he would give Bryston "high marks" for its strict burn-in policy. "They will not send out anything that hasn't burned in for 10 days. That's a burn in!" he said. "They provide a 25-year warranty, and they won't ship a product until it has really been tested. I can argue my pants off, and they won't ship it until it burns in. I respect that policy."

Steve Hayes of Custom Electronics in Falmouth, Maine, noted that the companies that go "above and beyond" on a regular basis for his company are the ones that provide true 24/7 service and have "no-excuses" customer service.

"We never have problems on Friday at 2 o'clock in the afternoon," he said. "It's always some weird time like 9 o'clock on Thursday night, and the guys are trying to wrap something up when something crashes. What's wonderful is when they call that tech line and somebody goes, "Hello? How can I help you?'"

For Hayes, there are three companies that go above and beyond with their customer service. "It's SpeakerCraft, Runco and Crestron," he said. "SpeakerCraft has always been there. I think SpeakerCraft's Jeremy Burkhardt should be a poster boy for customer service; he really understands what it means to service a customer. So does Sam Runco. Crestron is that last piece where you're really trying to tie things together. If you have a problem and they can't help you immediately, a Crestron representative will ask for the number where you are and they will call you back. Do all of these companies screw up from time to time? Yes, but who doesn't make mistakes?"

Vance Pflanz of Pflanz Electronics in Sioux City, Iowa, noted that his business partnership with vendors will remain strong just as long as his they do the little things right on a regular basis. "Especially in custom installation, if you have a problem with one piece of equipment, then that ties down the whole job," he said. "It's the ability of the manufacturer to react and help get that problem rectified that help you keep the customer happy."

For David Epstein of SEi/Sound Solutions in Santa Monica, California, Extron's customer product support and knowledge of products is second to none. "Extron has some systems in place to prevent people from having to duplicate their efforts when they make customer-service calls," he said. "They also have a full product testing lab. They put stuff on the bench and see how things work together with other products. I've called in a number of times over the years, and if you ask them a question that they can't answer, they will put you on hold, find another technician or a product engineer, and they will often stay on the phone so that they can learn the answer as well."

Even as companies grow and try to become more sophisticated with their customer service, some dealers like Frank Barbieri of Litchfield Stereo in Litchfield, Connecticut, hope that their vendors don't lose their personal touch. "It is nice to have e-commerce, but most of time I'm on the road and it's hard to do the Internet thing. I love the fact that I can call a company from anyone's house and order something when I need it."

Barbieri points to ADA and Sonance as a couple of the only companies left that don't have voicemail as their first prompt when you call them. "A live person answers," he said. "That's important to me, because once a company gets rid of its operator that's usually when things go downhill. Honestly, it's sending a subliminal message to the buyer that they really don't want to talk to you."

For Charles Bock of Stereo Barn in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, B&W is the "absolute standout supplier" for his company. "They just shine head and shoulders above everybody," he said. "I'd say that in the last 12 months, I might have had an item back-ordered once in a year, and that's very unusual. Second to that, they are able to turn an order around immediately, which helps make me more profitable."

Bock also acknowledged B&W's strict loyalty to serving the independent specialist dealer. "When a company has that kind of a principle and also delivers that kind of service, then that creates a strong brand loyalty," he said.

Bill Anderson of Genesis Audio & Video in Irvine, California, says that Linn Products is one particular manufacturer that has earned his loyalty over the years. "As a company they're proactive," he said. "They do business planning with you. They plan events for you to highlight new products. They get your input on products that are in development. They do all the right stuff."

In fact Linn went so far as to send employees, Nicola Hunter and Martin Dahlglish, who were in the U.S. from Scotland, to one of Anderson's A-List client's homes for a unique product demo. As a result, that client purchased a new $25,000 Linn 328A monitor loudspeaker that originally had been intended only for mastering sound labs and recording studio applications. When Anderson's client wanted to use it as a center-channel speaker at home, however, Linn was more than willing to accommodate his client.

Rob Shapiro of All Around Technology in Rockville, Maryland, finds that generally speaking, "speaker companies will go to the ends of the earth" to solve a problem for their dealer. "If you're in business with a speaker company, then the orders are frequent and it adds up to a lot of money at the end of the year for them. That's why I think they take the relationship so seriously," he said. "For television manufacturers it's harder to provide that kind of attention, because we're just one little channel in a huge international picture."

That's why sometimes it's a relationship with an independent sales representative or distribution rep that can make a dealer's life easier. In fact, Bill Skaer of Eric Grundelman in Mesquite, Texas, points to C.J. Provenzano at Electronic Custom Distributors (ECD), his distributor in Houston, as a heroic supplier. "He has been absolutely amazing over the years, because if you call him at 6:30 in the evening, he'll have your stuff out that day so you have it the next morning. It's just amazing how much that helps us over time. I can't always have the everyday stuff in inventory."

Hometech's Dashiell indicated that there are two Northern California sales reps that have been outstanding for his company, Steven Lester at Sonic Marketing and Bill Carnes at David Rybsky & Associates. "Reps are generally the manufacturer's point of contact if you have a major problem. Once you call either one of these guys, they're right on it. They call you back immediately and help solve problems."

Ray Lepper of Home Media Stores in Midlothian, Virginia, has an idea for further promoting the best practices from reps, distributors, consultants and manufacturers: a panel discussion at next year's CEDIA EXPO.

"We need to help educate these guys about what are the expectations really are from dealers," Lepper said. "Believe it or not a whole bunch manufacturers in our marketplace have no clue what's expected from a customer service standpoint, from a margins standpoint, from a stocking standpoint and what kinds of programs they should offer. We still have major manufacturers that are offering custom installation companies programs that were appropriate for specialty A/V companies in the '80s. We're all trying to get better at what we do, wouldn't be awesome if we made our vendors better? We'd benefit from it and so would they because we would sell more of their stuff."

As for his perfect case study in the panel discussion, Lepper would choose Pioneer Elite, which has a policy for replacing very expensive equipment with a "three strikes and it's out" approach.

"We use that as a confidence element with our sales people, because everything that we sell breaks, and to know that this won't be a problem with Pioneer Elite is awesome. They've earned our loyalty because of that. You can tell a customer that the reason we do business with Pioneer Elite is because if anything goes wrong, then they are going to be there. If anything goes wrong three times, then you're just going to get a new one. That's everyday heroics for us."

Jeremy Glowacki is editor of Residential Systems.

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