When I come across a quote that I find especially meaningful or poignant in magazines or books that I’m reading, I write it down—or take a picture of it—so I can remember it.
In reading an extensive interview with Apple’s new CEO, Tim Cook, in the December 10-16, 2012 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, I stumbled across this quote:
“A great product doesn’t mean an expensive product. It means a fair price. The iPad mini is all the way down to $329. This isn’t an expensive product. So when we can do great products and achieve a great price, we feel great. But what we shouldn’t do is say, ‘We’ve got to have something for this price, and then let’s see what we can do for it.’ That’s not how we think. We think about the product and making a great product that we want to use. When we can do that and achieve another price point, that’s great. But our customers have a high expectation, and we’re not going to try to pass off something—we would never do that. That’s not how we think.”
This isn’t the first time that I’ve been inspired by something from Apple, and this comment from Cook immediately got me thinking about our business and how I used to specify AV systems and how I go about specifying them now. Let’s break this quote down and see what custom integrators can learn from one of the most powerful and successful tech giants on the planet.
“A great product doesn’t mean an expensive product.”
This is certainly true in our field as it is in any field. There are some great products –Control4’s HC-250, Sonos: Connect, Lutron Spacer—that aren’t expensive.
It is also certainly not true in our industry, as well. There’s an even larger number of “great” products that would be considered expensive by almost anyone. A Kaleidescape movie server, a PRIMA Cinema player, a Stewart 4-way masking screen, and pretty much anything with “Krell” or “Meridian” in the name.
A truer point is that technology has advanced to the point where greatness is now far more affordable than it has ever been before. I can remember that we used to tell people that if they even wanted to consider a front projection home theater system, they needed to start with a budget of around $20,000. Now we regularly bang out really impressive projection theaters for under $10,000.
However, it’s important to remember that the words “great” and “expensive” are relative things.
Is a $1,000 Epson projector great? Sure. How about an $8,000 JVC projector? Definitely. And a $100,000 Runco? Absolutely. They are all great in their own way, but certainly not on the same level of greatness. It is important that we educate customers—especially at the high-end—about the relative value of greatness and why not all greatness is considered equally, um, great.
Further, what is expensive to my daughter might be (literally) pocket change to me, and what is expensive to me, might be (literally) pocket change to many of our clients. We have to make sure that we don’t sabotage our high-end sales by thinking of them as expensive. Sure, to many of us, a stack of Krell electronics, or Meridian speakers, or a Runco projector or Kaleidescape server or PRIMA Cinema player might be outside the realm of non-lottery-winning fiscal possibility, but to many people, these are not expensive.
“It means a fair price.”
You want to talk about another ambiguous word, let’s talk about the word “fair.” This can be defined as “free from bias, dishonesty or injustice” and also “proper under the rules” and “moderately large, ample.” What is fair to one person might seem patently unfair to another. And fair to whom? The customer or the retailer? I’m sure that all of us have created proposals that we thought delivered amazing performance and value for the price, only to have a client say that it was outrageous. Where’s the fairness in that?
“The iPad mini is all the way down to $329. This isn’t an expensive product.”
If you’re out of work and struggling to make your rent and to buy food, then you might disagree with Mr. Cook on whether $329 is expensive or not. Also, when you are trying to sell an even less expensive $300 smart remote control to someone who just bought a $500 TV with a $200 soundbar and $79 Blu-ray player, they might disagree with it not being expensive as well. The point here is to establish a product’s value, something that Apple does extremely well and that we need to emulate. Instead of the price, it’s more, “Look at all of the amazing things you can do with this! This device is going to change your life and how you experience the world!” Likewise, it isn’t a $300 remote or $130 light switch or $500 router or whatever, it’s part of a system that is going to improve their lifestyle. That’s what adds value.
“But what we shouldn’t do is say, ‘We’ve got to have something for this price, and then let’s see what we can do for it.’ That’s not how we think.”
This is probably the part where Mr. Cook’s advice holds the least water for A/V integrators and is pretty much exactly how we think and how we need to think. Sure, it would be great if we could head into every project with the mindset of, “We’re going to install the very best component possible for this system!” But the reality is, many of us would end up going out of business within a few months if that were our practice.
“We’ve got to have something for this price” and working toward that budget is almost always the case in our industry. We work in an industry where, “It depends…” can be the answer to almost every question. “How much is a TV?” “How much is a surround system?” “How much is a projector?” “How much is a good pair of speakers?” It depends…
Very few of us have ever had that truly “blank check” job where you could spec in whatever gear we wanted. I recently quoted a theater that came in at nearly six-figures, and even with that large of a budget, there were several components that I wanted to use but couldn’t.
Part of the difference and unique challenge that our industry faces is that many of our customers have no real idea or grasp of the individual parts that make up a system; they instead think in terms of the whole project, and often dictate the very number that we must work toward.
When asking customers for their budget on a project, it isn’t uncommon for them to retort with some comment like, “If I tell you my budget is $20,000, then you’re just going to give me a proposal that is $20,000.” And that’s exactly right. Because $20,000 could easily be $50,000. And $50,000 could easily be $100,000. And $100,000 could be…
For better or worse, “We’ve got to have something for this price” is how we think.
“We think about the product and making a great product that we want to use.”
For me this is often the touchstone I use when specifying or reviewing gear: Is this something that I would want to use? If I were on the other end of the equation but knowing what I know, would I spend my personal John money for this? Is this a product or system that I’d choose for myself? If you consider projects through that lens, would you make the same decisions?
“But our customers have a high expectation, and we’re not going to try to pass off something—we would never do that. That’s not how we think.”
This is likely true of each and every client that walks through your door. They are coming to you—to us—as a custom integrator because they have a high expectation. They want something more than they can do for themselves, something more than they can grab off the shelf at a Big Box and something more than they can cobble together on their own from things they can Google-up on the internet. They’ve likely found you through a builder or previous client/friend referral or maybe via CEDIA’s “find a CEDIA Pro” service. All of these things raise expectations as to the level of system, service, and support you are going to provide.
And trying to pass off something less than these high expectations? Well, Mr. Cook is exactly right. We would never do that. That’s not how we think. At least not those of us that intend to stick around.
John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.