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Buying Groups: Support for Slowdowns and Speed Ups

Buying groups step up for their members during the continuing pandemic.

The HTSA held Zoom Town Hall meetings to address the issues their dealer and vendors members were facing early on in the pandemic.

For proof of AV resiliency in this demanding time, look no further than to the growing success of buying groups. From introducing new platforms, increasing training, and ramping up vendor and dealer communication, these groups are taking the necessary actions to meet current challenges and up the sales numbers for their members.

“At the beginning of the slowdowns, we created a series of webinars on subjects like managing cash flow, how to get a PPP loan, and buying in difficult times,” says Richard Glikes, president, Azione Unlimited. “We’ve also created a series of Vendor Fireside Chats, intended to give supply and business updates.

“Lately, because of the tremendous amount of demand on our dealers’ time and resources, we have concentrated on vendor interactions only, as opposed to trainings and product-orientated promotions,” Glikes adds. “We think it’s crucial that dealers are buying smarter and utilizing association benefits to their full potential. Our communication has gone up dramatically, and has been focused on growing business in difficult times. The results have been overwhelmingly positive as dealers have been overtly thankful for our efforts exuded on their behalf.”

Hank Alexander, director, HTSN (Nationwide), says his company has learned a lot during the last eight months, “but our approach has always remained the same — putting our members’ needs at the forefront of everything we do. We keep executing on behalf of our members, doing whatever we can to help them stay safe on the front lines during the pandemic and support their communities.”

In terms of day-to-day operations, Nationwide has increased its Zoom, Teams, and WebEx conference and video calls. “We’ve also used these technologies to create new opportunities that benefit our members,” he says. “In fact, we recently finished our first-ever Virtual PrimeTime, where we offered three days of video conferences, presentations, and training to our members and guests, all for free. And we saw a tremendous response in terms of both attendance and engagement.”

Though virtual, the Azione Unlimited Fall Conference included guest speakers, small group meetings, one-on-one vendor/dealer discussions, and sumptuous cocktail parties.

Deeply challenged when the global pandemic disrupted business in early 2020, HTSA’s Board of Directors and leadership developed a strategic plan of action to help the entire HTSA family get through the impact of Covid-19 from a health and business perspective, says Jon Robbins, executive director, HTSA.

“There was a bit of a fear factor in the early days of Covid, as everyone struggled to understand the coronavirus, its nature, and its impact, as well as how to adjust operations in the face of the ever-changing recommendations from the CDC, WHO, and a plethora of state and local health officials,” says Robbins. “Early on, we sought to address these concerns and keep members focused on their businesses. In the early meetings, we helped members move beyond the risk of being frozen by fear and helped them see that, in any time of change, there is opportunity. We suggested that they seize the day by looking at this event not just as a new set of challenges, but also as a unique opportunity, for example, in stepping up talent acquisition.”

HTSA’s expanded management roster, including director of new technology Tom Doherty and chief learning architect Keith Esterly, has given the company leadership a full-time SWAT team of sorts, in place to create new tools and key initiatives.

“In the early stages of the pandemic we recognized the opportunity to address one of the biggest challenges faced by all tech industry dealers and integrators — a severe labor shortage,” Robbins says. “Keith [Esterly] developed a powerful set of tactics based on his Relationship Science course, helping members optimize recruitment practices to reach out to the many newly available top candidates furloughed by other less-fortunate operations. As a result of this talent acquisition initiative, most HTSA members have experienced a net increase in manpower.”

The HTSA’s customized Outbound Sales Program offers strategies for members whose showrooms had been ordered closed. Video meetings demonstrate how to review past client data and mine it for new opportunities for services and updates. Differences between outbound sales calls, cold calls, and telemarketing were explained, focusing on teaching salespeople how to re-engage when reaching out to past clients.

“The program was extremely successful,” Robbins says, “and we discovered that most clients were genuinely interested in updating their technology or adding new entertainment/home office capabilities.

“With The Vault, HTSA has created a centralized resource for all group- and vendor-created training and educational resources. The Vault is an easily accessed resource where members can find all materials from all sources, including videos, e-learnings, webinars, sales videos, and more. Members searching for needed training materials no longer need to chase vendors. They can go to The Vault, on demand. It features a simplified and consistent graphical user interface, tracks users’ progress, and provides HTSA with data on program completion and accomplishment levels.”

Doherty spearheaded an initiative to regularly collect business-level projections from a large group of members that were then shared with HTSA vendors on a monthly basis. The data was detailed, presented on a rolling three-month basis, and updated each month compared to the previous month’s projection.

“The group even broke the data down on a regional basis and held nothing back,” he says. “The best part of this initiative is that, in addition to gathering the hard numbers data, we also collected their anecdotal comments to add more context and color to the data. So there has been a dramatically increased level of two-way communication with membership and an outreach to vendors with detailed market data.”

ProSource offered training webinars as part of their ProSourceU initiative.

ProSource made it a point to use this shutdown time to increase contact with members, says its CEO/president, David Workman. “We are facilitating mechanisms within the group to allow the dealers peer-to-peer best practice idea exchanges on topics that are top-of-mind for them in this current environment.”

The centerpiece of ProSource training efforts is through ProSource University. Launched in May 2020 to meet the changing educational and training needs of members during the pandemic, it offers a unique course curriculum including video clips. “Our vendor partners have been very proactive in providing web training sessions to the point where there is more available than time allows,” he says. “ProSourceU is an industry-first LMS platform that includes custom created content, including our Lighting Technology Certification, Project Management Certification, vendor/product training and webinars, and the entire CEDIA Course catalog.

“As an additional bonus,” Workman says, “ProSourceU allows our members to create personalized content that is only accessible by their team. In this way, we are covering all bases for our members and are continuing to add additional content, covering myriad topics, to meet their changing needs.”

What Dealers Want

“Dealers have been asking for help with supply chain issues, effective training to train new employees, and help entering the hot new categories such as lighting,” Workman says. “As the pandemic continues to roll on, it has become clear that our customer base is investing in their homes and, as a result, unlike many other industries that have been negatively affected, our business is booming. It has also become more and more clear that dealers need a best-in-class digital campaign to reach out to their existing client base along with growing new customers, as there is less social interaction to foster word-of-mouth referrals.”

Nationwide recently hosted its first-ever Virtual PrimeTime, where they offered three days of video conferences, presentations, and training.

“Most Nationwide dealers need help with digital marketing, websites, and getting enough inventory to keep the sales channel active,” says Alexander. “Our communication efforts started on day one. We began by sending our members weekly and monthly surveys to help identify what kinds of help they needed as the situation continued to unfold. Then we created a comprehensive ‘Back to Business Hub’ to address those needs and share critical information, whether that was about PPP loans, staying open in accordance with state and local guidelines in an ever-changing environment, or in how to communicate their open status to their customers — letting them know that they are available to help and could even come to a customer’s home to service an issue and do so in a way that keeps everyone safe.”

Nationwide worked with a distribution partner to secure access to affordable PPE gear for members’ employees and staff, as well as cleaning supplies to help them keep their stores and offices open. “And we helped our members set up transactional websites that could help keep sales going and give them another avenue with which to communicate with their clients,” he says.

“We didn’t over-communicate, but we talked, emailed, and responded to our members’ needs on a daily basis,” says Alexander. “As speed-ups began, we worked with our vendor and distribution partners to help get much-needed products into our members’ hands. The supply chain, by all accounts, is still a challenge, and most likely will be for the next few months or, in some cases, quarters. But Nationwide will continue to fight for the inventory, the trucks, the deals, and the financing opportunities to help our members separate themselves from the competition.”

At Azione, the first unexpected problem was just how severe that lack of product problem became. “The impact of a March forecast from vendor partners resulted in major product shortages in the June-to-July timeframe,” says Glikes. “The worst of which seems to be receivers, as there has been a dearth of product coming out of Malaysia. The second problem, one that we hear about often, is a lack of labor in our industry. There’s more work than there are individuals to install. We are doing everything we can to support dealers on both fronts as we continue to endure this unique situation.

“We decided to do what we always do with one of our core value propositions, which is to create and improve interaction with our dealer and vendor members,” he says. “To that end, we just concluded our Fall Conference, which we did via a software platform. The components of the conference replicated an in-person conference to include guest speakers, small group meetings, one-on-one vendor/dealer discussions, and sumptuous cocktail parties. It was just like the good old days. Both dealer and vendor members were thrilled by the outcome and we sent numerous messages applauding us for keeping conversation and business moving forward.

“Although we produced and hosted nearly 60 webinars through September 1, we have backed off as the dealers have become inundated with work. We are keeping our schedule to a minimum, which ends up being about one webinar a week through the rest of the year.”

September was the best month ever in the nine-year history of Azione Unlimited, Glikes says. “We have a number of initiatives launching in 2021 to aid the dealers to easily do more business. As a side note, we are getting approached by a large number of dealers who would like to join, and we are quite flattered by their level of interest. Our Canadian numbers are growing quite nicely as well.”