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Custom Installers Succeed Offering Window Treatments, Home Networks, Wireless Audio

The beginning of the year is a good time to assess what worked and did not work from the previous year.

Mark LaFave, The Digital Playground director for Maverick Integration in Bedford, NH, said that the key to success for his company is identifying product categories, such as window treatments like automated shades and drapes, earlier than others and committing to them in sales pitches. The beginning of the year is a good time to assess what worked and did not work from the previous year. While admittedly there is no great panacea for every custom integration company in North America, owners of AV businesses have always learned best when sharing success stories with their peers. The New Year is about renewal and optimism, so we thought we’d focus on what worked, rather than what didn’t. We reached out to a collection of respected veteran CI professionals, and while these respondents by no means provide a representative sample of the industry, they do offer anecdotal advice from which other businesses can learn. Here’s what they had to share about their best practices, favorite technology categories, and most lucrative product lines.

Mark LaFave, The Digital Playground director for Maverick Integration in Bedford, NH, said that the key to success for his company is identifying product categories earlier than others and committing to them in sales pitches.

“Four years ago when every other integration company was asking the question, ‘Do we really want to sell window shades?’ we were already invested in the product category. Today we have a window treatment department,” he said. “In 2009, when the rest of the industry had given up on that $299, no-profit toy from Apple called Apple TV, we were calling every existing client to discuss Apple TV, VuDu, Roku, Hulu, TiVo, and video distribution. Within two years our digital media and Kaleidescape sales went through the roof.”

LaFave said that time will tell what product category will “light a fuse” under his clients this year, but it will be based on “the facets of usefulness, differentiation, and profitability, leading into the opening sales salvo: “We’ve got a new toy for you Mr. Favorite Client. Can we talk?”

Over the past year, Maverick has focused on fine-tuning its customer service department to better convert help desk calls into new sales.

“When you have 50-100 systems deployed and a service call comes in, you borrow from existing resources (installers, programmers, salespeople) to service the call. But when 100 deployed systems becomes 200, 300, 500, or more, at some point in time, you have to decide when to build a dedicated customer service/sales department,” LaFave said.

Maverick’s customer service team is now led by a salesperson that can solve problems as opposed to a problem solver who’s disinclined to sell new concepts,” LaFave explained.

“A call for a defective cable box is a chance to install an APC AP7900,” he pointed out. “A query about Apple TV will lead to a discussion of distributed video. The cell antenna system in the country home should be evaluated for use in the city home and while we’re in the city home, ‘These touchscreens are seven years old. How would you like IP camera info on your new touchscreens?’”

Whether you draw from your existing group of field techs or hire/train specifically for the department (Maverick did both), LaFave suggests that your human resources need to be dedicated first and foremost to customer service.

“In our case the number is currently six,” he said. “What we’ve achieved with this team of six is to solve every customer service issue to come across our plate in 2013 and generate seven figures of found business. Thanks to the success of this new department, we can now afford a comprehensive weekend on-call program.”

Vancouver’s La Scala has also found success after creating a dedicated service department, but has added remote monitoring to the mix, as well. Company president Marilyn Sanford echoed Maverick’s LaFave in her assessment that most firms drain their resources by trying to handle service with existing crews, distracting the focus and diluting the team’s energies.

“We’ve learned that good service technicians are a different trade, so dedicated service allows us to focus talents,” she said. “As part of this, we have been doing some very cool work with ihiji (and other remote monitoring products) which is allowing us to control our truck rolls and mitigate, (even preempt) client calls. ihiji allows us to monitor any IP device. Most issues come from cable/satellite solutions or internet failures. We can reboot boxes and routers remotely and roll trucks only when necessary. We are excited about the success we are having with this and the potential to grow this side of our business.”

One of La Scala’s biggest challenges of 2013 was merging with another Vancouver integrator, Sound Advice, bringing together distinctly different management systems and product offerings under one roof. What made the transition successful, according to Sanford, was that Maverick already had implemented a monthly “product SKU process” for reviewing and shifting product lines and technology solutions. Key stakeholders in the process, such as sales, engineering, project management, and technicians are included. Technician and engineering evaluations of these new opportunities are reviewed, resulting in decisions to either adopt, drop, or explore changes. Once a decision is made, training is arranged and the scope document amended to ensure that the company is selling and installing it properly.

“This is such a critical element in our turbulent industry,” Sanford said. “A firm’s inability to manage the need to balance stability against the drive for newest solutions can make a dramatic difference to efficiencies and profitability.”

In 2013, Starr Systems Design in Baltimore, MD, overhauled its job costing procedures to provide more real-time data on project progress and profitability. Now, explained president Sean Weiner, each job is coded, all material is assigned to a project as soon as the invoice is received, and the company’s project managers assign labor costs to the job on a daily basis.

“This information allows us to make adjustments to our processes on the fly, more closely manage projects that are not hitting their profitability targets, and to provide information to our sales team to more accurately bid specific tasks,” Weiner said.

In the fall, the company also replaced its entire fleet of vans with more fuel-efficient models. “The smaller vehicles require better attention to detail by our PMs and techs to be sure they have the correct materials for their projects,” Weiner said, “but we’re already seeing a 55-percent reduction in monthly fuel expenses. All of the new vehicles are equipped with GPS, so our techs can take the vehicles home and travel directly to the jobsite without a stop at the office, and we can more efficiently dispatch service techs and respond to customer requests more quickly. We also equipped all of our technicians with the ability to accept credit card payments on their mobile devices in order to speed up our AR cycle.”

Last year, Starr Systems experienced success selling the Savant product line on both large and small projects. “We began offering small systems to act as fancy universal remote control systems for home theaters and media systems with the understanding that with the Savant host in place, there is a significant upgrade path,” Weiner said. “The reduced deployment time of Savant has allowed us to do more on more projects. Our clients have been thrilled with the interface and most, if not all, have purchased additional hardware after the initial installation.”

Additionally, the company has seen significant growth in its network/IT business as streaming requirements and phone/tablet control systems have grown. Motorized shading also has been a growing category for Starr Systems, as more wireless options become available at lower costs.

Greg Margolis, president of HomeTronics in Dallas, also finds that clients, especially those that are Apple-centric, love Savant. “It’s an easy foray for them into the control system world,” he said. “It has a look and feel that clients are already familiar with.”

HomeTronics is also putting the finishing touches on what Margolis says is the first residential cinema installation in the U.S to utilize the Auro 3D 13.1 audio system. The added use of height channels above all main speakers and ceiling speakers known as VOG (voice of God) produces a new dimensionality of realism, Margolis contends.

Utilizing a high-end consumer surround processor loaded with Auro 3D decoding firmware, this type of private cinema could set the bar for residential installations of the future. HomeTronics’ current theater utilizing the technology is 26 x 47 feet and is configured with six front main speakers, 16 surrounds, six height (VOG) speakers, and 12 subwoofers that are all powered by 59 channels of amplification. A 4K DLP projector, fitted with the Dolby 3D system will display onto a 200-inch wide four-way masking screen. Margolis told me that he designed a false acoustical wall two feet from the main boundary wall, where his crew mounted all the speakers. (Subs are mounted against the boundary wall.)

On the business management side, Margolis has been hard at work with several fellow integration company partners (including La Scala) to create a software system that could run an AV company from A-Z, based on the best practices of all the companies involved. The business partners ended up partnering with Simply Reliable Software to realize their concept, and the result is the Smart Office package that the company has been rolling out over the past two years. The Sales version launched in 2012, the Core version is in beta now, and the Business Edition will be unveiled later in 2014.

Customer service has always been the key to success for Todd Anthony Puma’s New York City-based company, The Source, and last year the company found more ways to be proactive for its clients. “Being able to constantly follow up and monitor systems remotely with devices and services such as the BlueBolt, have been a key to this success,” Puma said. “Being able to reboot systems through these devices has allowed for less truck rolls and quicker response time in resolving simple user error issues that all clients experience.”

The Source also has found new opportunities after having become a Crestron dealer last year. “The programming is so detailed that it leaves little room for error,” Puma said. “I have seen a huge reduction in service-related issues since I started pushing the Crestron system. Being that I am fairly new to these offerings, it has also helped that I have some key people in my corner who have helped direct me on product recommendations.”

Scott Fuelling, president of Memphis-based Phoenix Unequaled Home Entertainment, 2013 was about getting back to basics. The company, he said, had drifted too far away from its core “highend only” market in attempt to “find pure growth.”

“What we determined after several years playing in both the high-end and middle market segments simultaneously was the growth was not worth what the middle market opportunities brought to the bottom line,” Fuelling said. “We made the decision to go back to our roots. Our clients have responded positively and we have had more opportunities present themselves which are better tailored to our core mission and goals.”

B&W, Rotel, JL Audio, Meridian, Digital Projection, and Stewart Filmscreen are also some of the brands that Phoenix feels brings the best performance and highest customer satisfaction, and it also has begun working with Control4 as its primary automation line.

“With their new products and what they have coming in the near future, the line is not only full, but the costs allow us to help our clients to be able to experience high-end audio/video, as well as more functionality throughout their homes.”

After much hesitation, Buffalo’s Southtown Audio Video, added Sonos to its product mix. Project manager/designer Heather Sidorowicz said that while some see Sonos as a closed sale, she disagrees.

“Pairing the Connect Amps with great speakers like Paradigm in-ceilings allows for great quality sound with solid streaming,” she noted. “It also gives you the opportunity to upgrade clients from the past who still use rotary volume controls, and this install can be done in less than a day. There will always be clientele who desire more than audio, but for those who want just great music in the home and already use a smart device, Sonos is the perfect answer.”

Other products that are proving to be essential to Southtown’s success are from “behind-the-scenes” players, Pakedge and Atlona. “Aligning yourself with solid products guarantees trouble-free systems over time,” Sidorowicz. “This saves us time, labor, and frustration.”

Jeremy Glowacki is editorial director of Residential Systems and Systems Contractor News