Take a drive through some of the most posh neighborhoods in Palm Beach or Broward County, Fla., and you’re likely to spot a lot of nice cars in the driveways.
“There’s a Mercedes Benz.”
“There’s another Beamer.”
“Isn’t that the new Jag?”
“Check out that hot CWB Technologies van.”
“Wow, what a nice … wait, what?”
It’s true. You know you’re in a nice part of town when you see a CWB truck around because families who appreciate high-quality home electronics integration hire them all the time, and usually because they were referred by an already satisfied customer in the neighborhood. That kind of reputation is both invaluable and mandatory if you’re going to become one of the top dealers in the country, which CWB certainly is.
But as any top dealer can tell you, the reputation you engender is proportionate to your attention to detail. Two things set CWB from the competition, says Owner Chris Burns. The first is an obsession with quality installation. “I had a three-hour meeting last week with all of my installers and techs where we covered the proper ways to cut wire ties, route wires, and trim out racks and cabinets; all things that the client may never see unless they look for them,” Burns says.
“The back side of our equipment racks should [appear as if they could] be featured in a museum.” It’s not just an aesthetic issue. Meticulous cable management means simple, clean and straightforward service later. It also impresses builders when they compare the job CWB does with what they’ve seen in the past.
The second thing that sets CWB apart is customer service at any cost. That starts with giving clients the gift of time … by not wasting theirs. That means showing up on time, not canceling appointments—ever—and doing things right the first time so there’s never a need to schedule a follow-up visit. “My clients appreciate nothing more than when you respect their scarce, valuable time,” Burns says. “Everything else is a token gesture.”
The customer service story really begins when the client enters the store. Most dealers will tell you they listen to the client to get an idea of what they enjoy and what they need. However, CWB goes the extra mile. When clients explain that they’re passionate about something, CWB designers try to figure out why. What about wine collecting are they passionate about? What about football do they enjoy the most? It’s the why, not the what, that makes the difference when designing a system that truly matches the client’s dreams.
And when they walk into the store, Burns wants clients to feel that the facility is here more for their benefit, than the company’s. “The theater room is the best they’ve ever seen, no matter what they’ve seen,” Burns says. “That’s the thing they can’t shake.” The showroom is laid out like a home with nice furnishings and lighting. The goal is to make it as easy as possible to visualize the same exact system in their home.
Another room in the facility displays the entire range of touchscreens and keypads. The goal is to provide a side-by-side comparison to make it simpler to understand the cost as it relates to the different benefits of each model. “This ‘Control Room’ is the most functional asset we have, along with our large multimedia conference room that allows us to meet with the owners and all their people that they bring to the table, so to speak,” Burns explains.
But once the technology is in the home, the goal is to make sure that they can enjoy it as much as possible without really thinking about the fact that it’s there. Burns compares it to the increasing amount of technology that’s in your car. And for the things that client does have to operate, CWB spends a lot of time training home owners to make sure they understand how to use everything.
Of course, the dilemma that faces Burns is one familiar to all: training and retaining quality people to deliver this experience time and time again. Burns says there’s no mystery: hire the best, invest in their development and make your company a place they never want to leave. “Some dealers are afraid to invest in continuous training. They say, ‘What if you pay to train them and they leave?’ I always respond, ‘What if I don’t, and they stay?’”
There was a time in the mid-’80s when Greg Margolis dreamed of being a stock broker. And after watching the Oscar-winning Oliver Stone film “Wall Street,” who wouldn’t want to walk a few miles in the shoes of Bud Fox (that is, until the SEC catches up with him)? Fortunately for Margolis, he caught onto an even better investment: home automation.
“I had a unique opportunity to get involved with this company that was pioneering home automation and we started the company doing that back in the mid-’80s when no one knew what home automation was,” Margolis remembers. “It was a pioneering effort and we had to educate clients on the benefit of automation. Back then you said ‘home automation’ and people replied, “’What’s that?’”
That company was HomeTronics, today one of the best known home theater and automation experts in the country. Just last year, HomeTronics was named Runco’s No. 1 U.S. Integrator. Yes, a pretty big deal. So what does it take to be one of this country’s top integrators? Margolis, president of the company, says it’s all about customer support.
That means keeping promises you make and never making any you can’t keep. That means giving clients access to help 24/7/365. But most of all, it means being proactive, taking care of problems before they arise and taking ownership of those problems, no matter whose fault they really are. “If there’s a technology issue with particular manufacturer, we find out about it and try to be proactive and take care of that before something else fails,” Margolis says. “If you get something resolved before hand, the client thinks that’s great, because they can see you’re looking out for them.”
On new build operations, that means staying in constant touch with the builder and other trades to make sure no detail falls through the cracks. “You need to be very up to date on keeping very close track of the project and having good people that have good relationships not just with the builder but with other subs,” Margolis says. “It’s kind of unique with some of our projects, but you develop such good relationships with sub contractors, you form a bond where they’re also looking out for you.”
Another key to the success for HomeTronics is looking out for the customer. There are details an integrator is looking out for and ones the client is interested in, and they may not be the same all the time. For instance, while an integrator wants all the technology to work together and perform flawlessly, the home owners oftentimes are interested only in making sure whatever they have is easy to use and blends in with the rest of their home. They also want a showpiece to demonstrate to their friends and family. “There is a balance there and if you put enough effort in with the design team, rooms can be engineered to do anything we want and look phenomenal,” Margolis says. “In the end the client wins and that’s what you’re striving for anyway.”
Prospective clients get a good idea of the success HomeTronics has had from the time they walk into the showroom. Throughout the hallways, the company displays its plaques, awards and news write-ups so clients see how well respected the company is, not just to its clients, but its peers. “That all reinforces to the client that they’ve walked into the right place,” Margolis says.
The number one things that gives HomeTronics an edge over its competition is experience. With 23 years of performing some of the most complicated, expensive and impressive installations ever attempted, any client can feel safe knowing there’s no job they can bring that HomeTronics cannot complete. Margolis considers HomeTronics one of the only dealers with the ability to finish “the last 10 percent.” In other words, most integrators can perform 90 percent of the job, but it’s that last 10 percent of hard work and professional know-how that makes a job excellent.
“Experience is probably one of our biggest attributes, as well as our familiarity with doing high-end projects, what it really takes to oversee and complete them,” Margolis says. “We have the capabilities to create any system that we want and more importantly we’ve got the knowledge on how to do it.”
Integrated Media Systems
There was a time over 30 years ago when Tom Wells was a bench technician for a local hi-fi house. There he would spend time with customers who walked through the door, listening to their concerns and writing down their complaints. He would then go about correlating those details with the equipment that he was hooking up or fixing for them.
Today, as president and founder of Integrated Media Systems in Sterling, Va., Wells puts that experience to use every day, listening to clients and engineering home theaters and automation systems that meet their needs and then some. It’s that attention to customer service that has made IMS one of the most successful and well known integrators in the country.
“We’re not someone that’s just going to come in and sell the most profitable equipment we can carry,” Wells says. “We listen to a client’s needs, rather than the needs of our bank account.”
The proof? After 30 years, IMS is still in business and doing better than ever, after watching competitor after competitor open up and close shop. “The major difference between us and others in the area is that we’ve invested a lot in the people we have,” he explains. “The knowledge base, the capabilities we have, we want to make sure that when a client has an issue we’re responsive.”
You can tell you’re working with professionals the second you walk into the IMS showroom. The first thing you’ll see is a list of the accolades and awards the company has received. “It’s very self promoting, but what I want people to realize is that we’ve invested in being a real company with real people,” Wells says. “It’s sort of a realization that we’re going to be around when they need us 10 years from now.”
The showroom itself is comfortable, set up like a family room or living room. Clients aren’t walking into a huge box with 100 flat screens on the wall and surround sound systems blaring. The vast majority of people entering the showroom are not just looking for a different experience; they oftentimes expect it. Wells says he’s made a living out of taking the time to understand the unique needs of high-end clientele and addressing them immediately.
“We understand what they’re looking for,” he says. “We understand that they’ve got money which means they can go anywhere they want and they look for the best in everything they do.”
But while these “thoroughbreds” of home electronics integration may have the money to buy anything, they expect to get more value for each dollar they spend than anyone else. “They’re making a bet that you’re not going to take advantage of them just because they have the money,” Wells explains. “They’re looking to you to be fair and take care of them and give them the service they expect.”
The way IMS does that? Service. That includes a dedicated staff that does nothing but service. Customers can be sure that whatever the problem, they can get help right away. They don’t have to wait for someone to finish another job to take care of them. The dedicated staff also allows IMS to be proactive with its customers, which came in handy recently when a DirecTV software download corrupted a lot of their clients’ satellite boxes. IMS’s service department had fixed the problem before most customers even knew there was a problem.
At the end of the day, the point of it all is to make the technology seamless; to make it seem like IMS’s job was actually pretty easy … even though it was far from it. That’s actually somewhat frustrating for Wells, who understands that now that things looks so easy, clients may not realize just what it took to make it all happen. “What’s happened now is the systems are so complex, the clients just don’t understand what it takes to deliver what we deliver,” he explains. “When we do these larger jobs, it’s not as fulfilling as it used to be. It’s like giving birth to an elephant. It takes forever. It’s big and hard and it takes time to get used to it.” In addition, people expect things to work today more perfectly than they ever have.
But it all has an upside. On a recent job, Wells remembers the husband being really excited but the wife was disappointed because she wanted to spend the money on furniture. “We built this beautiful home theater and she was not very supportive of the whole project,” he remembers “Once she watched the first movie, she went totally in the other direction and started talking about all the parties they were going to have.”
Terry Menacker was on a recent business trip when he met a distributor from Russia. When Menacker mentioned he was the founder of Wilmington, Del.-based Overture, the distributor immediately perked up. He knew exactly what Overture was because people in the business in Russia, as well as music and film enthusiasts there, have all heard of the company. The music, home theater and automation expert’s reputation was officially global.
But it wasn’t that surprising. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to come from thousands of miles away to check out the Overture showroom. “We get people from all over the country, even if they’re not planning to buy here,” Menacker says. “They want to see us and see what we’re doing … they get excited because they’re in one of the best stores around.”
It’s unusual for a famous A/V dealer to have been in this business as “brief” as Overture has—about 15 years—but Menacker says his company is successful because it’s been doing it right since Day One. The store had only been around for three years when in 1996 Overture participated in Stereophile’s “Home Theater & Specialty Audio” show, in New York City, and returned home with the top prize: “Best Sound at the Show”. “That was a huge lift for our reputation. It made us world famous,” Menacker said. “I still have customers today call and say that they saw us there, or heard us there.”
Audio is where it started for Menacker. He listened to his first LP at a friend’s house when he was 10 years hold and was immediately taken. He spent the rest of his life “trying to chase that elusive perfection of reproducing music,” and worked with several companies throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s doing that. But as experienced as Menacker is, he admits he doesn’t know it all and takes pride in the fact that he opened Overture by hiring the youngest and brightest professionals in the field to perfect the audio and video Overture delivers. You’ll meet most of them on a trip to Overture.
“You’re always improving and expanding your knowledge base. The nature of the business today is that you have to learn new things,” he says. “I try to learn something new every day whether it’s about this business or business in general.”
Another thing that makes Overture successful is its close relationship with the manufacturers it carries, making sure that every piece of equipment is optimized for flawless performance. Overture has unique access to some of the lines it carries because manufacturers trust them to demonstrate and install them right.
Menacker says it all comes down to experience in high-quality reproduction, and knowing what has to be done, and a desire to try and be the “best.” His team worked tirelessly to transfer the skills they acquired in audio to make them work for video and custom installation. “There are a lot of products in the market today. Some good, some not so good and some that are truly superb,” Menacker says. “You can have a lot of really good products made by really good companies but they don’t necessarily work well together. You really have to know this equipment. It’s not for amateurs.”
To compare what Overture does with the quality of experience one gets from a big box store is almost unfair, but he finds it important to stress to customers so they realize the value they’re getting. “If you go into a mass market store, they’re sales children,” he says. “They’re kids in most cases and they really don’t know much of anything about the industry.” Besides, anything that’s sold mass market is by definition not state of the art, because there’s not enough time to engineer it with the attention to detail high-end products require. The best products and technology are too complex for all but a few of the best companies to successfully work with.
And Menacker would never want to deal with anything that isn’t high end because at the end of the day it’s all about quality, all about that reaction from a client when they experience something they didn’t even know was possible. “I get calls from busy people during the day because they have to tell me about the experience they had enjoying a movie, or CD the night before,” he says. “I’ve had customers tell me they listened to a CD last night that they’ve played for 10 to 15 years but heard new things they didn’t know were on the recording!”
“It’s one of the really more rewarding things about working in this business at the level that we’ve chosen to work at,” he continues. “You make people’s lives more enjoyable, more convenient, even safer. I had one client tell me that, since we installed his system, his blood pressure had gone down. That made my day.”
When Thul Electronics finishes a job, a client is probably trying to figure out what they enjoyed most: the home electronics integration or working with Thul to see it through. The company takes an unparalleled approach to customer service and relationship management that any trade would have a difficult time competing with and that’s what makes the company one of the greatest of its kind in the country. This is evidenced by the fact that most of the new customers Thul receives are referred by someone else.
The personal attention begins as prospective clients walk through the door of its Avon, Colo., showroom. Right away they are ushered into a conference room to talk about what they want, rather than showing off components and big screens like you would find at a general retailer. That’s because usually the client has already been referred by a builder or interior designer. And before they come, President Mike Thul and his team are already fully versed on the project so they are prepared to talk specifically about what the clients are looking for.
“There are minimum (if any) interruptions—they have our full attention and we don’t allow anything to detract from their experience,” Thul says. “We work hard to understand the needs of the client and tailor the implementation of technology based on those needs.”
After talking about the project, Thul will take the clients on a tour of the showroom, allowing them to demo the very technology Thul is proposing to install. “We have a functional version of most everything that we would propose to install for a client so we want them to experience the things that we are recommending,” Thul says.
Working with new customers or bidding on jobs can be nervous business for integrators, but not for Thul. The integrators there have an uncanny confidence derived from years of being the most established integration firm in the area. In other words, Thul isn’t just qualified to bid and complete the job—they are the most qualified to do so and stand by that reputation. “The other thing is that our business is totally focused on the immediate geographic area,” Thul explains. “The people who install your system are around to service it—not in some other part of the country on another new installation.”
Because most new business at Thul comes from referrals, the company stakes its reputation on always doing what’s best for the customer, even if it means steering them away from expensive products the client wants because Thul knows the client will not be comfortable with it later on. “We work hard to be certain that what we do has a positive impact,” Thul says. “We make things simple and convenient such that their use of our systems is natural and ‘second nature’—rather than having our systems be the focus of their attention.” In other words, playing a movie should be like turning on the lights.
Another thing that sets Thul apart is its ability to work with other trades. In fact, most of the referrals Thul gets are from builders and interior designers who recommend to their customers that Thul is the place to satisfy one’s need for electronics integration. “We have to be technically competent but really what sets us apart is our ability to listen and create something that is truly useful rather than just a collection of ‘things,’” Thul says.
To be this competent, Thul invests thousands of dollars and man hours just on training and educating its people. That includes sending nearly everyone to the CEDIA Expo the last couple years, as well as to the facilities of the manufacturers whose lines Thul carries. “We necessarily limit the number of products that we carry such that we are proficient in those products, and select manufacturers that have demonstrated their ability to deliver technology in a manner that is meaningful to our clients,” Thul says.
All of this is done to provide a service to clients that is over the top once they move into their new home. And at that time, you can be sure a Thul rep will be around to show them the ropes of their new system. “We have generally had a fair amount of interaction with them over the course of the project and we let them know that we will continue to be there for their needs for as long as they own this home, throughout the design of their next home, and as long as they have a home in our geographic area,” Thul says. “We have done lots of projects with the same clients over the years as their needs and desires in a home have changed.”