Bring Back the Corner Store
Do you remember going to your local corner store or hardware shop as a kid? The bell on the front door would announce your arrival, as the store manager or shop assistant appeared behind the counter to warmly welcome you by name. No walking up and down aisles searching for items; simply hand over your shopping list and your goods would be gathered for you. If you had a question, they knew the answer. Why? Because it was their job! Customer service wasn’t a catch phrase … it didn’t have to be. That’s just how things were. I miss those days.
I also remember the very first time I walked into one of those massive hardware mega-stores. My wife and I had just moved to Perth, Australia and I needed to buy a few things for our new home. We had the little independent store around the corner, but on this particular occasion I decided to venture a little further afield to this “unbelievable place” that I had heard about. As I walked through the door of this handyman’s paradise, the sheer scale of everything was almost overwhelming. I found myself strolling up and down each aisle, for no other reason than to take it all in. I was in a daze … I literally phoned my wife with excitement and to inform her that I could be here for a while.
My excitement was short-lived however, as I struggled to find someone to assist me. Then when I did, I was even more shocked to discover that they were totally incapable of answering even the most basic of questions.
That’s when I had the revelation. I don’t want tens of thousands of items to overwhelm me … particularly when many of them are cheap no-name brands that will break the first time I use them. I just want good quality products and excellent customer service from someone who knows more about their chosen field than I do. In fact, I am prepared to pay extra for it, so I have tried to support the little independent hardware store ever since.
While much of the world has gone down the “big is better” road, the Custom Install industry defies the trend and remains one of the few professions where a small, independent operator can remain competitive and successful.
So what makes us so different? And how can we continue to operate this way, even when some of the big guys are working in the same space? The answer? Trust. As crazy as this may sound, it’s the very same reason you wouldn’t try and find the cheapest brain surgeon or heart surgeon. Your clients are entrusting you to integrate a variety of complex technologies (that they can’t even begin to understand) into their dream home. Get it right, and they will be the envy of their friends. Get it wrong … well… we’ve all heard the horror stories.
So how can you leverage this knowledge in your own business to remain competitive and successful?
1. DEVELOP THE RELATIONSHIP
It goes without saying that a strong relationship cannot be bought and sold, it has to be earned. Be prepared to invest plenty of time developing trust with your clients – particularly the new ones. The key to building confidence is listening. As my mother-in-law likes to remind me (yes … I talk too much), “You have two ears and one mouth – use them in those proportions.” Ask lots of questions, take plenty of notes, and above all, show that you are genuinely and totally committed to exceeding their expectations. Remember that there is a fine line between coming across as confident and appearing arrogant. Follow on from their questions with reassuring phrases such as, “I hear what you’re saying here, let me suggest that we ...” Never, EVER say things like, “Trust me”, or “I’m an expert at this, leave it to me.” Always summarize each meeting with a recap on their key requests and a list of follow up actions. Then make sure you follow up when you say you are going to; otherwise you’ll undermine everything you have just achieved.
2. DON’T SELL YOURSELF SHORT
Do you consider yourself an expert in your field? Have you undergone weeks of industry certification and manufacturer training? Have you invested time developing your own intellectual property to integrate different technologies and products into a seamless, reliable solution? Then don’t ever sell yourself short. As you build your relationship with the client, they will entrust you to make decisions that are in their best interests. When you get pushback from the Architect, Designer or Builder, be prepared to stand toe-to-toe as their equal. Have the confidence to remind them that just as they wouldn’t compromise the needs of the client in their field, neither should you in yours. They need to understand that you are providing a critical piece of the home’s infrastructure that is required to deliver reliable entertainment, security, comfort and efficiency. Cutting corners in your domain is as unacceptable as cutting back on a load-bearing structural beam.
3. BE THE EXPERT
If you expect to be treated like an expert in your field, then you need to be one. It is your responsibility to continually and regularly invest time in researching new and developing technologies and understanding the impact that they will have on your client. There are plenty of forums dedicated to identifying and discussing happenings in the AV, IT, Security, HVAC sectors – find them and then take the time to browse over them at least weekly. Follow blogs such “Emerging Trends” on CEDIA’s Insights page to see what your peers are discovering and engage in online discussions. Above all, if you don’t know something, ASK! Remember that your client’s home is not your personal science project or experiment. If you want to try something new, then either bench test it, or use your own home or showroom! Oh, and one piece of advice … as someone who continually used to do this in my own house, I highly recommend that you do it when your family is not home.
4. BE EXCEPTIONAL
If you want to charge premium rates and be regarded as a specialist of the industry, then be the best you can possibly be, in the market segment that you excel at. In other words, focus on what you are good at. I have seen Custom Installers at all levels of the scale, and I have to say, the dollar value of the project and the number of employees is never a reflection on the competency or success of the business. If you are a one or two person operation, and you feel most comfortable doing projects under $20,000, then embrace it and be the best company there is in that market segment. Remember that it is far better to be exceptional at a few things, than mediocre at many.
5. ASK FOR REFERRALS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
There is nothing more reassuring to a potential new client than hearing glowing reviews about your work from previous customers. You can talk until you’re blue in the face about all the magnificent projects you’ve done and the happy customers you have out there … BUT of course you are going to say that! I mean … you’re not likely to tell them about the bad ones are you? I realize that many of your clients are successful people who like high levels of privacy, however if your relationship is strong enough, they should be more than happy to provide a recommendation. Why not create your own case studies, outlining the objectives of the project and how you achieved them. A one-line quote from the client is all it takes to build confidence. And don’t underestimate the power of winning a CEDIA Electronic Lifestyle Award or having your project published in an industry magazine. Many Custom Installers see this as a chest-banging exercise that only informs their competitors as to what they are doing, however to a client, an industry award and an article in a reputable magazine builds extremely high levels of credibility that money just can’t buy.
I love the corner store, and I guess that’s why I love this industry … it’s built on larger-than-life characters who are passionate about technology and absolutely dedicated to the cause. It’s not about discount pricing, cheap and cheerful products and under-qualified personnel. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Next time you meet with a client, remember how that corner store manager made you feel. They knew your name, they listened to your questions, and more importantly, they knew the answers.
While you were standing at their counter, you were the most important person in the world. Be like that.