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Doing Nothing Is Not an Option

For many AV companies, business remains good, thanks to a backlog of projects in the pipeline. Still, in these tough times, it's important to stay proactive by ramping up sales and marketing before the pipeline dries up. Need ideas? AV pros share their strategies.

Most professionals in our industry view the current economic liquefaction called a recession as going deeper, growing uglier. Yet there are positive signs for the AV industry, if you know where to look.

The February ISE trade show in Amsterdam had a 12 percent increase in attendees and a 16 percent upswing in exhibitors. Industry leaders such as Chad Gillenwater, vice chairman of AVI-SPL, believe the nature of the AV business, and how AV facilitates communications in these productivity-driven times, could be its savior. And many integrators say 2009 isn't bad at all.

Tom Stimson, president of The Stimson Group, says he advises companies to forge relationships at every possible level.

Tom Stimson, president of The Stimson Group, says he advises companies to forge relationships at every possible level.

Credit: Allison V. Smith

"My concern is not so much 2009, because most of us are working off a backlog of projects already funded," says Andrew Musci, president of the National Systems Contractor Association, as well as New York-based ALTEL Systems. "The big concern now is checking in on the architectural and consulting communities. Where is their workload going? If theirs begins to diminish, it will be felt by us a year from now."

But not everyone is prepared for this year, never mind next. Integrators are either cash-rich and ready to ride this out or credit-heavy and starting to panic. Bids are increasingly awarded to the lowest bidder, and a larger number of integrators vie for a smaller number of projects.

What's a company to do in these tenuous times? Sometimes, it's the opposite of what you might think.

Market the Heck Out of You

"This is not the time to go dark. You must be interacting with potential and existing customers. Marketing is not optional–it is essential." –Randy Lemke, executive director, InfoComm International

In a perfect world, marketing programs are so effective that the company's reputation is known to the customer before a salesperson ever walks in the door.

"Yet it is a typical knee-jerk reaction during economic slowdowns to pull back investments in marketing," says Jeanne Stiernberg, principal consultant with Stiernberg Consulting. "But when times are tough, competition is stiffer, so you need to promote more, not less."

The idea is to spend on marketing now to gain a larger percentage of the market, which stays with you when the recession lifts.

At the same time, it's important to focus your efforts. It's tempting during rough economic times to just throw all the darts at the board and see which ones stick. Digital signage? Sure, we can do that. Enterprise security? Sure, why not?

But slow down. "Narrow your focus. Let's say I am a digital signage company expert in K-12 or house of worship or retail. My understanding of your market is what makes me different, better," says John Stiernberg, principal consultant with Stiernberg Consulting.

In other words, market your strengths. And if you aren't sure what they are, "pick up the phone and ask your customers. They'll tell you," recommends John Jantsch, author of Duct Tape Marketing: The World's Most Practical Small Business Marketing Guide. "They know."

Build Relationships

Relationship marketing isn't new, but everyone agrees it is crucial in the AV industry. Stamford, Conn.-based research company the Gartner Group writes, "The market's response to uncertainty is to return to, or rely more heavily on, tested and trusted relationships, providing, of course, that the economics of the relationship remain competitive. Preserving existing clients is often more cost-effective than winning new ones."

Established relationships are far more likely to get the attention of Scott Walker, president and CEO of Waveguide Consulting in Atlanta. "When the integrator has ignored the consultant market for years then suddenly wants to sell during a two- or three-week bid process, it's not enough time for the relationship to build," he says.

"There should be a constant information stream," Walker continues. "Tell us when you open a new office or a new network operations center. We need consistent communications, so that when a job comes up, we remember who you are."

Tom Stimson, president of rental and staging company, The Stimson Group, advises companies to forge relationships at every possible level. A staging company may perceive the meeting producer/client as having the strongest bond with one individual at the stager. Yet the client may perceive the relationship to be with the entire staging company. "Rental and staging company managers need to be aware of this so they can reinforce the customer-company relationship," says Stimson. It's an opportunity to tighten that relationship.

Another Stimson tip: "Get the customer into your building and prove that you're as good as your marketing hype. There are some beautiful facilities out there hiding behind mediocre marketing collateral."

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