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Managing Customer Expectations

You know it; we know it. Sometimes, the customer is not always right. Their demands can be unrealistic, but not in their minds. Learn what to do when the customer is not right.

ANYONE WHO HAS SPENT ANY TIME at all in the service business knows there's one universal rule that supersedes all others: “The customer is always right.” But are there exceptions to this mantra?

According to Bryan Hinckley, the answer is yes. “I believe the customer is mostly right; not always right,” says Hinckley, business manager of managed media services at Electrosonic Systems headquartered in Minnetonka, Minn. “But we have to remind ourselves that our clients' jobs often depend on the decisions they make with us. We need to return the favor, and make them look good to their bosses.”

The key to creating and nurturing a successful systems integration business is managing customer expectations from the beginning of the sales process all the way to after-sale support. Whether it's a multi-year commercial contract or a weeklong, one-room AV installation, the customer's satisfaction with the end result is what matters.

Robert E. Scharffer, CTS, CSI, president of Anderson Audio Visual – East Bay in Emeryville, Calif., agrees. “It's basic advice, but you have to provide the service that you promised them,” he says. “Issues like missing the scheduled deadline pose big problems, regardless of the cause. They hire an integrator to take the burden off of them to see unforeseen problems. At the end of the day, our job is to make them look good.”

COMING TO TERMS

Through the long and often arduous process of designing and installing new AV systems, problems commonly arise from all sides. And, as Scharffer notes, clients in different markets perceive the value of AV equipment differently. “The result is somewhat subjective, even though the system meets all specifications on paper,” he explains. “Sit down and explain the AV technology and its limitations. Every technical gain has side effects, and it behooves you to help your customer understand that.”

No two people view the same object exactly the same way. The same goes for AV integration, says John Tisdale, vice president of business strategic partnerships at York Telecom, a systems integrator in Eatontown, N.J. “By knowing your client, and blending the solution to the needs and aspirations of the client, your odds for true success in the eyes of the client improve exponentially,” he says.

If success is achieved by delivering service and fulfilling promises, then why is it so difficult sometimes? “People don't want to say no,” says Ed Karl, CEO of Pentegra Systems, an integration firm in Elmhurst, Ill., that handles AV, data, security, and telecommunications projects. “It sounds simple to find out the customer's needs and deliver a solution, but you have to be realistic. Give yourself a cushion to meet deadlines. No one ever complains if you get it done early.”

Karl recalls a time when a large high school wanted to install a new audio system in its gymnasium. “They came to us in June and wanted the system completed by the start of school, which was the third week of August,” he says. “We were booked. In order to meet that timeline, everything would have had to go perfectly. There was absolutely no cushion, so we said no. Then, the customer thought about it and agreed to a September 15th deadline.”

Contrary to many managers' strategies, Karl often tells his salespeople that it's not about saying yes to everything in order to book the sale; sometimes it's about saying no when customer demands do not create a win-win situation for all involved. “If we had said yes, and then missed the August deadline by a day or two, the customer would have been very upset,” he explains.

There are steps to building customer trust and fortifying the belief that he or she made the right decision to hire a systems integrator. “First, get involved early in the process,” Tisdale advises. “Understand the client's business. Understand the client's needs. And, develop a plan to validate the client's return on investment. Hardware is a solution to a business challenge, but make an effort to understand how the integration project will provide that solution,” adds Tisdale.

He also recommends working with the client to develop an operational plan. “Test and acceptance is part of it,” he says. “Also, the need for operational support, remote monitoring, help desk and trouble resolution, acquisition strategy, and ongoing technology growth all need to be addressed prior to the design phase. Finally, involve the client in the design.”

Anderson Audio Visual uses a similar approach to map out a consistent plan for each project. “Step one is the program report, the most crucial step in the process,” says Scharffer. “Step two is the design development phase, which means itemizing the equipment in each location of the project. Step three is construction documents that outline what needs to be built to accommodate the AV. Step four is integrating the approved proposed systems, and step five is training and acceptance.”

Whatever the process, the point of the exercise is to ensure that both the integrator and customer are on the same page. “Before you dive into a solution, make sure you have a chance to discuss the functional needs and expectations of the system with the client,” says Hinckley. “Help them evaluate their risk. They may want a Ferrari, but what they really need is a Chevy — it's reliable, does the job, and they can afford it.”

Perhaps most importantly, “agree on a clearly written scope of work that can defend against ‘scope creep,'” says Hinckley. “Remember that small favors here and there can add up to a big cost.”

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

With the pro AV industry's passion for and focus on AV technology, it's easy to forget that this is a people-centric business. The ultimate goal of any system is usability, which is very dependent on the customer's technology comfort level and perceived value of the system. By engaging the customer throughout the process, the net psychological effect is that he or she will feel part of the team and more likely to forgive and forget. “It is a challenge to always be available and get the work done on time, but you have to listen to the customer and respond to their requests,” Hinckley says. “The fastest way to sour the deal is to not respond. It's a matter of mutual respect.”

Similarly, Tisdale reminds fellow integrators not to forget that everyone is different. “Technology experts tend to view the world from a pure application perspective,” he says. “Success in the eyes of the end-user may not just involve a working solution, but a need to satisfy the objectives of everyone involved.”

There's also no hard and fast rule for handling nuances, Karl maintains. “There are definitely different personalities but not necessarily by market segment,” he says. “There are different people in every business. We often handle tough cases by discussing it as a [sales] group and advising each other on how to handle it.”

Believe it or not, there is such thing as a client that's too technical, says Scharffer. “Technical people tend to miss the big picture because they are mired by the details of one particular piece of equipment,” he says. “However, you still have to go through the phases with them to clearly outline their wants and needs.”

And sometimes, you just have to know when to walk away. Hinckley says, “Ask yourself the question, ‘Is the hassle worth it?' You have to make money despite aggressive pricing tactics. Sometimes, it's a matter of looking at business metrics and pricing in a ‘client hassle factor.' That may cause you to lose the job, but at least you can focus on other quality business.”

According to Karl, business breaks down into two buckets: sales and service. “The relationship is that a high-value system gets priority service,” he says. “If the customer makes you jump through hoops, then price the job accordingly. People who are demanding and who don't want to pay, those are ex-clients. For example, if a potential customer makes contact during the busy season and says he needs the system ASAP, you can offer a premium price due to the short notice or conversely offer a reasonable timeline discount to encourage them to re-evaluate the timing.”

Pricing, though, is only one factor in the decision to turn down business. “If you are put in a situation that you just can't win, that's when you walk away,” says Scharffer. “If you can't start until you have approval from the same client who is simultaneously holding up the process and then pushing you on a hard deadline, then that is a problem to inform the client about up-front before starting the job.”

A lack of conflict resolution or psychology training in the AV industry also adds to customer relations problems. “As AV vendors, you not only need to be able to handle the technology but you also need to understand the people using it,” says Hinckley. “This goes back to one of the basic rules of business. Know your customer. Not everyone is a technologist while some users are extremely advanced. The system should be designed accordingly to meet everyone's expectations.”

GROWING THE BUSINESS

As a general rule of thumb, a solid business foundation is built on customer referrals. A business cannot get a better endorsement than an unsolicited recommendation by a satisfied customer. Every service professional — from real estate agents to hairdressers to systems integrators — thrive on these positive word-of-mouth recommendations.

“Our knowledge base goes beyond AV; we work with so many trades like electricians, mill workers, and general contractors [because] we are in the construction business, too,” says Scharffer. “If you can deal with roadblocks in the construction phase, the client will come back to you. Service, schedule, and support — meet these three objectives, and you will get repeat business and referrals.”

Tisdale adds, “Technology solves a business operation and provides the customer with a return on investment. In order to do so, you must understand the business objectives and challenges of the client. Understanding your marketplace is key to the success of the client perception, which is the only result that truly counts beyond achieving financial objectives.”

Getting repeat business is about marketing and keeping in contact with the customer. “Follow-up with them about the system or offer a service program that keeps you in touch with them periodically,” Hinckley says. “Remember that managing expectation goes from start to finish. As an AV professional, ask the right questions and keep the line of communication open so you can meet — or better yet exceed — the client's expectations.”

Linda Seid Frembes is a journalist and public relations consultant for the professional AV industry. Visit her at www.frembes.com.



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