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Marketing and Sales: The Missing Pieces

AV systems that are technically elegant, adroitly installed, and masterfully commissioned often evoke a single word of appreciation and awe: sweet. Less magical, though no less essential, are the business underpinnings of sales and marketing.

PIECE #4: Sales Execution

It's easy to think of the sales process as concrete and simple, yet salespeople know it's a multifaceted continuum, calling for diverse skills, that begins with lead generation and ends only after the final payment is received. Systems integrators know that consultative selling is the “M.O.” of their industry. Because of this, sales cycles can be protracted. The NSCA study shows that across all venues, applications, and company sizes, sales cycles average 3.7 months. In fact, it can take as long to make a sale as it can to perform the actual job, once a contract awarded. And a good salesperson is typically involved from sales to the end of commissioning.

The benefits of protracted involvement are many, including relationship building that leads to more repeat sales. As such, the sales and marketing functions of successful AV integration firms are fully integrated. The NSCA research shows that repeat customers/clients account for slightly more than half a systems integrators' business, underscoring the fact that the industry is built on long-term relationships.

For systems integrators, the product they're selling includes both goods and services, typically in a business-to-business channel context. The NSCA Market Intelligence Briefing on Sales Management reminds us that sales is tightly bound to the entire product delivery system (whether for service or goods). The sales function is not only the revenue-generating lifeblood of the company but is also integral to design, installation, and commissioning. Few who call themselves AV systems integrators are just “selling boxes.”

Successful salespeople and departments need to be part of their firm's multifaceted operations, and they need to be technically knowledgeable. In many cases, the salespeople are the ones who sketch initial AV systems designs. As in construction, job estimation is a specialty unto itself; for integrators the sales engineering effort is key to the larger project life cycle. The NSCA research indicates much of a salesforce's time is spent writing proposals. Systems integration firms generate on average of 16 proposals per month and close well over half of them.

The payoff is an engaged salesforce. The NSCA briefing study on sales management includes a 14-attribute salesforce rating scale (see “How Good Is Your Salesforce At ... ?” above). Overall, systems integrators rated their salesforces highest in skills that involve relationship building.

Developing relationships with key customers2.0%11.1%83.2%
Sales planning, including submitting proposals and bid packages2.9%17.6%75.8%
Closing the sale4.5%21.7%70.1%
Developing relationships with key specifiers and influencers9.4%21.7%64.3%
Leading or participating in key customer meetings and sales presentations6.6%25.4%64.3%
Hitting the numbers8.2%26.6%50.8%
Following up with customers when the project is completed13.9%30.3%52.0%
Project management coordination (smooth hand-off to installation and operations)12.7%28.3%54.1%
Ongoing coordination among internal departments14.3%37.3%41.0%
Monitoring business conditions and the competitive environment20.1%36.1%38.9%
Time management (a good balance between in-office activities and face-to-face selling)16.0%37.7%42.2%
Prospecting and generating leads19.3%36.5%38.9%
Sales forecasting20.5%32.0%32.4%
Doing the paperwork24.6%36.9%35.2%

PIECE #5: Customer Support and Service

In general business circles, there is a trend toward retooling customer service as a marketing advantage. It's obvious to anyone who has ever called an airline, a phone company, or an office supply vendor and endured 20 minutes on hold, that customer support colors our perception of the brand.

Many companies in the AV integration world are ahead of the general business world at large, realizing that in a relationship-driven industry, good customer support is a marketing opportunity.

According to the NSCA research, customer support strategies fall into three main areas: Keeping customers informed of the project schedule phases; keeping the sales and marketing staff in contact with the customer during the installation phase of the project; and conducting customer satisfaction surveys or follow-up contacts after the project is completed.

Of note, only 16 percent of survey respondents said they had a dedicated, trained customer service person on staff (13 percent offered 24/7 customer service access).

One reason strong customer service will be important going forward is to handle and manage customer objections in an increasingly competitive market. When asked, for instance, why their company loses a job, two of the top three objections integrators “often” or “sometimes” encounter are prices issues and requests for radical value engineering. (The other principle reason integrators lose jobs is simply because a competitor gets the contract, a situation addressed in the sales cycle, but also through good relationship building.)

According to the research, clients rarely back out of a project with no explanation. Therefore good customer service and sales, and the ability to read a customer and understand their concerns, are important. Clients will tell you their problems: You need to listen.

Jeanne Stiernberg is a principal consultant with Stiernberg Consulting, a Sherman Oaks, Calif.–based business development firm ( You can reach her at Stiernberg Consulting works with the NSCA on the Market Intelligence Briefings.

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