Because I like to dine out, some folks think I am a wine expert. Nothing could be further from the truth, but I have learned how to order wine: you need to speak to the most knowledgeable person at the restaurant, give them a budget and a little direction (e.g.: explain the occasion or what folks are eating), and ask for the wine that customers are consistently happy with.
When I speak with the sommelier, manager, or head waiter, I have a perfect track record of happy guests. When I don’t insist on speaking to the right person, the results are hit and miss. These employees are the user interface of the restaurant. The better the restaurant, the better I expect these folks to be at their jobs. I fail to see much difference between this and the experience customers have with better AV integrators. If you talk to the right person and let them know your expectations, the job will probably go well. The question is… do you have the right user interface for your business?
I am increasingly confused by the AV integration industry. On the one hand, installed systems have become a highly commoditized product dominated by low-margin providers. On the other, the power for AV, IT, and telecom to solve mission-critical business problems has never been greater. So when I encounter highly capable integrators devaluing their services “because they need the revenue,” I want to understand why. And here’s what I see all too often: companies that once ruled the customer experience have reduced project proposals to the sum of parts. They have ceded their relationships with endcustomers to middleman brokers in order to “feed the machine.” Five-star service has been relegated to a point of sale system.
Why is the complex and valuable process of specifying, designing, planning, and installing (and training, and servicing) an AV project so dysfunctional that the primary differentiator seems to be price? It’s simple. Somewhere along the way one competitor said they could do something for less and the incumbent’s “user interface” couldn’t justify the value of his or her offering and simply dropped the price. Once you sell on price and commit your resources, it becomes harder and harder to return to five-star service. You lose money on one job and therefore the next job becomes more important, so you sell it on price too, and so on. I call it the AV Death Spiral.
We like to blame commoditization for the industry’s woes, but it is just a symptom. If the customer’s greatest fear is that they will pay too much for something that ultimately doesn’t meet their needs—when negotiations always come down to price—we have failed as an industry to listen to what the customer wants. Our user interface—the salesperson—has failed in their number one responsibility.
The cure begins in individual companies that learn to listen to the customer, have more patience in understanding what their priorities are, and protect what the customer feels is most important at the moment. The person that listens the best can win more business at a fairer price and write fewer dead-on-arrival proposals in the process. And listening doesn’t add any cost to the job. All of which brings me back to ordering wine. “Which wine would you like?” is a great question if the customer knows wine. But who can know every wine, vineyard, or vintage for every situation? You can’t become a good listener if you don’t ask the right questions.
Tom Stimson, MBA, CTS (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of The Stimson Group, a Dallas, TX-based management consulting firm specializing in process improvement, executive coaching, and market research for the audiovisual industry. Stimson is a past president of InfoComm International and a current member of InfoComm’s Adjunct Faculty.
Applying The Five Whys
In working with sales teams, I have found that teaching the Five Whys is a highly effective method for imparting the listening skills that are required to earn more profitable business. For those not familiar, the Five Whys is a questioning methodology designed to determine the root cause of problems. Each ‘why’ removes another layer of symptoms until you reach the core issue. When used in selling, the questioning can uncover the real opportunity in the purchase request. I find it especially helpful at the customer service interface where your representative can turn a simple lamp sale into room upgrade that might have otherwise remained undiscovered.
For larger projects, the Five Whys is an effective means of deconstructing the RFP and rebuilding a competitive advantage for your company. In the questioning exercise, you are typically trying to uncover the emotional or irrational element that lives inside every project request—the root cause. Once discovered, you have two options: creatively overcome the obstacle or decline to participate.
For example, a company with an existing videoconference system calls three local integrators to request a proposal for an upgrade to their boardroom. The buyer has even researched potential products and called the dealers recommended by the manufacturers. On the surface, the opportunity appears that a combination of capabilities, price, and service will win the job. By questioning the origin of the problem you learn that this all started when the CEO saw how unflattering his image was on the feed. A quick site survey reveals that a relatively less expensive lighting system would solve their problem. Add on a service contract for the entire room and you will probably make more money than you would have on the upgrade.
If, on the other hand, the Five Whys discovers that the only driver on a project is price—a truly irrational criteria in a complex installation— then you should feel confident in walking away from the non-opportunity.