Service: The Future of YOUR Business?

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You can’t see it, taste it, or wrap your hands around it, yet it’s the seven-letter word many believe is the future of AV integration. So what does a service model really look like? 

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Whitlock’s AV Network Operations Center (AVNOC) in Dallas, TX.

“It has to look like something the customer is already familiar with, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” said Julian Phillips, vice president of Whitlock. “AV is rapidly being aligned to the IT services organization: different bosses with different expectations of service delivery. We need to make an AV services model look like and integrate within an overall IT services model, retaining the unique skill sets and expertise of AV, and most IT integrators don’t know how to do that.”

The service model focuses on the client, ensuring that their needs always are met, said Chris Turner, service account executive at Advanced AV. “This includes everything from extended service agreements sold at integration, technical assistance centers within the integrator’s company, and on-site staffing. The model exists for the sole purpose of maintaining the client’s equipment as well as the relationship. In doing this, the integrator should see new opportunities for integration and service at the current client or outside for new clients.”

Getting It

To have a true service-oriented business model, integrators should shift from project-based solutions to client-based solutions, Turner advised. “Client-based solutions force integrators to see the big picture—to look past the close-out and focus more on the idea that the client is the project.”

To do so, integrators need to make a concerted effort to keep engaging the client through service agreements, on-site visits, or on-site staffing. “This ensures that the client continues to be satisfied and that everything is functioning the way in which it was intended,” Turner said. “If a service department exists within the integrator’s organization, then the integrator needs to ensure that the communication line between integrator and service is kept open, as well as introducing a smooth transition with the client after the integration is complete.” 

Declining hardware margins are a fact of life in any technology market as it matures, Phillips said, so we have to get over ourselves and deal with it. “I don’t see recurring service revenues as a safe harbor. Ultimately, we have to move our focus away from transactional margins, by the deal, and look at lifetime profitability by customer. This profitability is a blend of hardware, integration, professional services, and recurring managed services. The only strategy for survival and sustainable growth is acquiring and retaining profitable customers, and that means selling them everything.”

But you can’t provide a service if you don’t understand the customer’s unique business requirements. “The critical element in developing a SOA (Service Orientated Architecture) is a thorough analysis of the end-user applications and the impact they have on the business,” he said. Then you can develop the rest of the service stack. All too often integrators develop off-the-shelf services that are not aligned or relevant to the customer’s business and are then surprised when no one buys them.”

Rock Around the Clock

It’s alluring to think about offering 24/7 help desks, but how can companies of any size ramp up to provide that?

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Members of the Verrex Global Service Desk team.

The first order of business is to talk to your clients, and find out what they really want from you, said Carl Edolo, director of global managed services at Verrex Corporation. “Your company could spend a significant amount of time and money putting infrastructure into place that goes unutilized, or, even worse, is completely mismatched to the type and level of service your clients are expecting.”

Your second task is to define what an ideal customer support interaction looks like from your client’s perspective, he said, setting the bar high, and drawing on your own experiences. 

“Every B2B and B2C interaction we have is an opportunity to serve, with the best and worst experiences you yourself have had setting your guideposts. Have you ever had a customer service experience that made you switch to a different brand, or frequent another establishment? Define, in concrete terms, what made that experience special, and correlate those terms to your business. Write them on a giant piece of paper; that is your high water mark for every customer service interaction. Now flip things around, taking the worst customer service experience you’ve ever had to endure and set that as a place you don’t want to go.”

In truth, Phillips said, very few customers truly require a 24/7 response/resolution services model, and even fewer are prepared to pay for it. “Anyone, large or small, can offer a 24/7 helpdesk and simply reroute calls to the cell phone of someone on call, but is that what the customer really wants? The secret is to customize, but clearly you have to have the scale and financial muscle to that for so many different customers around the world.” 

Ramping up to a 24-hour helpdesk requires a leap of faith, Turner said. “They must be ready to staff the desk. If a desk already exists within the integrator’s organization, then it’s only adding pieces. If it doesn’t, then the integrator needs to be willing to invest the time and money to get a desk up and running. This investment can be as small as adding a few staff members to man phones and ticketing systems. While this process is taking place, the company can reach out to clients and let them know that this service exists and is ready to go.” 

The challenge is that once you know what your clients want, and what you want, you have to sketch out a business plan to define your service model and specifically how you are going to implement that model, Edolo said. 

“Who will provide what support, and when? Will you stay in-house, outsource, or combine the two? You may be tempted to just throw your best field techs on the phones when they’re between dispatches, but remember that providing great customer service is a skill just as much as modifying control system code or creating routes in an audio processor matrix. Not everyone can do it. You’ll need to invest in some basic customer service training if you want your techs to cut it on the front lines of support.” 

If quality is indeed your “job one,” consider dedicated internal resources, provided you have the budget to pay for them. “Understanding how to fund your shiny new service desk is just as important and will drive your business plan,” he said. “Speaking of paying, how will clients pay for your shiny new helpdesk? Will they be willing to pay for services they already feel they are entitled to as part of their warranty or maintenance agreement? Consider productizing your service desk with a full-on marketing push, product launch, and kickoff. Just don’t forget to involve sales because without their buy-in you won’t get far.”

You’ll also need to consider how you’re going to track and manage support requests, field dispatches, RMAs, and maintenance, Edolo said. “Do you want to add a web portal or video chat support? Do your homework. There is no shortage of hardware and software solutions out there, and some play nicer in the sandbox than others. And you just may have some audiovisual equipment around that can help. Consider every aspect, and work it into your business plan, never losing sight of that fact that it’s the customers who pay the bills.”

Small Can Play, Too

Smaller companies won’t have a choice not to compete in this new landscape, Edolo noted. “The good news is that there are many ways to start small, using readily available technologies and low-cost outsourced services. Smaller firms may want to consider strategically partnering with other like-minded firms in different geographic regions. There’s a risk involved, but more often than not those types of partnerships lead to more opportunities for everyone.”

The well-worn but remarkably prophetic saying, “get big, get niche, or get out,” applies here, Phillips said. “So yes, those small companies who cannot get big should get niche, possibly in vertical markets or technology segments. Whitlock is a big small company rapidly becoming a small big company, so our path is clearly set. There are many integrators out there who need to go niche, and if they don’t, there is only one option left.”

Advanced AV, Turner said, is one of those small companies who continue to succeed in the new landscape. “We have a fully staffed and operational service department which works to ensure client satisfaction at all hours of the day. Our account executives work with clients to ensure their service agreements continue to benefit their needs and we have a help desk of service coordinators who have cultivated relationships with clients, working with them to troubleshoot issues or schedule technicians. Our CTS certified technicians are masters in their field and work hard to find solutions while on-site; this includes workarounds when repairs need to be made.”

Advanced AV maintains on-site staff at numerous locations, on the frontline. “They are well-versed in numerous videoconferencing and audio conferencing applications and with a variety of AV equipment,” he said. “As long as small companies put the customer first, they can be successful in this new landscape.”

On-Site On Staff

It starts with a conversation, Turner said. “On-site staffing options are best cultivated by looking at current integration and service clients. If a company is doing a large install of videoconference equipment at various rooms, the account manager for the integrator can engage the client on the staffing option. By letting them know that staffing does exist as an option, you’ve done half the work.”

The same goes for service clients. Many clients don’t have the on-site technical support needed to ensure the equipment continues to operate with a negligible failure rate during meetings and events. “This means that if something goes wrong during a meeting, the meeting has to end, as no one is on-site to troubleshoot or find a workaround for the meeting,” he said. “Engaging the client helps them see that having an on-site staff, well-versed in AV technology, keeps the failure rate down and the end-user happy. In the long run, it also benefits the client on a cost basis, as meetings and events aren’t missed, and the burden of staffing is put on the company providing the staffing.”

Stick to three simple rules, Edolo said: Listen to what your clients want, understand your cost, and proactively manage your talent pool. “If you recommend the wrong type of on-site resource to a client just to add billable headcount, are you really providing a service? What’s the cost to your reputation? It’s just not worth it. When you do find folks who tick your clients’ boxes, be sure you understand just how much it will cost you to put those resources on-site.”

Take into consideration ramp-up, training, transportation, vacation, and sick leave, he said. “Understand what it would cost your client to provide the same staff internally, and be prepared to justify that difference. There is a lot of research and data out there that will help you demonstrate to your clients the ROI of outsourcing their audiovisual technical staff with a firm like yours.”

Focus your attention on providing on-site service solutions, Phillips said, and leave the term “staffing” to the body shops. “Our most successful on-site contracts are where we blend global on-site services with field, remote, and cloud services all under one SLA.”

The Bottom Line

Set a benchmark of what good service looks like and feels like and then aim to surpass it, Phillips prescribed. “I think the overall benchmark for service delivery in the AV industry is set way too low; we have a lot to learn from other industry sectors. It’s the overall customer experience that truly matters, not just that you dispatch an engineer when something goes wrong. It will be defined through the customer experience of the brand, sales, fulfillment, support, billing, and reputation.”

Success as a services organization requires a service culture and constant innovation. “Let me tell you about my latest wonderful customer experience. Last Sunday afternoon, raining in Philadelphia, kids are bored and they want to watch a movie. I pick up my iPhone and 30 seconds later we are watching a blockbuster movie in full HD in my home theatre and I receive a receipt direct to my email. Dreadful movie, amazing customer service. Professional AV services are light years behind the consumer market.”

One hard question to ask concerns, not surprisingly, money, Turner said. “Is the integrator willing to invest money in a service model knowing full well that they might not see a return for a year or two? Once the integrator has fully embedded itself in the service model and has seen success at clients, the money spent will recoup itself, but it does take time. If an integrator is willing to invest time and money to shift to the service model while changing from project based to client based, then they should be very successful as a service oriented business.”

Just remember one simple fact, Edolo said: “If you don’t take care of your customers, someone else will. Put your clients first, and develop a model that meets their business goals and your financial goals”

Karen Mitchell is a freelance writer living in Boulder, CO.

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