Which Way To Grow?

As the market for systems integration develops, manufacturers -- particularly larger ones – face a dilemma. Do they grow revenues by adding to their dealer base, or do they rely on their tried and trusted dealers to sell more products?

This was one of the issues addressed by the Manufacturers Forum on the eve of InfoComm here in Anaheim, CA. The Forum is in its fourth year and has earned a reputation for controversy -- hence the 'standing-room only' audience that greeted moderator Gary Kayye of Kayye Consulting and his panel at the Anaheim Hilton this year.

Inevitably, talk of expanding the integration dealer base revolves around the extent to which manufacturers are willing -- and able -- to embrace the IT channel. Forum panel members Andrew Edwards, President and CEO of Extron Electronics, and George Feldstein, President of Crestron, are reluctant to appear disloyal to the AV dealers who have got them where they are today.

"We're just happy doing what we're doing, the way we're doing it" is how Edwards characterizes his company's approach. And if you've grown as successfully as Extron has in recent years, who would argue?

Feldstein goes a step further: "We don't like people cherry-picking our product line. If an IT-based dealership wants to step up to the plate and support our entire product line, then we don't have a problem with that. But we don't want to do our AV dealers a disservice. We would rather our AV dealers got into IT than the other way around."

In a fast-moving, increasingly network-centric world, Feldstein's sense of loyalty is refreshing. But is it realistic? Rick Snyder, President, Americas, Tandberg, doesn't think so. This isn't surprising, when you consider that so many of Tandberg's videoconferencing products are, by definition, IT network-dependent.

"We're not going to keep IT resellers out of the industry," maintains Snyder. "What we need is an 'ecosystem' where everyone works together, and it is in all our interests for dealers from different channels to be successful."

For those companies intent on growing their business by broadening their dealer base, the issue of support is critical. Gerry Remers, President and COO, Christie Digital Systems, says his company strives to be "customer-intimate". This approach dates back many years, to when Christie was turning over no more than $10 million a year.

"Our dealers need to be able to pick up the phone and get a real person, not a voicemail message," says Remers. "When you have guys out in the field and they're seeing something on a screen that needs fixing, you need someone with technical knowledge."

The problem for expansion-hungry manufacturers is that not everybody who works in customer support will necessarily have the right knowledge for the new breed of IT-savvy dealers. As Michael MacDonald, Executive Vice President of Harman Pro Group, concedes: "Support today is all about the network and the application, not the audio products that our people know so well. We always want our dealers to know more, but sometimes you have to hold the mirror up and say that it's a real challenge to get people who are IT-proficient."

Whatever the approach of an individual company, one thing is clear. This industry is committed to growing without compromising its standards of service and support. Personally, I found this aspect of the Manufacturers Forum reassuring. One of the things I like about working in this industry is that I am rarely, if ever, put on hold by a machine advising me to "please listen to the following options carefully, as some of them have recently changed" -- or some other nonsense that seems designed for no other purpose than to keep me waiting on the phone for a little while longer.

Of the companies represented at the Manufacturers Forum, only Tandberg has attempted to outsource aspects of its support function to call centers. The experiment failed, and the policy was, according to Snyder, swiftly reversed.

Amen to that.

The AVNetwork staff are storytellers focused on the professional audiovisual and technology industry. Their mission is to keep readers up-to-date on the latest AV/IT industry and product news, emerging trends, and inspiring installations.