Control Your Destiny

Tom CoffinsmartPRENEUR Blog Series

Control Your Destiny

How did you get here? Did you plan to be a custom AV integrator? When the other kids in school were talking about sports, music, girls, etc. were secretly wishing you could be in an attic pulling wires in Florida in August? Probably not!

Of course for most of us in the industry that answer is  a big NO. Most of us got into this fantastic industry by accident. I worked for a retailer who got into custom AV. You worked for a car stereo shop that transformed into a custom AV company. Perhaps you were in security and your customers started asking about this smart home stuff. In any case, congratulations you have found yourself in one of the most interesting businesses on the planet, and our time has come. Yes, the average person walking down the street is now talking about, using, and buying smart home products. Now how do you capitalize?

Time for Planning

Product Mix

I talk with thousands of custom AV installation companies every year. One of the things I see that separates the successful ones from the ones who, well, just flat out aren’t going to be around in a year or so, is commitment to their partners. In the early days of home automation, custom AV, smart home (we were searching hard for a name for the industry back then and even what to call the people that sell and install the technologies), there was a sense of experimentation. We’d try different brands, use different products inside competing brands to try and find what worked. I’m here to tell you, those days are over. Put in the effort. Investigate the brands. Choose the ones you believe you can make money with. Don’t choose a brand because they advertise a lot or are popular. Choose brands you relate to and that can help you tell your story of how you and your company are the best ones to be trusted with making your customer’s home safe and secure in the way you implement technologies.

Know Your Margins

What does a multi-media wall plate cost installed? How much does it cost to install and program a Control4 touch panel vs. a Crestron touch panel? You may be selling both.How much does a $17 per hour employee cost you and how much does it take to break even, more importantly how much is that employee making the company? Every dollar you invest needs to bring back a return on that investment. It’s OK to lose money on a wall plate for a builder if your closing ratio and margins are sufficient. But, don’t ignore them. Your existence going forward will rely on you understanding your business model. Where does it make the most profit? Where does it need beefing up?


If you’ve read any of my writing before, you knew this was coming. Process, process, process. Frankly most companies do not have the time, expertise, or the financial ability to sit down, take time out of the business to write out every process. Perhaps the illusive ones I spoke of in the first paragraph who decided to get into smart home after exiting another business. Most of our industry is small. And, it is the small things that will make a difference in your business. Standard product mix, sell the same products just different quantities, plan ahead, maximize the production of each employee. There are many things you can do to streamline. Simple things like staging products in the warehouse and having them delivered by inexpensive runners vs. tying up your expensive and knowledgeable technicians to act as delivery people. WARNING SHAMELESS PLUG: Here at Simply Reliable we have focused our entire business on the workflow process that drives the smart home installation company. Working with thousands of installers, our own life experience from our businesses, and years of research working with the Gerber Group we have developed smartOFFICE, designMACHINE and for Control4 dealers; the Ci4C4 Process, all to help the business owner create process in their business in order to sustain and grow.

Front Wheel – Back Wheel

Have you heard this example? Your back wheel skills are about technology and knowing the products, how they work, how to integrate them etc. Our industry spends a lot of time on this. Don’t get me wrong, you need to know your product and how to make it work every time for your customers.

But, what are you doing about you front wheel skills? Sales, people management, marketing, PR? These skill are every bit as critical as your back wheel skills. One of the trends we see in the industry are salespeople or the owners of the custom AV company making the statement, “well I quote what the customer wants” or “I provide line level pricing to be transparent, my customers demand it.”  Both of these in my humble opinion are completely false. You are the expert. Your customer knows what they have seen on TV or what a friend has told them. They are probably not experts. If they were they would be doing it themselves and that’s not your customer. The notion of line item pricing is like having a shopping list from Amazon. In fact there are products out there for creating proposals today that simulate the Amazon experience for you when you are creating a proposal. That is not a proposal. That is a quote of materials and what you are willing to be paid to install them.

Learn how to sell. I recommend The Dale Carnegie Course, or Sandler but there are many other choices out there. One of the titles I like best is Systems Integrator. To me that truly describes what the best of the best do. And, in that context pricing should be shown by solution or by room. Present to the prospect the experience they are going to have and how it will seamlessly make their life better. What is the QOL (Quality of Life) factor that your designs, expertise, and vision bring to your customer?


Your strongest asset will not develop overnight. The people you surround yourself and your customers with are the single biggest asset or liability you can have. Follow the golden rule and treat them the way you would like to be treated. Be radically candid with them when you instruct, critique, praise, and otherwise communicate. Have their back. Show interest in their families, for most people that is why they are working. It costs a lot of money to educate new employees and work them into the team and the routine.

If you treat your team right, which includes a reasonable salary and a bonus structure where they win when the company wins, be loyal to your business partners, work at not just your back wheel skills but also your front wheel skills you will have a well oiled machine that runs on pure process.

And that’s scalable!

About the Author

Tom Coffin

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Tom Coffin is CEO/President/Co-Founder of Simply Reliable. He has owned and operated companies in retail, security, Audio/Video, Systems Integration, and Home Automation product manufacturing sector.