How to Find the Perfect Integrator
I have been a technology integrator for more than two decades, and many consider me an industry expert. I have been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Worth, USA Today, and many other publications. My firm has won over a hundred industry awards, and our systems have been featured in world-famous media outlets like E!, HGTV, Fox, NBC, Architectural Digest, and Esquire. Not to boast, but on paper I look pretty impressive. Trust me, I am pretty underwhelming in person, but my team has accomplished a lot of cool stuff over the years.
I bring all of this up because I think I’m a pretty obvious choice if you want a top-tier integrator to deck out your new home with the latest and greatest technologies. Maybe I’m not the only choice, but at least a top contender, right?
Well, the reality is that most homeowners don’t really factor any of that stuff in when they choose a technology integrator. They tend to make really bad decisions and hire really bad integrators—or worse, they let some other trade like electricians,
security guys, or IT guys perform this very specialized work.
Why don’t consumers do any due diligence when technology plays such an important role in everyone’s lives?
And why hasn’t everyone caught on to the dirty little secret of the custom installation industry?
What is the dirty little secret?
A private equity firm that wanted to invest in the luxury home automation market recently surveyed homeowner’s who purchased home technology systems. The results were staggering. Over 50% of homeowners with home automation systems were “unsatisfied” with their technology. This is a lower satisfaction rate than cable companies and cellphone companies (historically the lowest industry satisfaction rates). So again, what is the dirty little secret?
Most installation firms . . . stink.
The AV and automation industry is the wild west. There is no government regulation, incredibly little formalized training, and in many states no licensing whatsoever is required. Anybody can pretty much hang their shingle and claim to be an AV expert regardless of their abilities. Even if there is a contractor’s license requirement, it has more to do with building guidelines than technical expertise in systems deployment. There are probably about 15,000 companies nationwide that call themselves “AV guys” or “integrators.” I would only let about 10% of them into my home.
Well, most folks can instinctively tell the difference between a great firm and a fly-by-night, right?
Uh . . . NO!
Unfortunately, most consumers know little to nothing about technology and have lots of anxiety about hiring a tech firm. Given that, anybody who walks in their door and has more knowledge than them will seem like an expert.
The typical decision-making process goes like this: “Who does my neighbor use?” “Who seemed like a nice guy?”
“Who does my interior designer like?” There is typically no research on the firm, no reference checks, and most importantly no vetting to see if the firm they like has done a project of the scope and scale or has any expertise in the products they want to use. The guy who did a soundbar installation for your brother-in-law may not be the right guy to completely automate your home with Crestron, Savant, or Lutron—or deliver that amazing home theater experience.
Most consumers approach this industry thinking that most companies are probably reputable, probably sell the same stuff, and roughly have the same technical knowledge. But the reality—as people in the industry know—is much different.
So how does someone hire the right firm? Here are some simple question to ask:
Can I speak to three recent clients with similar scope and size projects?
You don’t want to be a guinea pig for this firm. They should have a proven track record of similar projects.
Are you a dealer for all of this stuff we want?
You need to be able to get support on the product in your home. If the integrator can’t get the manufacturer to answer a call, you’re in trouble.
What is your service policy and how do I get help after you install this stuff?
Most companies falter after the sale. They have no formal process to handle servicing their clients and typically devote all of their resources and staff to the big projects in process (with the big checks being handed out) and not the $150 service call. Find out how they handle service requests and after-hours problems, and if they have dedicated staff to address service issues.
Do you do all this work with in-house staff or do you subcontract any of it out?
Again, back to service. You want the company to be able to service you after the fact without relying on a pile of other subcontractors.
A terrific resource to help you find a great integrator is the Home Technology Association. This is the first group to realize that 90% of companies in this trade wear clown shoes.
They have developed a certification system that puts integrators through the ringer so consumers can dramatically improve their chances of success. Each HTA Certified company must have a minimum of nine references from industry experts, design/build pros, and manufacturers. They must demonstrate that they have technical proficiency, have a great history of customer service, and have a stellar industry reputation.
I have been through the application process, and it is impossible to pass certification unless you are an exceptional company. They also do a terrific job of segregating the installers into three tiers: Estate—if you are a gajillionaire building a giant house; Luxury—if you are just a regular wealthy person; and Foundation—for the guys like me with regular-size homes. The HTA is the easy button for selecting an integrator, and as an integrator, the list of certified companies is really strong. It represents the best of the best.
These are just a few easy ones to get you towards making a good choice. The bottom line is, don’t hire a technology partner unless you ask the important questions and do some research. Remember, the chances of you having a happy tech experience is less than 50% unless you do a little homework. You don’t have to understand tech in order to pick a great company.