During the lengthy period where my career as a custom installer (beginning in March of 1998) and my role as technology editor (starting around 2000) have overlapped, I’ve written numerous posts similar to Eric Thies’ recent, “How to Find the Perfect Integrator.”
Sadly, none of them seem to have made much of a difference.
I agree with everything Eric said, but principally that most people take almost no time to vet their technology integrator. The bar being so low to becoming an integrator—most states will let you place a magnet on the side of your truck and call yourself Joe’s AV without even requiring a license for low-voltage work—has led to a glut of terrible work, and dissatisfied customers.
Over the years, our company, Custom Theater and Audio, has resurrected numerous projects for people who let the most random people into their homes to handle the technology install. Even though they comprehend that it’s too complicated for them to do, for whatever reason they think that virtually anyone else is qualified to handle their technology needs. I’m not even kidding when I say that some people say they hired “some guy” that was walking through the neighborhood putting leaflets on doors, had the flooring guy do it, used the electrician, used someone the electrician knew, etc. The tragedy is that most of these people ended up spending good money to get a system that was never right for their needs, never worked right, and then had to pay us more to come in and fix or replace it.
This is exceptionally frustrating and, frankly, bad for the entire industry because all installation companies end up being lumped together in the minds of people who have been burned by a bad installation. And them passing on their bad experience to others tarnishes the good along with the bad.
That’s one of the reasons why the Home Technology Association (HTA) mentioned in Eric’s post intrigued me: Could this certification identify the best integration firms and help the cream rise to the top? This would not only help customers looking to hire a good company but (more selfishly) help my company stand out as one of the good guys.
HTA’s Director of Certification, Josh Christian, says the goal of certification is to do for the custom installation industry what the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) has done for diamonds, allowing anyone to walk into virtually any reputable jewelry store and know that they’re purchasing a stone that has been independently verified for quality.
While HTA doesn’t guarantee that selecting a certified professional will result in terrific performance or outcome, in a sea of uncertainty, it certainly offers a beacon to help guide customers towards making a more informed selection from a pre-qualified group of top candidates.
My company recently went through the application process to became HTA Certified, and I can attest that it is a rigorous process, taking me several hours to research and gather all of the required information. Compared to the CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design & Installation Association) application, which has you fill out a single-page form asking only the most basic information (company address, size, gross revenue) and credit card information, and essentially approves any company willing to pay the $500 annual registration, HTA mines far deeper into how a company actually operates.
Josh said the application process is so thorough for two reasons. First, it helps HTA identify the best-in-class installation companies and provide a real look into their business operations and the kinds of jobs they do. Second, the sheer length and breadth of it scares away exactly the kinds of companies they want to avoid. (As does the $400 application fee, which has the applying company putting some skin in the game.)
Once certified, companies are listed on HTA’s website. (Click here—or on the image above-—to see our company page.) A consumer looking to hire an installation firm can get a pretty good idea if a company is going to be a good fit for their needs.
How long have they been in business?
Longevity is generally a good indicator that the company will be around when you need service down the road. Also, “bad” companies usually don’t last. The average HTA certified company has been around for almost 17 years.
How many employees do they have?
Larger companies can often handle bigger projects and respond to service issues faster.
What areas do they service?
Working with a company that’s near your home often means quicker response times and no trip charges.
What kinds of projects do they focus on?
If you’re building a $15 million, 20,000 square-foot home, selecting a company that focuses on $500,000, 3,500 square-foot homes might not be a good fit.
What brands are they authorized to sell?
This will give you a look at the quality of gear the company can provide. This can also be important if you’re interested in a specific automation system like Control4, Crestron, or Savant, as dealers often specialize in one, but not all.
How many projects have they done over the past 3 years in different price categories?
A good snapshot of how busy the company is, and the focus of their projects.
What does a typical dedicated theater and media room install cost?
It’s a good idea to see if your budgets align with the company’s typical installs. HTA’s website also has a 20-question budgeting tool that can be very useful for getting a rough idea of what your project’s budget range should be.
What industry awards and certifications do they have?
Bad companies generally don’t win awards or attain industry certifications.
What are their service policies?
No matter how good your system is, at some point it will need to be serviced, and knowing the company’s after-sale policy upfront is a good way to avoid any frustration later on.
HTA understands that its certification will only mean something if it actually means something, not only to the industry but to people looking to hire an integration firm. They’re trying to do this by only letting in the best firms, and raising awareness with architects, builders, designers, and consumers that choosing a qualified—ideally certified—integration firm matters.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.