"So doctor, what are your technology plans?" Scott Strawbridge, owner of Strawbridge Building Contractors, asked his client. "The doctor said he didn't have any technology needs. Then a few minutes later, he pointed out the media room where he wants a plasma TV, and he mentioned the need for speakers in the kitchen and near the pool. In the office, he wanted a wireless network and a third phone line."
The conclusion? "Remodeling clients do have technology needs, they just don't always know it," says Strawbridge, whose firm is located in Wilton Manors, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale.
Similarly, remodelers don't always realize they can benefit from a refined approach to selling and installing technology that fully takes advantage of the growing demand for advanced electronic systems in the home. Strawbridge admits that he is searching for ways to improve his technology pitch, but he — and other remodelers — are taking strategic steps to increase their returns on technology installation. From educating in-house staff, to refined marketing approaches, to forming critical partnerships, remodelers are taking a variety of actions to meet the rising demand for in-home technology.Leverage a partner's expertise
With so many new technologies on the market, it's the rare remodeler who can keep up with all the latest products and system developments. Partnering with an experienced system installer provides a swift way to capture your share of technology dollars. Aligning with one technology consultant helps to ensure a clear understanding of services and capabilities in an emerging field filled with disparate companies.
"What we have noticed is that no one provides the same set of services," Strawbridge says. "The tech installation field is even more fragmented than our industry in many different ways."
For example, he explains, remodelers don't hire a mechanical engineer to set a toilet. "But a tech company may send an electrical engineer if you want a plasma TV installed," Strawbridge notes, pointing to the wide variety of services and quality available in the technology installation industry at this time.
To take advantage of the growing opportunity to design, install and retrofit homes with new technologies, in 2005 Strawbridge established a marketing collaborative called Enviré, also in Wilton Manors. In addition to his company, Enviré includes Blue Sky Environments, a Coral Springs interior design firm, and a national home technology integrator called Your Technology Solutions, with headquarters in Boston and offices in Fort Lauderdale. "Technology is too vast a territory to grasp all of the intricacies and constantly new products in-house," Strawbridge says.
Enviré's goal is to capture some of the installation and "remodeling" work on the 5,000 raw, designer-ready condo units scheduled to come on the market in Fort Lauderdale. The condo market there is sophisticated enough that developers do not provide finished units. They provide a shell with plumbing stacks and base mechanical systems in place so the buyer can work with an interior designer and contractor to customize the unit. Strawbridge sees this market as an opportunity for his remodeling services and established Enviré to give himself a competitive advantage through advanced technology services.
"We discussed mergers and acquisitions, but the simplest way to be involved at this point is to share advertising expenses and have a system established for interacting with clients," Strawbridge says. Already he is happy with the results. The first ad ran in January and generated a meeting to discuss building a 4,500-square-foot home, according to Strawbridge.
Rather than develop a new firm or division, Pete Donovan, president of Mastercraft Contracting & Remodeling in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., keeps a technology consulting firm on retainer to have access to the expertise his clients require. According to him, the advantage of the retainer is that the technology contractor provides immediate as-needed assistance, just as if its employees were members of Donovan's company.
"The guys from Dynamix Consulting catch up with us in the field when we have questions or issues and are always available through various Internet connections to help us with projects," he says.
In addition, one of Donovan's field employees — a specialist in painting and other finish work — expressed an interest in technology and agreed to assume responsibility for networking requirements. Donovan sent him for training, and the employee is certified through Microsoft. Having both in-house expertise and a consultant on retainer makes Donovan confident he can handle a variety of electronic systems installation requirements.
Finally, he also draws upon the Internet — in particular, Smarthome.com, which is not only a Web site but also a designer, manufacturer and online retailer of home automation products — as a reference for pricing and for technology solutions. "Smarthome.com is one of the sites I use for reference when I am designing a technology solution," Donovan says. "I recently wanted to turn lights off in a room using a remote control for the TV. The people at Smarthome came up with an infrared translator that I was able to price and present to the client."
Brick-and-mortar technology retailers — whether national or local — also can assist with technology planning and installation. While remodelers may be wary of losing business to retailers, many of which also do installation, the fact remains that some homeowners start a technology project by shopping at an electronics store before realizing the need for a contractor.
"We have worked with custom builders and remodelers doing 3 or 4 homes a year and with production builders," says Steve Ellison, senior director of technology services for CompUSA. At the national level, CompUSA and other retailers interviewed offer no special pricing plan for remodelers, but relationships with local retailers could provide a steady source of referrals as well as education.
Gerry Demple, senior vice president of installation for Colorado-based Ultimate Electronics, says, "Technology is tough for the even best people in the business. Remodelers have a lot they need to know about — structured wring, security, multi-room audio systems, home theater systems, central vacuums and more." Establishing a relationship with a retailer, or other partner, can help remodelers stay on top of their core business while gaining the technology support they need, according to Demple.
Selling home technology starts with a remodeler's own comfort level with technology. Homeowners need to feel comfortable with their remodeler's ability to handle technology systems installation as well as more traditional construction. Demonstrating proficiency with technology tools instills confidence in clients, says Bryan Soth, co-owner of HighCraft Builders in Fort Collins, Colo. Therefore, Soth designs in VectorWorks, a CAD program from Nemetschek North America that creates 3-D models of his projects.
"Our design is completed interactively with the clients and the results are immediately projected onto a screen in our conference room for everyone to review," Soth says. "If the client wants to see the effects of moving a wall, they can see it almost immediately on the 3-D model." The impact of a change in lighting in a home theater space, or the difference between wall-mounted speakers and cabinet units, easily can be displayed. Soth believes clients better understand design concepts presented with 3-D models.
Mason Lord of Hudson Valley Preservation in Sherman, Conn., uses a similar setup consisting of Chief Architect software, a projector, and a "James Bond-style" miniature screen that telescopes out to a size that is suitable for in-home presentations. "The advantage of presenting in 3-D is that clients understand the project better and we can make changes right in front of them," Lord says. This approach makes understanding technology options easier and quicker, too. "We typically can go into a first meeting with 75 percent of the design completed and leave with more than 90 percent done."
Donovan is also a technophile who uses PC Anyway to remotely observe his lead carpenters' laptop computers. He is frequently exploring the most recent digital camera and uses a Web-based project management software to keep employees, subs and clients up to date on projects. Clients see his love for technology and feel comfortable with Donovan handling the technology elements of their remodeling project.
In order to make sure he covers as many project requirements as possible, Donovan has created a design checklist that includes a full array of electronics issues. "The project checklist we use when talking with new clients includes questions about technology. When we ask about wiring, home theaters, computers and other technology issues, the clients often say, 'Oh, you do computers?'"
Donovan's checklist is a simple tool used to remind himself to ask about issues such as wireless networks, electronic entertainment systems, security and the wiring requirements needed to make them work. In addition to taking each client through the checklist, Donovan includes information about technology services in his promotional newsletter, but admits, "We should probably promote our capabilities more."
One of the reasons to promote advanced technology services, according to Lord, is because it can improve a project by reducing the number of wall penetrations required. "Whenever there is an opportunity to use wireless, take advantage of it," says Lord, who has used a third party to install wireless networks, smoke detectors, security systems, motion detectors and other devices in his renovation projects. The technology consultant also installed a wireless computer network in Lord's office, so he is able to testify first-hand about the advantages of wireless systems to his clients.
Lord is planning his company's first professional brochure and is seriously considering a section on the technology capabilities his company can provide.
Donovan notes that, when planned properly, technology systems, especially wireless applications, can provide a win/win for remodelers and clients. "When we see a solution to a problem that be solved with the technology, we suggest it," Donovan says. "And it comes up all the time, because there are constantly new solutions to old problems."
For example, he says, "Instead of running wire for three-way switches, we can run a smart switch that operates on radio frequency. It saves us time, therefore it is cheaper of the client."
According to a 2005 study by The Diffusion Group, a Dallas-based market research consultant specializing in the "digital home," homeowners are open to wireless solutions for systems such as speakers. According to the study, of those surveyed who already have a wireless computer network, about half are interested in wireless speaker systems. The trick is identifying and converting those who are potentially interested in technology solutions into satisfied customers. Donovan's checklist is one way to make sure to capture such opportunities.
In terms of whom to target for technology systems, Strawbridge feels the market includes all clients. "We need to educate clients up front, even if they don't have technology systems in mind for the project, they should be planning for the future of the home, when they or someone else, may want the latest system," Strawbridge says. However, he notes there is an important condition to follow. "Put no wire in the wall without some sort of technology master plan for the project," Strawbridge says.
Creating a technology master plan for a single remodeling project, or for the way you can increase the capture rate of electronic systems installation, is good advice for all professional remodelers. PR
|Michael Bordenaro is a Chicago-based freelance writer focusing on design and construction.|