The Integrator's Voice

Integrator finds the key to balancing internal operations, outside communications and reputable service

With the housing market slowing down and more competition entering the industry, integrators can no longer solely rely on word of mouth to generate new business. Companies are beginning to take a proactive approach to inform customers and win business.

Most small-business owners recognize the importance of marketing and the need to manage it on an ongoing basis. However, most companies are already overtaxed when it comes to properly servicing current customers and effectively managing internal operations, let alone implementing a viable promotional campaign.

ForTech Solutions, based in North Hills, Calif., has successfully accomplished the fine art of balancing internal operations and outside communications while at the same time providing proper service for its customers. Hovsep Margaryan of ForTech Solutions shared insight on how the company has found balance in all three areas.

Q.How and when did ForTech Solutions start? Who was involved with the company?

A.ForTech started in 2001. It was a couple of us with diverse backgrounds who had day jobs as vice presidents of operations and technology and electrical engineering. We felt that given our skills and knowledge, we could achieve more financial freedom, be independent and, most importantly, do it with joy. We knew that there were going to be challenges involved, but we felt very confident that we could overcome any obstacles. Initially, we focused on the small-business sector, doing voice and data installs, service and consulting. Then we gradually started to move up into the residential market, where we saw bigger opportunities.

Q.What were the challenges when first starting the company, and how did you overcome them?

A.Finding the customers and selecting the right products to fit the customer’s needs were our initial challenges. However, our biggest challenge started in 2005, when we put all our energy into expansion and diversification of the business model. We saw the continued growing demand on the residential sector and more complex opportunities on the commercial side. To take on those opportunities, we had to get more training and also strengthen our marketing efforts. There are business opportunities everywhere, but finding and capturing them is the challenge. We also realized the fact that the market is getting more competitive, and we have to be the best out there or we will not survive. In other words, we needed to spend more time on training, certifications and, most importantly, on our marketing efforts.

Q.How did you originally go about generating new customers? What type of customers were they, and what were success and failure points marketing to them?

A.Initially, we did not have any roadmap, only ideas. Our customers mainly came from word of mouth, and they were small-business owners and homeowners with simple needs. This worked for some time, but it was hard to get a continuous flow of business. We were small in size, but we could no longer be small for the types of projects we were getting. Our average project went from being $3,000 to $30,000.

A new and better image had to be created, and more marketing resources were necessary to achieve goals. When initially approaching builders or architects, we did not have proper marketing information. Also, the marketing for homeowners was not detailed and did not clearly communicating our message. Now, we are much more confident, as we have developed the presentation and marketing tools that can help us better communicate our message across the board.

Q.How do you allocate resources to effectively balance running a business? How do you go about planning and executing? Do certain individuals manage only specific areas of the company, or is everything a shared responsibility?

A.Being a small company, there are advantages and disadvantages. An advantage is that everyone is in synch on everything. A disadvantage is that you can only do so much with the given resources, financial or human. As you grow, things start changing, but they don’t get easier. We share most of the responsibilities, but one of us is always in charge of something. We also use a systematic approach to each and every issue. I handle most of the operations, finance and marketing part while someone else handles most of the product development, design, implementation and integration issues. And another person works on the installation side and quality control. At the end of the day, we know exactly where we are at.

Q.What marketing strategies to date have been most effective, and how did you measure your return on investment?

A.Word of mouth has and still is the best advertising method for us, but it is not enough to foresee future growth. We also did a local home remodeling show last year, which played a key role in focusing our marketing efforts accurately. It helped us interact with more homeowners and learn what they like and dislike. It also helped us learn that there are still large percentages of builders, contractors and designers who are not familiar with how to fit technology into the equation for the homeowner.

On another note, as techs, we tend to have our own beliefs about what’s cool home technology . This is not the case with homeowners, builders and architects. So we learned how to think like a homeowner, builder or architect. This is important, as it helps us develop better marketing materials and selling approaches. But to do this, we had to find a company that understood our needs and could accomplish them effectively, since we did not have a dedicated, full-time marketing person.

In regard to measuring the return on investment, it is very difficult, as some approaches take time to mature. The key is to have good documentation and tracking. And if one thing does not work, make sure to do a full analysis to find out why. A lot of our competitors might be looking to tighten their budgets and resources as the housing markets slow down. We take the opposite approach by looking into expending and diversifying ourselves. We also have added our own showroom and test site.

Q.How do you effectively manage day-to-day administrative operations while juggling customers?

A.This is the hardest part of my job. Prior to starting my own company, I worked for a larger distribution company and managed operations larger than our current model. What I have learned and exercised is that no matter how small or large, you have to have very strict discipline, policies, training and organizational control in the company. For this, we have spent great resources in ensuring we have all the necessary tools and procedures to run our company efficiently and profitably.

Q.What associations has ForTech joined? What technical credentials has the company earned?

A.We belong to CEDIA and CEA TechHome associations. Joining those not only helped us to gain more marketability and credibility, but also to become more knowledgeable and educated about our customers’ needs. We also recently added more certifications, including THX and ISF.

With the downturned housing market, it is obvious that things are going to get harder for companies in our business. More weeding is going to occur, and those who are the best and have better credentials and training will survive the battle.

Plan the work, work the plan, and no matter what you do, make sure that your customer knows that they are the No. 1 item on your list.

This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Security Today.

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