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Breakfast Meetings Serve up Useful Management Tips

CE pros hold roundtable discussions in Minnesota to share trade secrets.

A small group of CE pros meet regularly in Minnesota to discuss business ideas, developments and trends.
Julie Jacobson · March 25, 2009

A small group of home systems integrators, manufacturers, distributors and reps in the Twin Cities meet about once a month to discuss business.

Ten A/V executives met this winter for a breakfast meeting. While they weren’t all together jolly, they were all hanging in there.

One dealer says sales are flat, but the pipeline is the best he has ever had. Another dealer says his company is actually up 20 percent this year over last, serving customers its had “for years and years.”

Yet another roundtable member says that, in 2009, he’s in “the TV business, not the systems business.” Across juice and bagels, a third dealer says his “floor traffic is up, but margins have never been hit so hard.”

David Ault of Oakdale, Minn.-based Audio Video Planners (AVP) had a lot to talk about. Here are a few initiatives that have helped his integration company weather the recession.

Commercial/Digital Signage

Ault says AVP’s residential A/V business is down a little bit, but business overall is up. For that, he gives special thanks to the company’s commercial business.

Working with Sony, AVP has snagged several digital signage jobs that come with recurring revenue. AVP creates and manages the content in-house.

Outside Consultants

Now is not the time to skimp on professional help, Ault says.

AVP recently hired outside consultants to evaluate the company’s business. The team spent one week at AVP’s store, checking over paperwork and evaluating processes. Ault says the $20,000 spent on the consultants was a good investment. “They gave me deliverables,” he says.

The key take-away for AVP was the affirmation that “bigger is not necessarily better,” Ault says. He says the consultants told AVP to slow its business and concentrate on profit. “We are going to be more selective on the jobs we do take,” he says.

The consultants also taught AVP a thing or two about job costing — especially “how to implement minimum acceptable profits, figuring out the overhead on each job,” Ault says.

“They figured out we were missing a couple of points on each job and said, ‘Do you really think a customer won’t do business with you over a couple thousand dollars?’”

Competing with the Internet

Ault told his breakfast companions he is getting sick and tired of prospects price shopping every line item on an AVP proposal. Finally, he says, he called one customer to task. As the customer listened in, Ault called all four online retailers about the CE products that presumably were “so much cheaper” than those being offered by AVP.

Factoring in the cost and inconvenience of firmware upgrades, delivery, repairs and returns, the client learned through that conference call that AVP’s offering was a pretty good deal after all.

Ault chronicled the conversations of that insightful conference call he had with competing online vendors. Now, as a last resort, he will show the transcript to other wary would-be customers (read entire transcript).

Line Items for Everything

AVP has created line items in D-Tools for every possible residential contingency — for each existing product that a client brings to the party and for services such as Internet and cable TV.

A few examples of line item charges:

Apple TV — For this, Ault says he charges “a flat fee of about $250.” He adds, “That would be for creating an iTunes account, pulling some of their media and burning a couple of disks to show them how.”

Firmware Upgrades — $90 for these — say, for a Sony Blu-ray player.

Comcast Service — Adding this is a $200 line item. To justify that charge, Ault explains to the client that AVP will coordinate Comcast service (what consumer wants to deal with that?) and communicate with Comcast in the event of problems. AVP gets added to the client’s Comcast account so that the integrator can make changes on the client’s behalf.

All of these services, and others, are fully spelled out on each invoice.

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  About the Author

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson Email Julie at

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