Sometimes, a simple off-hand statement can become the genesis of a great idea. That moment of inspiration for Jim Bras and Jason Voorhees, principals at Cantara in Costa Mesa, Calif., came several years ago during a brief conversation with a client whose system needed service one evening.
The customer observed: “You guys are great … you take care of my house whenever there is a problem, but ‘we are home when you go home [from work]’ — I need you to be available when I am home.”
Bras recalls, “That statement made a lot of sense to us. So we started digging into how we could change our client services department so it could serve our customers when they are home — when they need it most.”
From that conversation, Cantara developed a structured 24/7/365 client services division. The results have truly been game-changing in several ways for both the company and its clients:
- It elevated the luxury customer-service experience that Cantara’s clients already received to a higher level.
- It improved internal efficiency for servicing customers by creating established procedures for handling service requests.
- It introduced Cantara to the benefits of recurring monthly revenue (RMR).
- It boosted the company culture among Cantara’s staff by allowing them enjoy their family life away from the job because they know customers are being taken care of well via the service division.
But aftercare service is just one reason Cantara is a well-oiled machine for other integrators to emulate. The company has a luxury-based business model revolving around a single, simple business principle for every action its staff takes: How will this benefit the client?
That pinpoint focus has resulted in high customer satisfaction and a company culture that makes it a magnet for finding and retaining employees who can enjoy their family life without business disruption.
Making Technology ‘Sing’
Voorhees, president, and Bras, vice president, started Cantara in March 2007 based on the principle of serving clients better.
Both men previously worked in the industry and noticed that large-project integrators were routinely more focused on satisfying trade partners like builders, architects and interior designers versus satisfying the end user. Like many custom integration company partnerships, each man brought a certain skillset — Voorhees is passionate about customer service, while Bras is an expert at establishing and refining internal business processes.
“In many cases, integrators get caught up in the technology and the realities of having to get more business, so they lose sight of the whole reason they are in this industry — to make peoples' lives better. When you lose sight of that, clients are unhappy and they regret making the investment. That's tragic. No one's having fun,” says Voorhees.
So Voorhees and Bras started and continue to run Cantara with a single, over-arching vision: to improve their clients’ lives.
“Everything you do needs to pass or fail a test on whether or not it is actually going to make the client's life better or is it going to make it worse,” says Voorhees.
From the very first meeting with a prospective customer to discuss equipment and budget, the Cantara team thinks that way. “When the philosophy is all about making someone's life better or worse, it becomes really easy to recognize if you are cutting corners and what effect that is going to have on the ownership experience. That guiding principle trickles down through your whole business process.”
The Cantara name itself encapsulates that philosophy.
“It’s not about the black boxes, it's about the human experience. We naturally want to be together at the end of a day and sit around a fire, gather for a meal, tell stories, sing songs, and enjoy sharing life together. We came across a Latin word canto, which means to sing or chant, and it's in every language. So we found a version of canto that we liked, which is Portuguese, cantara. It means ‘to sing,’” says Voorhees.
Thus, Cantara’s tagline is “Engineered to Sing.”
“We are taking the philosophy that everything we do — engineering, branding, marketing, sales, installation, client services aftercare — is all about delivering this lifestyle experience where the technology is improving the experience of gathering around the fire and having dinner. It's singing. Your home is perfect,” adds Voorhees.
Finding, Training, Retaining Top Talent
Cantara’s end-user-first mantra not only guides the entire staff away from the idea that they just “build audio and video systems,” but helps Bras and Voorhees find and hire the best employees.
Bras says the attitude to achieve at the highest level is pervasive from top to bottom in the company. “It's important to us that the team just believes it when they come in,” he says.
Voorhees believes many custom integration companies fall in love with the technology, and subsequently hire staff members who also love “the black boxes.”
“After a while, it's inevitable that you fall out of love with the black boxes. If you're hiring people based on their love for the black boxes, they're also going to fall out of love with the technology,” says Voorhees. “Soon, your business is not really fulfilling for your staff anymore. And then what do you have?”
To that end, Cantara has solved the employee riddle by looking for people with similar beliefs and a strong drive to help others to make their lives better. That passion also makes Cantara invest heavily in training.
“The people that we're the proudest of are the ones that are truly on fire,” notes Voorhees. Bras points out that the company has several employees who have been with Cantara almost since it first opened its doors.
“If you concentrate only on system design, there's always a critique about how to design it differently or make it better. That attitude ultimately creates an us-versus-them mentality where your technicians are fighting against the client instead of working with them,” Bras explains. “Our philosophy is to be on the same side of the table with the client to create a great experience.”
From the moment a new employee steps in the door at Cantara, the customer-service training begins. About one-third of the company’s employee handbook is dedicated to “soft skill” policies, such as vaping, etiquette and dress code.
Among the policies are:
- All technicians look similar and must wear clean clothes without holes. The field staff wears black Cantara polo shirts, khakis or jeans, and shoes that aren't wild colors.
- Do not park in the driveway when possible, so the trucks never block the customer in and won’t make a mess on the driveway.
- No smoking in or around a jobsite. Smoking is not completely prohibited but just not allowed around the jobsite or a finished home.
- Always wear booties as soon as the house has finished surfaces.
- Do not lean on any finished surfaces, walls or furniture.
- Always put tarps down underneath your tools and work area.
- Programmers cannot set down their laptops on surfaces that can scratch easily.
- Programmers carry their own folding chairs, bucking a commonly held criticism of A/V programmers sitting on the client’s couch programming devices for a month.
- Do not wear cologne or strong scents that could overwhelm the client.
- There are even guidelines for using the bathroom at a finished jobsite.
“We're constantly telling the employees why this is important and how this fulfills the Cantara culture,” says Bras. In reference to being inside a customer’s home, Cantara has a guiding principle written in big letters on the top of its etiquette policy: “Nothing of yours touches anything of theirs.”
“If there is an area rug in the middle of a hallway, we don't walk on it. Instead, we walk on the stone perimeter because that rug could be 200 years old and cost a quarter-million dollars,” remarks Bras.
Bras says, “From Day One our employees start connecting the dots in their mind about what our culture expects, and what our beliefs are, about behaving and interacting with clients. It is important that we act and look respectful to our clients when we're in their personal living space. Our policies are aimed at almost being a ‘ghost’ inside the house.”
Orchestrated Office Tour
The client experience extends to Cantara’s office, which is a beautiful modern, open-floorplan space with concrete floors and nice furniture.
It looks like an architect's office would. The facility has a working Savant system, 10 zones of audio, a Sonance landscape system in the front garden, and a couple of meeting rooms with flat-panel video.
Voorhees calls some integrators’ showrooms “poorly done homes” and did not want to emulate that lackluster experience.
“We believed it was never going to be possible to maintain a demo system at the same level as one of our client's homes, so we felt that investment would be better put in the team and into an office that was an inspiring place to work. We have that now,” he says. “When a client comes here, we give them a carefully orchestrated experience.”
Cantara’s office coordinator acts as the emcee of the tour but even before the tour occurs, Cantara’s sales team finds out what the music tastes are for the customer and a Pandora streaming station is created based on that information. That music is playing at the office when the customer arrives.
“Since we have a landscape system in the front garden, it is subconsciously cool that before they even enter the building they are hearing music they already like,” says Voorhees.
Clients pass through a well-manicured garden to enter the facility, then they are met by “a really warm, intelligent woman” that greets them by their name, offers them an espresso, cappuccino, sparkling water or other refreshment.
The office is arranged in a “loop” and clients are led through a “really intimate, comfortable tour,” notes Voorhees.
Throughout the office there are canvas posters of great projects installed by the company over the years, which are described to the customer. As the tour passes by the desks of Cantara personnel, each person’s role in the company is explained.
At the conclusion of the loop, which typically takes between 10 and 15 minutes, a sit-down meeting commences.
“We try to start every meeting with the first question by asking the client what their objectives are, so we know exactly what we need to be talking about rather than launching into a canned presentation that may or may not capture the attention of the client,” says Voorhees.
That first meeting could take an hour and has even taken four hours in one instance. Lunch is brought in for mid-day meetings and wine for evening meetings. Any opportunity to build a foundation of trust and intimacy with the customer is important. One of the meeting spaces is a lounge with sofas, a coffee table and a bar stocked with liquor.
“You're depositing trust that inevitably you're going to need through the lifecycle of a three-year construction project,” says Voorhees.
About 70 percent of clients come in to the office at least one time during the lifespan of a project. Voorhees thinks it’s important for customers to meet the team.
“Our story is unique; our team is unique. We want the client to see that. Ideally, we want the client to mentally take us out of the ‘trade’ bucket and put us into the ‘design team’ bucket. Once we're in a higher-class bucket that represents being a channel partner, the relationship changes to be much more collaborative,” adds Voorhees.
Photo Gallery: Meet the Cantara Team
So what’s missing from the tour? A physical demo of equipment. According to Voorhees, he only demos the equipment if it is necessary, and usually just the interface versus a full-blown home theater.
For example, he will run the customer through a Savant user interface if they appear apprehensive about how to use a control system. Sometimes, clients have a pre-conceived negative impression of home automation based on a poor previous experience.
“Ultimately, we don't believe that having a theater demo is really what we need to do to build that foundation of trust,” he opines.
To generate proposals, Cantara uses Slateplan software, which allows them to build the equipment and budget simultaneously in front of the customer overlaid on a floorplan of the home.
“We really think that Slateplan is something special. It was one of the missing pieces of the puzzle in building that foundation of trust with the client. It is absurd that a client would meet with an A/V company, talk about their hopes and dreams for their home, and it's now up to the A/V integrator to try to play darts while wearing a blindfold in terms of the budget,” says Voorhees. “You can build great trust in that first meeting, but may be completely out of their budget range when you start delivering proposals. It may freak them out or make them think you are not listening to them.”
24/7/365 Service Department
The development of Cantara’s comprehensive service division has been a work in progress for three years.
“Over the last three years, we've developed a full client services division inside our company,” says Bras. “The industry is heading to a service-type business model. It’s really important. We call it ‘aftercare’ because it reflects that eventually when the project is completed you need to continue to take care of the client, whether it is some tweaks during the warranty time period or upgrades or adding new personal devices or services.”
About 20 percent of employees in the company solely work in the aftercare service division, including dedicated technicians, a dedicated manager and a concierge who handles calls during business hours in a normal fashion. But, it goes way beyond just that.
Starting in June 2016, Cantara began offering 24/7 telephone and email support for all its clients using Boston-based OneVision Resources. “We want our clients to be able to call or email us and get a response. Right now our response time for getting back to those requests is 30 minutes, 24 hours a day,” says Bras.
Voorhees says Cantara’s clients are having a good experience with the new 24/7 service, and he admits he was nervous at first to trust a third-party support service.
“We were very nervous in the beginning that people on the other side of the country wouldn’t know enough about the specific systems we installed to be able to provide valuable support. And we were worried that the client would reject the service totally if they figured out this was a third party,” says Voorhees.
But the results have been very positive. Voohees says Cantara’s clients are “very appreciative” they can rely on 24/7 support.
“It's given them far higher confidence in their system and their ability to do things because they have that safety net,” he says. “I think that is a fantastic addition to the ownership experience. It's been really positive.”
Since instituting its service division three years ago, the company has been supporting its customers on a business-hours basis and then after-hours as employees were available. But Bras recognized that even with dedicated employees, it wasn’t quite enough.
“We were going to have to take care of things when the clients were actually home,” he notes. But that can put a strain on your employees, who are already working 40 hours per week with overtime and on-call time.
Using OneVision, Cantara has eliminated the need to have members of its staff directly on call. Now, the company is able to designate just one person per week who is on call for emergencies that crop up after the OneVision triage process.
Voorhees adds, “One of the things that working with OneVision has done is it's forced us to actually put together a written policy for how we're handling service calls after-hours. Before, it was whoever was available.”
That meant it was not unusual for clients to call, text and email multiple people on the Cantara staff until they received a response.
“We realized that's not the experience Cantara wants for its clients. That sucks. That's really what put all of this in motion,” says Voorhees. On the employee side, the entire staff was, in essence, on call.
“That's not a fun way to live your life. It's the reality for a business owner, but it shouldn't be the reality for your best employees,” comments Voorhees.
With the change, Cantara’s staff can now enjoy an evening with their family knowing that their customers are being well taken care of. Now that the OneVision 24/7/365 service is working so well, Cantara is starting to sell service plans, which is something it has never done before.
Cantara is offering two tiers of the OneVision service plans: the Priority Plan for $150/month, and the Proactive Plan for $300/month. (Learn more about OneVision's service plans.)
“Our personal vision is that we have a 100 percent subscription rate. We need that to be successful. We need that so that our team operates a certain way. Our team is not going to be sustainable if we have five different service models. It's a nightmare,” says Voorhees.
Cantara’s luxury business model means it only does about 12 to 15 projects per year, some of which are seven-figure jobs. The company’s average project is $250,000. The company plans to go back to its clientele and market the service plans, and educate them on the high level of support service associated with them.
According to Bras, the remote service capabilities are so comprehensive today that it is rare for Cantara to roll a service truck after-hours or on weekends anymore.
Cantara put the system to the test before diving in. Using a project that was completed but unoccupied, Cantara technicians called the service line and even unplugged equipment to see how long it would take before OneVision would react.
“They continued to impress. We've been really happy,” says Voorhees. “We wanted a seamless transition between the OneVision team and our internal service team. In fact, we don't hide the fact that we're using OneVision from our clients, but we also don’t advertise it.”