The year 2001 seems like an eternity ago, but that was the last time the Mark Levinson Dealer Academy was held … until last week.
For the first time in 15 years, the Harman Luxury Audio Americas group held a dedicated Mark Levinson Dealer Academy for key dealers from around the U.S. The event, which was held at the 5,500-square-foot Mark Levinson R&D facility in Shelton, Conn., was an intensive two-day schedule of technical and sales training.
“We outlined a vision one year ago that we were going to make Mark Levinson great again. Now we have done what we said we were going to do,” says Jim Garrett, director, marketing and product management, Loudspeakers and Luxury Audio.
“We created this new facility, we created the new 500 Series generation of products and we brought in John Collier [new director of sales for Harman’s Luxury Audio Americas Group], so now we are out re-creating the brand at the dealer level. Part of the reason for the deep-dive Mark Levinson Dealer Academy is because of the need to translate information to the dealers, so they can then inform their clients, why the products are priced the way they are and why the products are built the way they are.”
It’s not as though Harman hasn’t been doing training for the past decade and a half. Indeed, the company holds its Harman Dealer Academy three times per year in Northridge, Calif.
Those academies are an all-inclusive audio immersion covering all the Harman Luxury Audio Group brands — Revel, JBL Synthesis, Mark Levinson and Lexicon — held at its audio engineering facility that features anechoic chambers, a theater and a lab. But last week was a specific training just for the Mark Levinson brand.
Garrett notes, “We have a new team and we are bringing back on a lot of dealers, many of whom were integrators that left us. Back in the day we used to do Madrigal training. Many of them still have the plaques on their wall from those trainings, but over the years they dropped the line. Now we are out telling the story that we are back, but we never really went away.”
2 Days of Technical, Sales Training
The academy featured a day of deep technical demonstrations led by Todd Eichenbaum, director, engineering, Luxury Audio, and formerly with Krell for 20 years. The Connecticut R&D facility houses 12 staff including test engineers, several software engineers, hardware manager, analog engineer, project manager, software manager, mechanical engineer and more.
Eichenbaum took the 18 dealers at the training through the company’s Pure Path design philosophy aimed at simplifying the signal path. He also ran through the physical construction characteristics and the minute detail that goes into building the No. 585 amp’s DAC.
But the training is not just technical in nature. The group, which also got a chance to visit the Harman store in Manhattan, was also instructed in the best way to translate all the technical specifics into an easy-to-understand demo for their clients.
Collier, who is an industry veteran with years of experience at AudioQuest, Monster and Bose, says that when he joined Harman nine months ago, it was clear that dealers were offering the new Mark Levinson No. 585 integrated amp, but they were not necessarily demonstrating it to customers.
“From what I could tell, the Harman team did a great job selling that component, but that is where it stopped. Dealers were displaying the 585 in their showrooms amid a sea of competitive products. They did not seem to be actively pushing it. We now have our internal team going out to dealers to not only show them what these black boxes can really do, but physically hook it up and compare it to other brands,” he says.
That demo training is key, according to Garrett.
“The best way to translate technical information to the client is via the ‘lost art of the demo.’ The academy is not step-by-step demo training … that will be done by John’s sales team in the field. But it really is all about the lost art of the demo. The guys who came up through retail know how to do it, but there are a lot of guys now who have lost it or never had it, and they need to be trained. The customers do not understand or care about all the techno-mumbo-jumbo. You have to demonstrate it crystal clear to customers why they should pay high price points for equipment.”
A final element of the two-day academy was discussing the business models with dealers. Garrett adds, “We want to be partners with our dealers. We want to help them run their businesses better. We incorporate a lot of that into the academy training. The goal is to maximize the experience for the customer by giving him everything he wants, plus giving him things he didn’t even know were available. At the same time for the dealer the training teaches them how to not leave money on the table so they can keep their business successful.”
Even Skeptical Dealers React Positively
Paul Kraft of Engaged Audio Video in Lehigh Valley, Pa., found the training valuable.
“I look for ways to separate my company from the competition and one of the ways is that I try to offer high-performance products,” he says. Kraft runs the company out of his home where he has a full JBL Synthesis theater setup and a high-end two-channel room.
“I use the theater to introduce the high-end components to my customers. In my area, people are very unfamiliar with Mark Levinson. [My customers] really do not have a ‘need’ for equipment like this, so my first step is to showcase what the components can do,” he says.
A degreed electrical engineer, Kraft approaches ever piece of equipment he uses from the same standpoint, asking how is it built and trying to determine what ‘excites’ him about the product line. His goal is the transfer his excitement to his clients.
“I translate that excitement to my clients by using simple language to describe the equipment. For example, instead of talking about R2R step ladder resistors that are in most electronic components in which the rotary volume controls are very inexpensively made, I will tell them how Mark Levinson uses individual resistors that we can turn and automatically control to have the signal go through, and how that is a very expensive feature to build into the component and it is the most high-performance method to achieve to get the audio signal out,” says Kraft.
Kraft says Mark Levinson and Harman are the top-tier products he sells, and he uses them to engage in a dialog with his clients about why one product might cost so much more than another one. In the end, having profitable equipment is critical to his business, he says.
“When I look at my books, 80 percent of my revenue comes from cost of goods and it generates my profit. Those products are what separate me from my competitors,” concludes Kraft.
Brad Waite and John Schuermann of The Screening Room in Colorado Springs, Colo., came to the academy as bonafide skeptics, but they were won over. The duo deals in the high end, working with audiophile customers often, and use Revel and JBL Synthesis more often than Mark Levinson.
“We are audio and video skeptics. We are quite suspicious of the high end,” says Schuermann. “We think there is a lot of snake oil in the high end. So we want to find out what makes an audio component worth $20,000; we want to know the science behind it. So it has been eye-opening for us here at this Mark Levinson event. There is clearly real solid engineering taking place here.”
Waite agrees, “Our skepticism generally wants to tell us that electronics are neutral. Yes, there are differences in build quality, but what are the sonic differences? We want to be able to identify those.”
Schuermann says he came to the training with an open mind, saying “convince us” that components can make a difference sonically.
“Mark Levinson has done a pretty good job of showing us that,” he says. “The way the Mark Levinson equipment is built so absolutely beautifully, it evokes a pure pride of ownership.”