Know Your Customer: Selling To All Members Of The Family

That's because women historically orchestrate the vast majority of household purchases, and they don't want to play second fiddle to their male counterparts when it comes to buying digital home technology. Women are actively involved in selecting and buying these pricey home accoutrements, and even though their talks with integrators tend to be less technical and their wish list more practical, their input is invaluable when closing the deal, according to both anecdotal evidence from digital home integrators and ongoing research. So, digital integrators would do well to think about both sexes when selling digital home solutions, recognizing and embracing their very different buying habits—and perhaps doubling their chances of closing the deal along the way.

"For about 80 percent of our residential market business, the person who actually calls us is the woman. Most of them who call, it's a family situation. She has the responsibility to get it done," says Camille Hamilton, the Houston franchisee for Computer Moms, a subsidiary of CM IT Solutions in Austin, Texas.

Computer Moms was started with the intent of training residential owners how to use technology more wisely and has since extended its purview into small businesses (for more, see sidebar on page 31). For the past year or so, Computers Moms owners have increasingly been finding themselves in the business of specifying home technology purchases, notably wireless networking equipment, and the franchise organization is evaluating vendor alliances that will provide franchisees with preferred solutions to suggest to their customers. Computer Moms franchisees say that more often than not, their initial contact—usually a request for training or troubleshooting help—comes from a woman, although it's clear that she also has the interests of her family at heart.

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'We know that the man has to go home and introduce the idea and get permission. The lady of the house can a make a decision. ...'

--Tom Price,

"More women call than men, because as a sex we tend to ask for help quicker," says Shirley Peterson, a Computer Moms franchise owner in Fort Worth, Texas. "I tell them, 'There isn't a question you will ask that I haven't asked myself.' "

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Basic consumer research shows that women historically control up to 80 percent of major household purchases, says Tim Woods, vice president of ecosystem development for the Internet Home Alliance, an industry organization based in Monterey, Calif. But digital home integrators have overlooked those ground rules in the past, emphasizing gadgetry over practicality. "Women have a very low tolerance level for poorly executed technologies and interfaces," he says. Trouble is, many technology companies typically have engineered their products from a male point of view, Woods says.

Certainly there's a good research case for that design approach. The Internet Home Alliance annually tracks demographic trends related to home networking along with consulting firm Zanthus, Portland, Ore. An exclusive cut of the data gathered last year among 1,900 home technology users along gender lines is revealing. While roughly equal numbers of men and women (about one-third) found the concept of having a connected home "very appealing," men were much more likely to own a home network. And 60 percent of men said they were likely to try installing a home network themselves, compared with 38 percent of women.

It isn't surprising, then, that integrators say men are often behind the scenes pushing the digital home idea.

Luis Rodrigues, president of American CompuSystems, which attributes about 25 percent of its annual revenue to equipment sales into the home, says in his company's Clearwater, Fla., environs, men appear to be driving the discussion. One clear indicator for Rodrigues was the lack of response American CompuSystems received to a promotional mailer it sent to residential neighborhoods as part of a free ValPak coupon packet. A similar mailing of ValPak's business-to-business edition, on the other hand, was extremely effective. Although Rodrigues admits it's hard to track the gender of those who actually opened those mailers, the responses to the business-to-business mailing were predominantly from men. When it comes to the home consumer, American CompuSystems deals with young families with a mean income of $80,000; the median age of its average customer is 38. One challenge, Rodrigues says, is that many women are used to shopping at retail stores, where price dominates the sales conversation. "They're used to the superstore mentality rather than the person who will explain it to them in English. Somehow we have to educate them that a VAR offers a different proposition," Rodrigues says.

Computer Moms' Hamilton says when it comes to one of her best customers—a lucrative household that invests in almost every new gadget on the market—the husband has final sign-off on all purchases but leaves it up to the wife to do the research, and that's where her team steps in. The symbiotic nature of that buying process is why digital integrators say it's a grave mistake to ignore women.

"We know that the man has to go home and introduce the idea and get permission. The lady of the house can make a decision and walk out with the product," says Tom Price, owner of, an integrator in Topeka, Kan., that handles complex commercial and residential installations.

Those looking for a set of best practices in how to approach a man vs. a woman could find themselves frustrated. "We don't have a handbook on it; we go with our gut each time," says Dale Nagle, president of Alliance Computers, a digital integrator in Harrisburg, Pa. "I've found as much as anything else that gender makes the difference. Age [also] is a bigger factor."

But even Nagle admits there are several patterns emerging. As a rule of thumb, he says women respond more readily to "practical" pitches that offer real-world scenarios about how a particular technology can make their life simpler on a day-to-day basis. Another broad conclusion that digital home integrators are willing to draw is that women are more ergonomically inclined, looking to optimize space. Unless they're already redecorating, they're not thrilled with the idea of tearing apart their den or living room to accommodate a new piece of technology. "When it comes to products, men kind of like to see it, whereas women want it hidden and want things like infrared eyes," Price says.

Men, on the other hand, tend to be more impressed by the conceptual theory behind what a server or wireless network or remote control can do, integrators say. They'll respond better to speeds-and-feeds information, although they'll also be concerned with how easily the technology they're buying can be upgraded—and how likely the system is to become outdated. "With men, we tell them about hyperthreading and dual-channel memory," Nagle says. "With women, we use more concrete examples."

Jimmy Garces, president of Computer Information and Data Systems (CIDS) in Miami Beach, Fla., says although his home business is still primarily tied to computers, what his company has sold on the A/V side has been primarily sold to men. "That means toys, toys, toys," Garces says.

The lines blur a bit more with age. For one thing, if there is a child in the household, the chances integrators can sell a more powerful system into the equation are higher—but they may have less chance to steer the sale. "The computer for the child needs to be able to handle video games," Garces says. "The thing is that most kids that need a computer for gaming are usually well-informed and know exactly what they want."'s Price says his installers will often focus on the youngest person in the house when it comes to training family members on how to use a new surveillance solution or A/V system. "If we are going to be training someone on technology, we'll find the kid first, then we go to mom. We definitely have customers who bring their kids in with them, but the children might be 30 years old. They provide a comfort level."

As for older customers, digital integrators say these prospects are extremely concerned with issues such as ease of use and length of life. "They want it to last for a while," Nagle says. "Younger clients are more accustomed to upgrading."

When it comes to solutions tailored specifically for senior citizens, has found that women are intrigued by communications solutions that help them keep in touch with their families. Price's company has also had success with this demographic in selling video surveillance systems that let snowbirds keep tabs on their homes in Kansas when they travel south for the winter months. In most cases, it is the woman driving these types of security solutions, he says.

Computer Moms franchisees say senior citizens also are great candidates for ongoing at-home training, in part because they sometimes are recipients of troublesome hand-me-down equipment from their children. "A lot of times their children have bought them a computer or, worse yet, given them an old one," says Peterson, who counts among her repeat customers a 100-year-old man.

The fact is that integrators need to be on their toes regardless of sex, age or other demographics. Nagle relates a recent situation in which a 60-something woman came into his store with her husband. "I was ready to go into my low-tech spiel, and she knew as much as I did," he says. "With someone like that, if you're not on, they'll challenge you."

When it comes to buying, however, integrators are in accord: Women are quicker to seal the deal. What's more, even though men are more likely to set a deal in motion, they will often consult the woman of the house before buying.

"You need them together," Price says.

Ken Bosley, president of World Premiere Home Theater, Mechanicsburg, Pa., agrees. "We are located in central Pennsylvania and 95 percent of our clients are married couples who come in together and for the most part mutually agree on the decisions. The one thing I will add is that we have kind of perfected items and systems which are both 'high-performance' and 'aesthetically pleasing', and we zero in on these. The husband 'hears' what he wants and the wife 'sees' what she wants."

SIDEBAR: Computer Moms targets small businesses.