Case Study: Leaving An Impression

Jim Miller, president and owner of Desert Sound and Security, Scottsdale, Ariz., knows that all too well. Some clients can be a royal pain--breaking appointments, changing "final" designs, requesting the moon. But when difficult clients pay well, buy full solutions that require a boatload of value-added services and provide the chance to explore new solutions, they are well worth the hassle.

"It always takes a lot of time when you work with 'challenging' customers," says Miller, who has built Desert Sound and Security into a roughly $4 million company. The company's success has been based not only on a red-hot housing market but also on patience, enthusiasm and a willingness to explore new technologies. "You just have to be flexible."

Flexibility, a key to Miller's success since starting his company 15 years ago, played an essential role in his latest and most exciting project: a $750,000 whole-home control and automation solution for a home in Scottsdale. Miller has installed plenty of full control/ automation solutions, but this one had a few interesting twists: the owner, a wealthy executive with a fascination for technology, wanted biometric security and VoIP systems, two solutions Miller had no experience with.

During one of their first meetings (one of the few that the client didn't cancel), the homeowner, an executive who didn't want to be identified because of security concerns, took Miller out to see his top-of-the-line, fully customized Mercedes. One of the car's tricked-out features was a keyless security system. As the guy pulled out of the driveway, he stuck his head out the window and said, "By the way, I don't need a key to start my car, so there's no reason I should need one to unlock my house. Can you do it?" Miller offered his usual answer: "I can figure it out."

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"I can't really remember a request from a client we couldn't deliver," he says. "There's a pretty basic process we go through to tackle new technologies. I believe if you can read, you can figure it out."

For any new solution, Miller starts off by doing as much research as possible. He chooses the products based on reliability, ease of use, aesthetics and the types of value-added services he can provide once the gear is installed. He boils his choices down to two or three products, tests them in his shop, brings the clients in and has them pick the one they're most comfortable with. "One of biggest things is to let the client make the decision," Miller says, adding that the personal choice leads to high customer satisfaction.

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'Right now I don't know any other company in Arizona that's doing what we're able to do.'

--Jim Miller, Desert Sound and Security

In this case, Miller went with four of IdTeck's FGR006 fingerprint readers. He included a Dell PC in the package, which gives him the ability to program the readers for additional users when needed, a service he'll charge for. He then tied the readers into the home's AMX control system. Miller can program the system for specific notifications, such as an open door or window, and actions, such as automatically turning on a pathway of lights from the foyer to the kitchen after the front door opens. Miller remotely maintains and controls the whole-home systems he installs through AMX's NetLink programming system.

Remote services, Miller says, help him stay close to the customer and generate recurring service revenue. But, for maintaining customer satisfaction, there are some things that technology can't replace. "He always answers his phone," says Sonja Breslow, one of Desert Sound and Security's best customers, when asked about Miller's strengths. "When I have a question, he's there for me. That's a big deal." It must be, considering Miller has installed full AMX systems in Breslow's homes in Arizona, Nevada and Montana. "He installs the same system in all my houses to make it easy," she says. "Why should I have to learn something new every single time?"

Miller has so much confidence in the new biometrics solutions that he will add them to the company's list of regular offerings. In fact, a customer recently approached him to install an iris recognition system. "Biometrics is very unique in the residential market," Miller says. "Lots of our clients are retiring CEOs of huge companies and they need security. Keypads are becoming obsolete; people don't want to have to remember all the codes. They want new technologies."

Before he tackled biometrics, Miller at least had some familiarity with security systems. VoIP was another story, something he only heard about on a Vonage commercial. After going through his usual process, Miller chose Cisco's 7900 line IP-based phone. The full solution, including a color-screen desktop phone and handheld phones, will run about $7,000 less than others he tested. The problem is that Miller has to wait to be approved for Cisco's partner program. To get around that hurdle, he hired a local consultant with deep knowledge of the line and access to demo products to help him out. "My feeling is if we can't do it, we'll find someone who is qualified to do it," Miller says.

Once he receives Cisco authorization, Miller will add VoIP to his regular offerings. "I think everything we're doing will eventually switch from standard PBX to IP-based," Miller says. "My clients have no problem paying $5,000 for a touch panel but they hate to pay phone bills. There are so many advantages with VoIP. There will be a huge market for it."

Desert Sound and Security currently employs 10 field engineers and installers and two office administrators. Miller is looking to hire additional engineers and installers to help him target more sub-$200,000 jobs (his average job is about $180,000). Those tend to yield greater profits than larger jobs, which have long work cycles and put a strain on the company's internal resources and cash flow. "The problem is it's so difficult to hire qualified installers," he laments. "We could do a lot more business if we had more people."

Not that Miller complains about the large jobs that introduce him to new technologies and incremental business, and eventually lead to higher profits. "Those jobs are worth it because they give us new challenges," he says. "Right now I don't know any other company in Arizona that's doing what we're able to do."