By Andrew Starks
Tightrope Media Systems cofounder
The explosive growth of the digital signage market has been well documented. A great indication is the large number of manufacturers that are in the game: 3M, Cisco, Panasonic, ViewSonic, Samsung, NEC, etc. All told, there are well over 500 companies that claim to make digital signage solutions.
Then why is it that when we visit a new AV integrator prospect and ask them to sell our products, we find such resistance? The projects are there and the technology is well within the grasp of your typical installer. There seems to be no reason why digital signage isn’t lighting the AV industry on fire.
In truth, we’ve had great success with the dealers that we do have. My first job was working as a support technician at a dealership in my back yard. I later became a sales person for another dealer and when I started my company, selling through this channel seemed natural.
It turns out, I was right! For the last four years our revenue has grown by 50 percent or more, last year hitting 64 percent growth, with positive cash flow in each one of those years and now we are entering 2009 with no debt. This is thanks to our 250 dealers, 95 percent of which are AV integrators.
In my 13 years of experience running a DS company, I believe that there are nine keys to selling DS successfully in the AV market. At the risk of showing all of my cards, I’ll share them with you here:
1: Find a company that you can make money with. We find that the dealer has to be able to win the bid with the digital signage solution. They cannot win if it comes down to price and they are competing with dealers that did not have to do any of the engineering work.
One solution to this challenge is to have an extremely aggressive bid registration program that gives the registered dealer a significant advantage over a competing bid. We even go so far as to cut the registered dealer a check for the difference if our product goes in, but through a dealer that didn’t register. This gives the sales staff confidence that they can lead with the product and thus we have their mindshare. Taking on a new system is hard work and nothing discourages this effort more than getting cut off at the knees by another dealer or, worse, the digital signage manufacturer.
2: Do not work with a company that swims in the pond that they fish in. If a digital signage company is going to sell directly to end users, they should not expect to be successful with the AV industry. What many manufacturers fail to understand is that a dealer doesn’t really make any money off of individual projects “here and there.” They make their money when momentum is built off of previous projects. When a sales person has happy customers to reference and older proposals to copy, subsequent sales get cheaper and easier to close.
If a sales person closes a job and that client refers another potential customer to the manufacturer, which then sells the product directly, they have just destroyed any chance of succeeding with that dealer.
Do not work with a digital signage manufacturer who also sells their product directly to end users. It is harsh, but sage advice.
3: Pick a solution with an understandable price list. Many systems are modularized to the Nth degree, just to capture every nickel. When a sales person doesn’t feel confident about how to configure the system, they don’t bring it up in casual conversations, for fear of getting stumped. They don’t see every visit to their customer as a potential DS sale. “How’s your AMX system doing? By the way, have you thought about digital signage?”
By keeping the configuration options simple, sales people can talk about everything that the product does and quote it without screwing it up. They look like heroes. Too many digital signage systems are impossible to quote. Find one that makes it easy.
4: Independent reps are your friends. They have been a big key to our success because they are able to go into an AV integrator with the mount, UTP transmission equipment, monitor and our system. They effectively hand our AV integrators a working solution. What’s more, they are able to manage the territory, prevent oversaturation of dealers, assist in demonstrations, etc. For a product like digital signage, good independent reps have been critical.
This point is not so much a key to your success, except to say that if the company that you are working with uses independent reps, embrace them and the job that they do. They are there to help you win business.
5: Pick a company where dealer training is a priority. As an example, we give away free, high quality training to our dealers every month. We promote that training relentlessly through email blasts and through our independent reps.
For us, a trained dealer is a committed dealer. For you, a trained installation staff means installation revenue and satisfied customers. A trained sales staff means accurate quotes and closed sales.
If your digital signage manufacturer is doing all of the training and install work for you, you are giving money away and you are losing momentum because the relationship is now with the digital signage manufacturer and not with you. Where are they going to go for upgrades and expansion?
6: Get a demonstration unit and use it in your office. We believe in this point so strongly that we sell our demonstration kit at below our hardware costs. It includes every option available, a carrying case, every adapter a salesperson might need and multiple channels of industry specific demonstration content. Just to get management to buy it, we let them turn it in 6 months. Getting a demo unit will increase your success tremendously because your support and sales staff can play with it and your customer can see it. If you’re not buying a demonstration unit, you’re not serious about digital signage and you will not succeed.
Also, get demo equipment into your own lobby. Your staff will use it as a part of their job and hopefully like the product and it’s a great story to tell the customer. We go so far as to design content specifically for our dealer’s lobby, for free.
7: Offer creative services or pick a digital signage company that offers it. Our success picked up dramatically when we started our creative design department. They can set up a system with unique content or low-cost, pre-made customizable content that is designed for specific industries. The AV dealers resell these creative services and when the system goes on line, they look like a hero because the customer is not left wondering how they are going to make the display look good. It looks great as soon as they turn the key.
Some dealers will go so far as to hire an artist to do creative content development. If you feel confident that you can keep that person busy, perhaps by having them develop your marketing materials as well, it is a great source of revenue.
8: Support must be free. A long-time adviser to my company told me, “If you have a support problem, you really have a development problem.” Work with companies that give their support away.
As a matter of principle, we keep our support free. Any dealer can call us with support questions and so can their customers. We have an online forum, live chat rooms, free training videos and staff blogs filled with how-to tips and tricks.
Without free support, too often you will be forced into situations that your staff is not prepared for. Then the salesperson gets a call, which means they loose confidence and thus momentum. Also, asking a customer for a credit card to answer a support question destroys good will. Going above and beyond creates fans of your customers and references for your next sale.
9: Finally, it goes without saying, but find a great product that your customers will want. Pick a company that is good at ignoring the noise of opportunities where their product almost fits, but not quite. Steve Jobs, who has been a little successful in his run at Apple, said, “I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.”
Not every solution fits every customer and trying to sell retail signage products designed for multi-national store deployments is not going to work in the AV world. This channel is about public information signage and some limited retail. Products that are focused on that market, and that are stable and priced well, have great potential for your AV dealership.
Want to help educate AV-Integrators on the DS market too? Well, write the story. Tell us what you’re doing that’s working and if it’s something that will help the AV market eventually dominate the DS market, we will write it up! Send your story ideas to email@example.com.