Always be prepared

Should you be offering a maintenance contract to your clients? If so, what do you need to include? Amy Wallington investigates project aftercare and support.

Aside from product warranties and guarantees, there’s nothing to say that integrators have to offer support or any kind of aftercare on anything they have installed into a home. However, those that do are realising the benefits. 

There are many factors to consider when building a support package – should you offer a tailored deal to the specific customer? Should you offer it on every job regardless of the size? Can you offer a tiered solution? How much should you charge? 

There can also be consequences to not offering some sort of aftercare support as some potential clients might not want to work with you if they know you do not offer this service. Other clients do not want to be tied into a support package and would rather just call you out when they need something. 

For integrators that do offer some sort of aftercare package, the benefits are clear. “First and foremost, the customer’s system and user experience is in the best condition with maintenance and system updates,” says Jani Hirvonen, CEO and founder of Digisähkö Oy, a Finnish systems integrator. “Secondly, the customer remembers us and there is always good possibility for extra sales and even recommendations.”

Hirvonen’s suggestions will certainly ring true for other integrators. In this sort of industry, it is important to build relationships with clients and by being on call, you are building their trust. It also means you are almost guaranteed to be chosen to install any additions or upgrades to their system and, if they have another project or someone they know wants something similar, you’re more likely to win the job. 

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Without a contract, support and maintenance is paid for as and when it is needed which also often means unexpected high costs for the customer. Adrian Brown, director of Alphatouch recognises this: “From the customer’s point of view, they know their fixed costs for a company to look after their system. From our point of view, it provides additional revenue streams.” 

In agreement, Tas Kyriacou, director of IDS Group adds: “It’s a great revenue stream for us, it’s ongoing annual revenue year on year, while maintaining a high quality of performance and experience for the client. There is also a high probability that the client would like to upgrade their systems or add more technology through the life of the system so there is an added benefit here from additional work.”

“It’s essential to have a formal way of dealing with clients and their systems after an installation,” comments James Ratcliffe, owner of Homeplay. “We’re on our third iteration of Aftercare [Homeplay’s tiered support offering], it’s not an easy thing to get right and we’ve been through a lot of pain, but now it’s done I can’t imagine running the business without it.”

Some smaller integration companies can occasionally struggle to deal with customers after a project as they often don’t have enough staff to offer a call out service or do not have the time to do it themselves. 

Ratcliffe continues: “Aftercare is one of the hardest aspects of running a CI business and I believe it’s the reason that many CI businesses fail after three to five years. The majority of CI businesses are very small businesses with one to five staff members and it tends to fall on the business owner or the lead engineer to deal with support calls.”

As Ratcliffe goes on to say, typically, systems tend to need the most support in the evenings and at the weekends, making it even harder for custom installers to be able to do the work plus their everyday scheduled installs. “Business owners are much more used to spinning all these plates, but it’s hard to ask an engineer to have his Sunday lunch ruined by an angry customer who can’t get his TV working for the big match, especially if you don’t have a formalised system for compensating them. Calls get missed, customers don’t get called back and wheels start to come off. You lose your clients and your reputation suffers. It’s a really tough problem.”

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There are no specific guidelines as to what must be included in a support programme and everyone writes them differently. Kyriacou defines IDS Group’s offering: “Our aftercare programme is there to provide as much support as possible through multiple avenues. Typically, we provide remote technical support, which may consist of diagnostic tests and rectification as well as system monitoring and performance to ensure we provide preventative maintenance. 

“Additionally, we try to utilise as many methods of communication as possible for example, technical support via phone (audio and video) to support our clients. This also includes annual maintenance visits and extended warranties where possible.”

Hirvonen provides a similar package. “We include regular system updates, increased response time from notification (these customers take priority), AV / data cable replacement (depending on maintenance contract level) and equipment maintenance (filters, etc). Depending on customer notification, we always start the maintenance troubleshooting via remote connection to customer’s systems.”

Many integration companies build tiered support programmes for their customers. This usually then caters better to clients on different budgets and different types of installations. “We include free email and telephone support,” says Brown. “Depending on the maintenance level, there are a fixed number of included site visits, with reduced rates once they have been used up.

“Aftercare is one of the hardest aspects of running a CI business and I believe it’s the reason that many CI businesses fail after three to five years.”

“At present, the majority of our customers prefer pay-as-you-go although the question of maintenance contracts is being asked more and more. With regards to the pay-as-you-go support, depending on the time spent, this is charged on an hourly, half daily or daily rate. But customers with a maintenance contract take priority over those on pay-as-you-go.”

However, Kyriacou doesn’t like the tiered approach: “We like to provide the same level of high quality care and service to all our clients, which is why we choose not to tier our aftercare programmes. We feel that regardless of how much each client may spend with us it should not reflect the type of support they receive.” 

Ratcliffe lists some of the most important aspects to think about when drawing up an agreement: “There’s a lot of complexity and cost to offering a proper aftercare service – what are your hours of availability? What channels are you going to use for communication? What are your on-site and remote response times? What kind of remote management systems are you using? What about a proper ticketing system such as Zendesk? How do you make sure you always have on-call engineers (and how to compensate them)? How do you take regular monthly payments? How do you prioritise who gets the quickest service?” 

It’s crucial that the contract is clear on what service the customer will get. Kyriacou recognises this: “It’s important to outline what you cover and what you don’t cover. It’s easy for a client to assume that they are covered on every level, however it also needs to be commercially viable, so this may vary from company to company. Ultimately, it’s about striking the right balance and providing the right amount of support while still ensuring that the contract is profitable. For example, how many call outs are included, how much time is spent on the phone, etc. These all need to be determined and outlined in the contract.”

French integrator Henri also offers maintenance contracts to all customers. Henri’s director, Michael Sherman said: “In my opinion, it’s not just an additional revenue stream, it is mainly a way of delivering the same quality service after the installation as during it. You cannot just focus on the deployment of the installation and forget about the client after the commissioning. It benefits our business because our prospects know that we offer that service throughout the project but also after. 

“Our contract includes preventive and curative interventions. Preventive interventions allow our team to come regularly to check the installation and therefore prevent most malfunctions. The curative part offers the client a direct phone number to our technical service and the guarantee that we will be available to intervene in a reduced time.”

We’ve covered the sorts of things to include in a maintenance contract but what should not be included? Ratcliffe says: “IT support – laptops, email, virus protection, etc. Those issues should be dealt with by an IT specialist.”

Hirvonen thinks: “Major system changes (programming, component upgrades) should not be included, as well as travel costs, if not included in more high end flat rate maintenance contracts.”

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A key element is to keep it simple. Too many different options or complicated deals can turn customers off, as Brown outlines: “Too many levels or tiers on offer can confuse the customer. We just have a standard and premium level which keeps it simple for the customer.”

A maintenance contract is taken out for many reasons. It clearly shows your trust in the systems installed as an integrator and keeps a customer loyal. Kyriacou believes they are hugely important to business: “Our primary reason is to ensure the client has someone to turn to if there is an issue. If the client is new to home technology it could feel daunting not to have that support.”

Brown adds: “We think they are as important as insurance. Custom installs are generally quite complex. Maintenance contracts gives piece of mind to the customer that their systems are always kept up to date with new software releases and over the long term can be cheaper than having pay-as-you-go agreements.”

If you haven’t yet got a maintenance and support plan in place, now is the time to start thinking about creating one. If technology goes wrong it makes good business sense to have a plan to make sure you’re always prepared!