The Masked Installer – Still in Love with Automation

In his latest post our masked installer considers how he stays in love with automation and talks about managing the expectations of his clients.  How he remotely reboots flakey set-top boxes and the state of his order book in these recession hit times…

“Although we didn’t notice it at the time, earlier this year saw a significant anniversary of our business in its current guise.  Prior to that, I’d been doing automation stuff on a DIY hobbyist basis for myself.  The transition from hobby to business seemed a sensible one at the time; why not construct a business around doing what you love doing anyway?  After years of doing this to make a living, the question is different; how do you stay in love with automation?  How does doing this for a living change your perspective?

I’ve got to preface this by saying I’m still extremely happy to have made the move.  The last decade or so have been a pretty benign environment to build a custom installation business and I think we’ve been lucky to have gone through a lot of our growing pains in such a prosperous period.  We now employ ten people, have a full order book for 2009 and we are working on some amazing projects.  That said, the environment is impacting on the market; a number of our local competitors have gone under since the end of 2008 and there’s evidence of even the better firms cutting back in some areas.  All this gives the question of what do I still love about automation added bite.  Is automation something only a hobbyist can love?  Can a Custom Installer still get the same buzz when it’s not just WAF that’s on the line but your livelihood?

I suppose the real question is how do I feel about automation after selling and supporting it?  Has sitting in the backs of racks getting uncommunicative bits of kit from document shy manufacturers to work properly together stamped out my hobbyist enthusiasm?  Well, it’s not killed it off, but sometimes it’s given that enthusiasm a bit of a shoeing.  There have been days when I’ve come home and felt that none of our projects would be finished and that’s not a great feeling.  So here’s a bit of marriage guidance for Custom Installers.  How do you stay in love with automation – and to illustrate the point I’m going to bare my soul about my relationship with the humble SkyHD box

19" RackWhat do people want from great automation?  When new customers come to our showrooms they’re looking for fantastic ease of use, a promise of no clutter, no untidy wires etc and a real “wow” hook.  The “wow” can be anything – sophisticated remote management, completely discrete high performance audio/video, a brilliantly simple media server, iPhone control  – it doesn’t matter what it is but it’s important that there is one.  This is much more than a simple sales point.  These systems can sometimes go wrong and when they do it’s much better if the customer is a big fan.

Let’s put that into perspective using the SkyHD box as an example.  SkyHD boxes are pretty attractive bits of kit from a customer point of view (if you’ve never had a TiVo).  People love SkyHD and the promise of getting all that HD goodness and Sky+ functionality to every room in the house is a big hook.  It’s a staple request. From our point of view it’s a good job they do love them because I don’t know another bit of kit in our armoury that needs such frequent intervention.  If your heating control played up as much as your SkyHD box you’d be livid.  If your multiroom music system let you down as often you wouldn’t look at it in the same kindly light.  If your TV pitched up with a badge on the back telling you exactly which of the various sub-contract suppliers had made it and yours indicated it had been knocked up at Longbridge on Friday 13th  at 4:30pm you’d be possibly be concerned.*  SkyHD boxes are lucky, people (mostly) like them.  People continue to like them even when Sky remove the very output ports that have enabled cheap and reliable HD distribution since they were launched and replace the EPG with something that looks like it was knocked off from a £25 Tesco Freeview box.

So for Custom Installers there’s two important parts to that equation.  We all want to sell stuff that’s reliable because that’s just common sense but some of the things we work with just aren’t.  So systems must be loved and it’s pretty easy to tip over the edge from being loved to being on the hit list.  If you’re unreliable and unloved you’re next week’s ebay contender and the installer that put you in has had their chances of referral work seriously reduced.  A SkyHD box has enough reasons not to be loved but still seems to get away with it.

However that’s only part of the story.  Loved but rather unreliable and blessed with a heap of issues that the customer doesn’t see and really doesn’t need to know, the SkyHD box can already sour a relationship.  What do Custom Installers then do with SkyHD boxes?   They stick them into racks discretely hidden away, they hook them up to multiroom matrix switchers and then they frequently replace the control mechanism that Sky provides, the IR control, with a custom interface that controls everything else in the room, lights, amps, etc.  In other words we tinker with the original design and in doing so add in some additional points of failure.  I’m no fan of IR but if you’ve got a Sky box sitting in front of you and a Sky remote then it’s a pretty good control system.  Similarly when the Sky box needs rebooting it’s simple to power it down and back up again if it’s sat three metres away.

So as a minimum the installer has got to get the control as good as it is on a native Sky system and make power cycling the damn thing as simple as flicking a switch.  That gets you back to level par, so where’s the advantage in your automation system?  Maybe it’s the fact that the new remote turns on the TV (OK, so the Sky remote might be able to do that as well), sets the TV to the right input and then controls the volume on your nice AV receiver and gives you lighting control and maybe access to your CCTV or your music library.  Do all that and then get it to all the HD tellies in the house.   That sounds more like it, so what does the installer have to do to give the customer the system they’re both going to love?

Sky+ HDOur recipe for this particular case is pretty defined now.  We’ll have managed power supplies with IP control servicing the power requirements in the rack so we can reboot from touchpanels, remotes or even remote locations if necessary, we’ll use RTI remotes or AMX control panels that don’t require line of sight, that have an interface that we’ve tested over and over with customers to make sure they’re OK with it and that can issue IR commands from their central processors.  We’ll continue to use component video distribution and we’ll capture the HDMI output near the HDMI port and that’s all I’m saying about that. We won’t use TVs that don’t as a minimum have a discrete set of IR commands for power on / off and individual input selection and we won’t design systems that won’t give us remote access and management.  If we can’t meet those requirements in the spec then we won’t do it.  We’d rather not do the work.  A very well respected installer in the industry once told me “don’t leave them any reason to be disappointed”.  He was right and if you deviate from your proven routes then you’re stuffed.  There’s enough potential causes for disappointment in a custom system – don’t let yourself deliberately introduce more at the specification stage.

This is such a small example – one element of the AV system that will be one of the sub-systems that might make up the overall home automation system.  There’s lighting, audio, heating, security, blind control etc etc and they all have similar issues.  But the salient point is the same.  Home Automation can suck its teeth, it will squeeze the toothpaste in the middle, it will steal the orange juice from the communal fridge and it can give you a myriad of reasons to fall out of love with it, but if you’re aware of those, you can find reliable ways to overcome these foibles.  Not only that, but in doing so you might find the fun again.  The customers get reliable systems they enjoy, you get to continue to pit your wits against all that machinery and do the things you used to love to do and still do when you’ve got the chance…and get paid for it.”

Read the Masked Installers Previous Posts

*The Masked Installer would like to point out that he has owned a Rover SD1 and is intimately acquainted with the works of Joseph Lucas, Prince of Darkness.  He would also like to point out he prefers Samsung SkyHD boxes at the moment…

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5 Comments on "The Masked Installer – Still in Love with Automation"

  1. HoHoHo! – couldn’t agree more about the unreliability of the Sky+HD boxes! – they are *APPALLING* – I couldn’t begin to list all the myriad things that are wrong with them (and yes, I DID used to have a TiVo). I’m just waiting for my two boxes to fail completely (as I know they will), at which point I’m going to replace them both with non-sky replacements, – probably 1 Freesat & 1 Virgin Media V+ box. I’ve been a Sky customer for at least 15 years and *nothing* has done more in all that time to p1ss me off with Sky more than these crappy +HD boxes…

  2. Chris Bond | April 29, 2009 at 4:26 pm |

    Have to say after having Sky out 6 times – they finally replaced it with the new samsung hd box – bingo problems all resolved.

  3. IMO, this series is really good – really useful for the practical insights it gives …

  4. “We’ll continue to use component video distribution and we’ll capture the HDMI output near the HDMI port and that’s all I’m saying about that” OH yes, on the verge of sending the 4 x 4 HDMI matrix switcher and HDMI over CAT5 balluns back and putting a Component matrix in, on the basis that it has to be cheaper than the labour costs of getting what’s there working!

    At a recent training session everyone in the room was fed up with the losses they were making on jobs that used HDMI distribution. Recently went back to a job with a component switcher and fitted a new Sky box with the little ‘HD thingy’ on the back and it just worked…. Hey – Profit!

    Long live good old analogue!!

  5. >fed up with the losses they were making on jobs that used HDMI distribution …

    interesting – is that because HDMI is flawed, because the Sky box is flawed, or because the matrix switcher / baluns are flawed – or just the whole lot ! ??

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