The Custom Installer: Punk'd

After returning from our honeymoon, my parents took my wife and me to dinner at one of San Francisco's swanky restaurants. To commemorate the event, I brought a prized bottle of wine - a 1982 Sterling Private Reserve cabernet. Instead of being offended that I had my own bottle, the sommelier asked if he might have a taste. But the restaurant still added a $20 corkage fee to our bill. I didn't feel cheated by this fee because I understood it's an accepted practice when diners bring in an outside bottle.

I relate this story because a growing number of people are bringing their own gear to installations. Now, most companies in the custom-installation industry are extremely easy to work with - the very nature of "custom" demands flexibility. Working with clients who want to incorporate existing equipment into new systems is common, and I can't imagine any installation firm bristling at this. Similarly, few installers would take issue with someone who purchased equipment prior to arranging to have it installed.

What bugs me are the people who contract with a company to design and install their systems and then buy the equipment elsewhere, expecting the installer to just roll with the punches. I've heard that some companies have responded to this by instituting a restaurant-like "corkage" policy for installing equipment that's purchased outside their shops.

At first I thought this was too drastic, but now I totally understand it. A large part of how we custom installers make our living and keep the doors open for business is by selling the electronics that we install.

Unfortunately, people who buy equipment elsewhere and then ask to have it installed are just the tip of my frustration iceberg. Some people have found worse ways to abuse the customer/installer relationship.

While no one would presume to waltz into an attorney's office, plop down at his desk, and extract an hour or more of free legal advice, installers receive this kind of treatment every day. Likewise, I doubt anyone would drop by a stockbroker's office expecting repeated free investment tips - especially if you started out by saying, "I'm going to spend all of my money elsewhere, but I thought you could tell me what I should do - for free." Or, "I took that tip you gave me and invested my money with someone else. Thanks! Got any other suggestions?"

Honestly, I'm an easygoing guy, and I try to help everyone who walks into our store, but some comments drive me to that large glass of vodka at day's end. Personal favorites include:

"I bought this system from another store and thought you wouldn't mind showing me how to hook it up."

"I didn't buy my system - or anything else - from you, but it's broken. I don't want to pay for a service call, so can you just walk me through getting it to work?"

"I got some wire from Home Depot, and I'm going to wire my house for sound. Can you draw me a diagram of how I should do it?"

Shockingly, people look at me with utter seriousness while asking for information that's the equivalent to a mental handout. And my offers to help for an hourly consulting fee are met with disbelief and a slightly pained grimace: "You want me to I you for your time?" The last time I checked, "custom installer" wasn't an IRSapproved charitable organization.

Here's a true story. A woman came into our store looking for a CD recorder to dub her collection of LPs. We had a popular Pioneer model in stock, which I unboxed and showed her how to connect to her system. She thanked me for the information and left without buying the recorder. A couple of hours later she came back carrying the very deck that we'd been discussing. I had just spent over an hour with this woman and she went up the street to another retailer to buy it - at the same price! - and then had the gall to return and again ask me to show her how to hook it up. I kept waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump out and yell, "Dude! You just got punk'd!" When I told her that, no, I wouldn't draw her a diagram, she gave me this long, incredulous look, like I had done something wrong.

People pay doctors, lawyers, and other professionals for their time because their knowledge, which took them years to attain, is valuable. It's no different with custom installers. Like other professionals, we're happy to share our knowledge with you - but at a price that allows us to stay in business.

If you treat your installer with the same respect you give to other professionals, you'll receive terrific service and support in return, and fair equipment pricing to boot. And you'll also likely develop a relationship that can last for years.

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