Today's new breed of electrical contractor

A growing number of electrical professionals have embraced structured wiring technology. Keith Bott, owner of Bott Electric, West Berlin, N.J., is typical of this new breed of electrical contractor. In business for more than 18 years, Bott now concentrates on high-end custom homes in the southern New Jersey that sell from $400,000 to well over $1 million. He is intrigued by the new low-voltage technology

A growing number of electrical professionals have embraced structured wiring technology.

Keith Bott, owner of Bott Electric, West Berlin, N.J., is typical of this new breed of electrical contractor. In business for more than 18 years, Bott now concentrates on high-end custom homes in the southern New Jersey that sell from $400,000 to well over $1 million. He is intrigued by the new low-voltage technology and like the builders he works for, he sees how structured wiring is affecting the future of residential construction — and his own outlook on the future.

“When you get into structured wiring, your business changes,” he said. “I now need to keep current on the latest technologies. Service and support after the sale became even more important. And I have a lot more face time with the builder and the homeowner.”

Bott said that a home built in the 21st century without a structured wiring system is quickly destined to become obsolete. He also recognizes that structured wiring can lead to significant growth and profitability for his business. To do this, Bott had to be up on the latest home networking technologies and feel comfortable working one-on-one with customers partly as a salesperson, partly as a consultant.

The quality of his work is more important than ever, because he knows a satisfied customer will lead to repeat business and referrals. The need to build long-term relationships with builders is nothing new. But working so closely with homeowners is a major change.

Another significant difference is his relationship with homeowners, which sounds more like the relationships interior designers have with their clients. For instance, Bott's first meeting with the homeowners occurs soon after they meet with the builder and sign the contract for their new custom-built home. He gets together with them again while the house is still under construction to review furniture layouts in every room and once more after the homeowners have been living in their new home for a month or two.

Contractors like Bott are wearing many hats — consultant, salesperson, marketer, installer and student.

“I thought that because I had been pulling wire for years, I would know how to install Cat. 5e cable in a home,” Bott said. “I didn't realize how much I needed to learn until I took a training course. Now I send all of my technicians to take the course so I can be assured that everyone in my company is installing structured wiring in homes the right way.”

The salesperson

Since structured wiring and home automation are still relatively new technologies, a learning curve exists for both electricians and builders. Fortunately, manufacturers have programs to get them up to speed. But who can the homeowner turn to for help in getting a structured wiring system that meets their needs? It's the electrical contractor in his new role as consultant, system designer and salesperson.

When Bott meets with homeowners for the first time, most have only a vague awareness of structured wiring and home networking.

“I don't talk about structured wiring systems right away,” Bott said. “In fact, it's a lot easier for customers when I translate the technology into tangible lifestyle benefits.”

So a typical conversation may begin with questions about the family's use of computers. Do they have more than one? Would they like to link their computers into a high-speed home network so they can share a single Internet connection, files and peripheral equipment such as printers and scanners?

Bott has found that customers usually respond to those questions with an enthusiastic “yes.” The conversation then focuses on ways the system can solve problems and add conveniences. For example, if customers are having trouble with cable TV reception in their existing homes, Bott explains that a module in the structured wiring system, called a bi-directional video amplifier, can deliver crystal-clear reception to every room in the house where a structured wiring wallplate has been installed. For customers who complain about noise on their telephone lines, he describes another system component that eliminates crosstalk. There's also a telephone patch panel that makes it easy to add or change phones in any room, at anytime in the future.

By presenting the system's capabilities as new ways of improving the homeowner's lifestyle, the electrician can help the customer justify the cost of the system.

“Once the customer said ‘yes’ to the basic structured wiring system, I introduce other lifestyle benefits they can enjoy by purchasing additional system components,” he said.

As a certified installer of the Leviton Integrated Network home system, Bott can offer the homeowner indoor and outdoor cameras for home monitoring, audio/video components for whole-house audio/visual distribution, routers and hubs for high-speed computer networking, as well as home automation equipment.

The consultant

As soon as the customer has a basic idea of the conveniences and benefits of a structured wiring system, it's time for blue-sky thinking.

“I ask my customers to tell me everything they could ever imagine doing in their home so I can add that to the plan for their consideration,” Bott said.

This includes telephones, computers, audio and video equipment, lighting controls, home security and energy management. During this phase, the customer needs the electrician to guide the discussion.

“I really want to help my customer plan for the future and realize all the things a structured wiring system can do for them,” Bott said. “I also don't want them to lock themselves into one and only one room layout.”

So furniture layouts are reviewed, and important questions raised. Will the room always be laid out the same? What about the location of computers, printers and other electronic equipment connected to the system? Will they change in the future?

At their next meeting, Bott uses the customer's house plans to show them how their ideas have created the system layout, down to the details of where the wallplates would be installed in each room. Included in the layout is the cost associated with each wallplate.

“It's all about working within the customer's budget and helping them make good choices,” Bott said. Thus, if the homeowner's budget does not allow for the installation of the entire system during construction, the electrician can suggest the best ways to reduce costs while still allowing for future expansion.

For example, if there is easy access to second-floor rooms through an attic, the electrician can recommend installing the wiring and wallplates only on the first floor, and save the installation in the upstairs rooms for a later date. However, Bott has found that once his customers realize that the decisions they make today will affect the future, they see the advantages of installing as much of the structured wiring system as they can afford during the construction phase, when the installation costs are lower.

In the final stage of system design and layout, Bott conducts a walk-through of the home with the customer, before the drywall has been nailed up. At this point, it's easier for the customer to visualize where the furniture will go, and to make sure there are enough wallplates to accommodate any future changes.

The student

When he got interested in structured wiring, Keith Bott discovered that he had a lot to learn. Besides getting trained on installation techniques, the contractor, in his role as consultant and salesman, needs to understand how families interact with structured wiring systems. To help do this, Bott decided to install a customized structured wiring system in his new 3,000-sq-ft home while it was under construction.

“I went with a high-end system in my own home because that's what I would be installing in these custom homes,” he said. “I really wanted to experience the lifestyle benefits first-hand so I could give my customers the best possible advice.”

In designing his own system, Bott quickly recognized that it would be prudent and cost-effective to install multiple runs of Cat. 5e cable in certain rooms, such as the family room and the living room, before the walls went up.

“Cat. 5e cabling isn't that expensive,” Bott said, “so preparing for the future with multiple drops in every room was really in my best interest. I learned this in my home, and that's what I advise my customers.”

Bott had a second rationale for installing a structured wiring system in his own home: to use his home as a test bed for new technology and networking equipment that will be developed in the future. He installed two structured wiring cabinets in his basement. One cabinet houses phone and data networking components, the other has the cable distribution modules. By using two cabinets, he ensured sufficient space for adding new system modules in the future. “The two-cabinet arrangement worked so well in my home, I now recommend it to all my customers,” Bott said.

He also installed a home automation controller, which is integrated into the structured wiring system along with the vendor's power-line carrier lighting control devices. As Bott explains, home automation is the second layer of a structured wiring system in a residence, and it gives the homeowner many conveniences and safety benefits. In his own home, Bott has integrated the telephones, lighting, the security system and the HVAC.

When he describes what a home automation system can do, he focuses not on the technology, but on the lifestyle benefits. For example, he has told a customer about how his own son uses the security system. When his son comes home from school, he enters his ID into the security system's keypad, which then automatically places a call to Bott's cell phone, letting him know his son has arrived home safely.

“It's all about convenience and peace of mind,” Bott said.

Bott also faced another learning curve when he got into programming the home automation devices. However, the benefits they provide are really important to his customers and highly profitable for him. Since Bott has both a structured wiring system and home automation capabilities in his own home, he can describe how he and his family use them, which is helpful to customers seeking his advice on their own installations.

The service provider

Another major shift in business practices for this new breed of new electrical contractor is the opportunity to establish long-term relationships with customers. Before he took on structured wiring, Bott said he had the typical contractor mentality of “get in and get out.” That has changed, and now he recognizes that high-quality workmanship is important both to him and his customer.

“If a contractor does a poor structured wiring installation, the customer is only going to call and demand that he rip out the system, and that's not what he wants,” Bott said. “He's better off when he takes his time and ends up with satisfied customers, because homeowners will call him back to do more work in their home.”

Bott reports significant revenue from service calls, and has added staff so he can be more responsive to his customers. He also anticipates future business from his customer base from upgrades to the structured wiring system and reprogramming of the automation controller.

“I'm now thinking about mailing postcards out to my customer base whenever a new piece of equipment comes on the market that I think my customers would want to have installed,” Bott said.

Whether they are installing structured wiring systems in custom homes, like Bott, or tract homes or modular homes that sell for $200,000 or less, electrical contractors are in an ideal position to grow their business with structured wiring. They have established relationships with builders, and they are already on the construction site to install the higher voltage wiring. They also know they can rely on the manufacturers of structured wiring products for technical support and training.

By working with their builders as part of a team, electrical contractors help the builder gain a competitive advantage, while they achieve greater profitability and repeat business. Along with the builder, contractors should be prepared for more demanding customers who expect more service and support.

“This is a great time to be an electrical contractor,” Bott said.

The author is corporate channel development manager for Leviton Manufacturing Co., Little Neck, N.Y.

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