Burnout is a big problem in our industry," Eric Johnson of EJC Enterprises, Madison, N.J., commented during his excellent class on operations management for custom installation (home theater, home automation, etc.) businesses. He proved it by doing a survey of how many hours per week the installers in his audience worked. Most indicated they worked fifty or more hours a week, and many indicated that they worked sixty or more hours per week.

That's a recipe for burnout, according to Johnson. And "owner burnout" isn't the only problem, either: staff burnout is also serious. "If you burn out your staff, they become your competition. They start thinking, if I'm working all these hours, I'm going to start making all the money."

Johnson attributes the overwork problem to many causes, including changing job schedules, a ramp-up in the number of service calls you get as your client base grows, and the ever-growing learning curve for new products and technologies. It is a problem that every custom electronics (home automation and home theater) business must solve, and in his course he offered some solutions for doing so.

1. Manage Your Labor

Use a whiteboard to track your employees - a cheap but effective one is a shower or bathtub backsplash from a hardware store. Or, as you grow, use a field-service scheduling program such as FieldPro or RIMMS. Whichever method you use, track overall job progress through the general contractor, not the client.

2. Use Subcontractors

Subcontractors, Johnson says, "are the secret to reducing hours and preventing burnout." He suggests looking in the Yellow Pages and elsewhere to find one-person companies who are electricians, security installers, CATV installers, and phone/LAN installers, and offering them free A/V training, discounts on gear, and very high pay (up to 90% of a billable hour). "You want to make it fun and interesting and profitable for them, since you want them to shuffle their schedule at your request." Subcontractors are also a protection against over-hiring, which Johnson calls "a disaster."

3. Put Your Field People on a 10-hour Day

Johnson did an analysis showing that 4.5 hours of a typical eight-hour technician day are devoted to non-billable chores such as loading the truck, traveling to the job, setting up, cleaning up, and documenting work. If you add two hours to the workday, you therefore increase your billable time by nearly 60% (from 3.5 hours to 5.5 hours). That adds up to thousands of dollars of extra billings per year.

A ten-hour day also means a four-day workweek, which technicians and their families like. However, Johnson cautioned installers to rotate their employees' days off so that they don't moonlight.

4. To Retain Employees, Make a Serious Commitment to Training

Johnson recommends that the business owner personally train new employees, because, (a) he or she is likely to be better at it than other staffers - who, after all, are also busy doing their own jobs; (b) because it's a good way to show your commitment to the new employee, which in turn helps build loyalty; and (c) it's a good way to communicate company values and the other "intangibles."

He acknowledged that it isn't easy for a busy business owner to find the time to train. He does his training by showing up at the office at 6:00 a.m., so he can commence his normal workday at 8:00 a.m.

He also recommends giving homework to new hires. "They should take your technical manuals home and study them, and also take new gear home and practice calibrating it." (He puts a "Passed Inspection" sticker to explain the opened boxes to his customers.) The homework is not considered paid time, but the hours spent at the office for training (from 6:00 a.m. on) are.

5. Train Technicians and Salespeople Together

A common problem in custom electronics is for salespeople to quote systems that turn out to be difficult or even impossible to implement. The salesperson often defends the design by saying that the customer insisted on it. Says Johnson, "They say, 'I would have lost the sale if I didn't agree!"

Of course, saying yes to everything the customer asks for, irrespective of the technical issues involved, is a recipe for disaster. So Johnson recommends implementing a few simple rules:

Salespeople can't say yes to a customer request at the initial interview. "They have to say, 'All of our system designs must be checked for service problems and ease of use before we offer a contract in a proposal." The goal for the initial interview should be to fill in a "requirements and lifestyle" questionnaire and introduce the customer to tested systems designs.

The business owner and his or her technicians should create a few standard systems designs, and all variations to those designs must be tested before approval.

No proposal is to go out without the design being approved by the owner or a designate. (The goal here is to check for unknowns, such as untested equipment or unfamiliar scenarios, that can cause snafus later on.)

All of this becomes easier if you train your salespeople alongside your technicians. The salespeople start to understand the technical challenges of integration, and how even a minor deviation from a known setup can cause huge headaches.

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