Smart home support – one throat to choke?
Tech Support Problems

Does this sound familiar?

Getting smart home support help (or any tech gadget) is an ongoing source of frustration for many of us.

No matter how advanced and amazing tech gadgetry becomes, we all face problems in making it work.

Everyone has a story. Hours and hours spent without ever being able to install.

Smooth installation, but unreliable operation.

Works great for weeks or months, and then mysteriously stops working and nothing seems to fix it.

Who you gonna call?

More than a line from the Ghostbusters movie, this takes some thought.

If you bought it at a store, should you bother going back and asking the clerk that barely knew what you were buying?

Online checkout is quick and easy. Getting online support, nope. Good luck even finding a phone number on their website if you want to speak to a person.

Did you try online chat? Maybe it’s ok for a quick message with your friends, but trying to describe your problem and getting help is nearly impossible.

Those “always available” chat reps sure seem like they are multi-tasking 10 other people at the same time. Or maybe they are just slow typists?

Time to send an email to technical support. Are you disappointed or mad when you find out that “24 hour tech support” actually means “we’ll get back to you in 24 hours, or longer” in reality?

It’s not me, it’s you!

Luckily, sometimes you manage to reach a live support person by telephone or other means for smart home support.

After going through the obligatory contact information, purchase or serial number verification, and description of your problem, you get the kiss of death:

“I’m sorry, but you aren’t using our Wi-Fi or router, so we can’t help you”.

“So sorry, but you are out of warranty”.

“I’m sorry, but we aren’t responsible for XYZ, that’s not our product.”

Installer’s complain too

This isn’t a one-way street. I network with other dealers and custom installers so I get an earful from their point of view too.

“Installed a TV for a guy for next to nothing, cable folks hook up their box and everything works. A week later he calls me says his TV isn’t working because he can’t watch channel XYZ. What kind of junk did I sell him?

Went over there and found everything working great. His cable subscription didn’t cover the channel he wants, and he thinks it is my problem.”

Or …

“Client has very basic Internet and Wi-Fi service. Refused to consider upgrading to more reliable gear. Bought a video doorbell online himself and it keeps losing connection to his Wi-Fi. Wants me to “fix” his DIY install but still won’t upgrade his network gear.”

Installation costs are fixed

Charging for installation and technical support can be difficult for dealers and installers like myself.

As technology advances rapidly and many products are available at very affordable prices, customers don’t value paying for installation services.

A few years ago a networked video intercom doorbell easily cost $2,000 to $3,000. Now you can buy a good Ring smart doorbell for under $150 or a basic Wyze video doorbell for less than $40.

But the cost to professionally install any of these devices hasn’t changed.

Electricians, technicians, and programmers can’t magically lower their hourly rate or project fees just because the equipment now costs one-tenth of what it did a few years ago.

DIY can be hard

Inexpensive gear has accelerated the do-it-yourself (DIY) smart home craze.

Along with it has come the totally-disappointed-nothing-works reality.

I feel that equipment and products have become much more affordable, but the ease of installation and simplicity of use hasn’t increased at the same pace.

If you home setup is very simple and matches the typical configuration the manufacturer expects, installation might go smoothly.

But as soon as anything in your home doesn’t match the “cookie cutter” approach expected, all bets are off.

If you’ve done any programming or troubleshooting, you know that it’s the edge conditions or special circumstances that cause the complexity in both hardware and software engineering.

Companies making products that sell for $50 simply can’t or won’t invest the time and effort to fine-tune their software and test every possible scenario.

Some don’t even have the equipment in their office for proper testing and rely on their early customers to do the testing for them.

The value of professional support

My company, DoItForMe.Solutions, provides design, installation, and most importantly, ongoing support for mid-range smart home systems.

That’s a fancy way of saying I typically don’t install cheap $40 doorbells or $30 light dimmers, but I also don’t specialize in $500,000 custom home theater rooms.

Every system I deliver includes unconditional support for the first 30-days. Everything must work as intended. I’ll go back onsite free of charge multiple times if anything needs to be fixed or adjusted.

Within reason, I take full responsibility for everything. With TV and entertainment systems, if there is a problem with cable or satellite, I coordinate with those providers to troubleshoot and repair any issues.

If a speaker or an amplifier isn’t working correctly, I spend the time and effort chasing down their tech support and arranging any necessary repairs or exchange.

Amongst my fellow dealers, we call it the “one throat to choke” policy. We provide peace of mind and confidence for our client’s that we will get the problem fixed.

No finger pointing or backing away with “not my problem” excuses

Don’t get me wrong – if this requires more equipment or labor not included in the original project design, that will be communicated to our client for approval before the additional work is started.

After the initial installation, I offer a choice of support options. Clients can choose to pay hourly a la carte for onsite service calls and technical support or they can purchase one of several prepaid or retainer-based service plans.

These Concierge Support plans provide peace of mind that problems will be resolved quickly and accommodate multiple payment options.

The advanced plans include remote management – with the appropriate equipment in place I can monitor the operation of key networking and smart home gear remotely.

Using a laptop, iPad, or iPhone, I can solve some problems immediately and reboot devices that need an electronic kick-in-the-pants to restart.

The secret tools of the trade

There really isn’t a secret technique for providing excellent smart home tech support. But there are a few key guidelines I follow:

Provide solutions, not products

I look at what my client’s want to accomplish and work backwards from there.

I don’t start with a specific product or brand trying to force a square peg into a round hole because it is the only thing I know or has the most profit.

A good portion of the equipment I work with is purchased directly by my clients. The design and installation charges are the same removing the equipment choice from the strategic equation.

Relationships, not customers

My goal is to establish ongoing relationships with my clients that can be nurtured by mutual respect and co-operation into long term relationships. That means sacrificing short term profits.

I still shock some prospective clients by turning down projects or recommending against the most expensive equipment choices if I truly believe I’m not the right person or they are not the right products for the project.

Set achievable goals and milestones and strive to exceed them

Contractors are notorious for promising everything “done yesterday” and failing to show up to complete a job. The smart home industry is not excluded from cost and schedule overruns and challenges in completing projects on time.

I strive to provide realistic schedules and cost estimates. Extensive design and planning work is billed as a service as that is often where the hard work is done.

Free design work given away as a lure to land the project can be the most expensive hidden cost. Bad design means the wrong products and services are purchased and installed. Much harder to fix later by the next dealer called in to clean up the mess.

I work with clients located in other cities and states where I help them with the design and planning while they use local contractors and installers for the implementation. We all work together as one team and complement each other’s skills and expertise.

Ownership versus purchase costs

In the commercial and business world, it is common to prioritize ownership costs instead of purchase costs.

As your smart home networking and automation system grows, I suggest taking a similar approach.

While looking at the latest devices that are being promoted as “new and improved” or “faster, better, cheaper” take a hard look below the surface.

If it is from an unknown manufacturer that may not be around in a year or two, you’ll have to replace everything a lot sooner than expected.

When the company doesn’t have telephone support or customer service people located in your home country, good luck getting any help at all.

Products built from cheap materials are poorly constructed to save costs, so how long will they last?

When you calculate the total cost of ownership, which includes installation, service, technical support and replacement costs, the cheapest products can sometimes be the most expensive to own.

Do-it-yourself (DIY), Do-it-for-me (DIFM), or full custom integration (CI) choices abound. However you pursue your smart home, choose carefully and get the support you need so everything works as intended.


Automation technologist and problem solver

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