Based in Naples, Fla., Criteria HiFi is a $5 million audio/video contractor specializing in high-end integrated systems. The company has 62 employees and five locations around the country. A 31-year veteran of the A/V industry, owner Michael Silverman made a foray into the interior design industry in 2005 but returned to his A/V company a year later.
Q: How did you end up running an interior design firm?
A: My partner and I actually bought our largest customer, a company called Fine Design, in South Florida. I then left the A/V business after 28 years and went to run the interior design company. I disliked it so much that I came back to Criteria HiFi after a year.
I come from a male-dominated industry, and [interior design] is a female-dominated industry. It was a different dynamic for me, working with women, who are more visual, more artistic. But I understand now what they go through and what it takes to design a home or an office.
Q: What’s the most important thing to remember in the A/V business?
A: Whether buying the simplest or the most expensive, complex system, no matter how much money they spend, if the client can’t operate it, it has no value.
Q: How do you succeed in the luxury market?
A: Know your clientele, number one. Number two, be service-based instead of sales-based. You must be able to service these clients beyond the finish of the job.
The other thing is, never try to be inexpensive. If you just sell a job to get a job, and you sell it cheap, you’re not going to be able to give the level of service that the client purchased and deserves. You have to be up-front and say, “Look, I’m not the cheapest guy in town and I’m not trying to be. I’m trying to give you the best service in town.” That’s what people care about — that if they have a problem, they can pick up the phone and get someone. In the case of my company, every client has my cell number. They can call me seven days a week, 365 days a year, and I’ll make sure they get taken care of. That’s the service that people in the luxury sector are looking for.
Q: Has your clientele been hurt by the economy?
A: There’s a definite migration. The middle-to-lower upper class, who were spending money three years ago, may not be going to Europe this summer because of the dollar against the Euro. So they’re investing in their homes with home theaters, making their homes more family-oriented. We’re seeing more of that than we’ve ever seen before. Clients I’d never speak to between Easter and December are here in town and they’re trying to do work on their homes.
Q: When you’re working with general contractors, what do you see that makes you cringe?
A: I cringe because I see GCs talking to clients like the client has been in the general contracting business all their life. [The contractors] have a tendency to be the expert on everything, as they should be, but they don’t necessarily know how to relate that to their clients. The GC is the client’s go-to guy on that jobsite — the person who makes sure they’re getting taken care of — and when the client asks that GC a question, there’s never an answer that the average Joe would understand.
Q: What’s new in high-end A/V?
A: Everything is becoming server-based rather than software-based. The days of loading 400 movies into a changer are pretty much done. The other wave of the future is that computer technology companies, such as Microsoft and Apple, are seeing the home integration segment as their next market, and they’re introducing media server–based products using the Windows platform or the Apple platform; so that’s going to be the next big thing — PC integration with the audio/video business.
Q: Are we finally arriving in the era of the fully integrated home?
A: We’ve been talking about it for years, and the first tries at it were not very good. Voice command is not that good yet; people tried doing that years ago, and it was a disaster. The Crestron [Electronics] version, which is touchscreens all over the house, is up and working successfully. Touchscreen, media-based technology is coming down in price because of the computer industry standing behind it, and it’s becoming more obtainable to everyone.
David Zuckerman is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.