Mark Ormiston grows his own; so does Leon Shaw, Vu Phan, John Woo and many other successful high-end specialists and integrators. Why? Cultivating lovers of high-performance audio has proven to be the path to longevity and profitability in a challenging (and in some places) declining market. “Audiophiles are a waste of time” and variations on that theme are voiced throughout the specialist dealer community and that sentiment might be true more often than not when they’re someone else’s audiophiles. But when they’re your audiophiles, it can be a completely different story.
Those of us who have a passion for something can usually describe the moment when some transcendental experience forever changed us. At the tender age of 24 I casually enjoyed wine but didn’t think much about or place much value in the differences in wine. Then one night I was introduced to a 1961 Palmer Margaux and that was it. No one had to explain it to me, I didn’t need to take any classes, I just knew it was amazing and something I wanted to experience again. Sometimes these experiences come about socially, as did my discovery of fine wine; others happen by chance, like in a store as did my audio epiphany. However it happens, we know that it does happen and when it does, it is memorable and can even be life-changing.
Now, take a minute and think about your best audio or theater demonstration rooms. Can you do an awe-inspiring demo? One that could change someone’s life? Be honest with yourself. Probably not. That’s a high standard, not easily met.
In my experience, most specialists put their high-end brands on the shelf and either hope or expect that the high-end buyers will come in asking for them. If that’s your plan, you’ll probably find that audiophiles are a waste of time. Take the case of someone who comes into your store for the first time because of a high-end brand that you carry. Odds are they will indeed be a waste of time or at best, a chance to turn a quick buck. Unless they’ve just moved to town, chances are they’re just looking for the best price or to spend time comparing things they’ve read about—they’re not your audiophile. If things go well, maybe you can make them your own, so give it a try. The real percentages are with those who discover their passion because of you or one of your customers. These are the ones to cultivate. How then to make them your own?
Sometimes you have the “whale” who gets blown away by your reference system demo and just says “I’ll take it” or maybe the even more endangered species who says “is there anything better you’d suggest?” (BTW, the answer to which is always yes). This is the reason you really want to have an aspirational demo system. It sets the aspirational limit you arbitrarily choose for your customers. If you set the bar too low, your best customers will either be undersold or go somewhere else for fulfillment.
Usually though, even well-off customers need to be worked up to your flagship system. So make it a logical and fun process that has clearly defined steps and results. Start by assembling a system that does something as well or nearly as well as the flagship. The system should have one component that is clearly better than the rest. If possible, make it one of the components from the reference system but something other than the loudspeakers, since people typically assign too much importance to them—making them an easy upgrade down the road. By focusing on an electronic component, you underscore the importance of every component in the chain and set the process in motion. The idea is to deliver a piece of the holy grail with the customer understanding which piece or pieces need to be upgraded next in order to move toward the ultimate goal. I call this selling unbalanced systems (nothing to do with balanced and single-ended signal paths). The fact that one component is better than the others creates a kind of tension that can only be eased by future purchases. It’s this tension that keeps your customers engaged in the process, enjoying their systems, listening to more music and giving you a reason to contact them periodically for component upgrades. Before you know it you’ll find yourself growing your own crop of audiophiles. They are your audiophiles, so you’ll be enjoying your time with them and harvesting the rewards for years to come.