Up Your Customer Support Game

By George McKechnie
Published on: November 16, 2018

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Use “pro-active design” to anticipate likely failure pathways

Many home tech specialists today are turning to service-related programs—such as product warranties, annual service contracts, and RMR (recurring monthly revenue) services—to provide needed revenue.  When appropriately sold and conscientiously administered, these programs can benefit dealer and consumer alike.

Another, more basic approach to customer support is pro-active design.  By this we mean strategies for sales, engineering, installation, configuration and programming that anticipate likely failure pathways: for a given type of system, installed in a particular locale, and operated by specific occupants; that is, a global assessment.  The goal is to work pro-actively to prevent system failures, and then to provide services to remedy the problems that do occur as rapidly as possible.   In Part I of this series, we’ll focus on common causes of system failure; next time, we’ll discuss service strategies to prevent system failure.

In the pre-digital days, system failure was relatively rare; when it occurred, it was almost always due to component failure, or an occasional RCA interconnect malfunction. Here’s why:

  • The components were analog, with an expected service life of 15-20 years.
  • Components were hard-wired into systems, with no wireless connections other than IR remote control, and no network dependency.
  • Systems were simple; operation was very basic, seldom needing remote controls with macro capacities to sequence multiple control steps.

Today, system failure is very common, generating frequent service calls.  The cause is almost always a communications error between digital components:

  • Most components today (cable and sat boxes, streaming devices, even surround receivers) are fully digital—or include digital control circuitry. They become obsolete functionally long before the end of their service life.
  • Most systems include components that communicate wirelessly, and many of these components are network dependent.
  • Systems are much more complex today—with a surround receiver switching HDMI and analog video inputs, Zone 2 audio control, and audio streaming, for example—and components inter-connected for both signal and control via digital pathways.

There may be dozens of ways for a modern digital system to fail due to communications problems, without actual component failure.  Here are a few:

  • Voltage transients—insufficient to trigger surge protection but sufficient to pass through a modern switching power supply to the digital control circuitry which get misinterpreted as a request for re-configuration. Result: picture, no sound; or sound, no picture.
  • Unstable or overloaded home networks—wired or wireless—that results in repeated signal dropouts or buffering delays.
  • Problems in a service provider signal feed or source component (cable, satellite, or streaming). When these occur, the component may (or may not) automatically re-initialize and resume delivering the signal, depending on the type of problem.

User errors also cause service headaches.  Individual components may be engineered to be easy to control, but when combined in systems with other easy-to-use components, the net result may be confusing.  Example: an AV system may include 4 different remotes, each with a “volume” button: the surround receiver, the cable or sat box, the TV itself, and a universal remote.  Unless the system is configured so that only the universal remote controls the volume (with the other remotes hidden away), operator error and confusion is inevitable.  With the input switching button, the problem is even worse.

The third class of errors involves the house infrastructure itself.  Does the wireless network provide adequate bandwidth and coverage?  Are CAT-5/6 and RG/6 cables free of damage, with adequate terminations?  Is there a power transformer on the street misbehaving?

Pro-active design needs to address all three sources of failure.


George McKechnie

George McKechnie

George McKechnie is President of Axiom Home Tech in Monterey, CA, which he founded in 1999. He has written on Home Automation topics for various trade publications, and consults with venture capital funds, investment banks, and manufacturers on competitive factors in this sector.

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