What do you get when a home builder, an electrical company, and a home automation manufacturer all come together with a focus on providing the best customer experience?
This year at the International Builder Show (IBS) in Las Vegas, I visited with Jason Collman, VP of sales for Clare Controls, to learn more about how Clare was working with builders to help make it easier for them to provide their new home customers with the latest technology. Collman shared several success stories with builders throughout the country and suggested that I don’t just take his word for it, but that I visit with one of his builder partners, M/I Homes, which is going to be putting Clare in around 3,000 homes around the country this year. So, I went to Houston, where the relationship started, to learn more about how builders are using Clare Controls products to provide added value to their customers purchasing a new home.
Clare Controls has been around since 2010 and has gone through many changes during that time. Recently, the Clare team has started to refocus the company and streamlined the product line with imbedded wireless security so production builders could offer to their buyers a solution once only available to custom home buyers. This offering would provide a premium smart home experience at a fair price, with no strings attached.
Clare’s new approach has clearly been working well over the past few years as the company is currently doing business with nearly 300 dealers nationally and will have around 20,000 smart-home controllers installed this year alone based on their builder’s new projects pipeline. Now with their new partnership with SnapAV, they are expecting those numbers to grow.
Research has shown that 80 percent of new home buyers feel that smart-home technology should be included in the home, and 75 percent of customers surveyed said that if they were deciding between two different homes, smart-home technology would be the deciding factor for making their purchase. The challenge for many builders has been that as land prices have increased along with building materials in some areas, adding the cost of technology to the home as a standard has had the perception of being too expensive, too complicated, or too difficult for the builder to service. The end result, often times, was a customer that paid more for their home, yet had problems using the technology installed in it, leaving a negative impression on the builder.
To try and address these problems, many builders have experimented with using big-name products like Amazon Alexa, Nest, Ring, and others to attract customers. However, these DIY-type products often carry a premium price point for their respective category and are really designed for the homeowner to service. Some builders have tried to use security-based systems with smart home features or other bundled systems that require a recurring monthly fee to help cover the cost of the equipment. Many customers didn’t like having another monthly bill for their technology and in many cases, this led to a poor customer experience and caused problems for the builder and all involved.
The partnership with M/I Homes and Clare Controls started with one of the nation’s largest electrical companies, IES Holdings (formerly Integrated Electrical Services), which has 29 locations around the country and trades publicly as IESC. Chris Brunner, the North Houston division manager, is responsible for this fast-growing division, which does around 300 homes a month. IES North Houston had been doing electrical work with M/I Homes for many years when Brunner saw the opportunity to improve his partnership with the builder by providing low-voltage installations, as well. This IES branch had begun offering low-voltage services to its customers several years ago, when Brunner was looking to differentiate and expand beyond line-voltage electrical services that they were already offering. Low-voltage technology was changing much faster than the electrical trade, and his team of 120 employees was up for the challenge and embraced the new direction.
Brunner later learned that his Dallas office was already using Clare on other builders’ projects and recognized that it would be a perfect fit for M/I Homes in how it would address many of the issues the builder had been experiencing with their previous technology offerings.
Brunner liked the Apple-esque feel of the app, the quality and assortment of products, and that there were no monthly fees or hidden costs. It was the perfect mix of a solid product for an honest price. He brought this solution to the Houston office of M/I Homes to show them how they could improve the technology experience for their customers.
M/I Homes started in 1976 in Columbus, OH, where their corporate office still resides, but has now expanded with offices in 17 locations throughout the country. Houston is the fastest-growing market in the country for new home construction, and also where M/I Homes first started with Clare Controls. In Houston, I met with Jay McManus, the area president for M/I Homes, to learn more about their experience with providing smart-home technology to their customers.
Now, if you ask most builders about their experience with technology as a part of the home, you will likely hear stories of customers not understanding how to use it, not wanting to spend the money, or having problems getting service with the system down the road after the equipment’s warranty expires. So, it was no surprise that the discussions with Collman from Clare controls started nearly a year before systems started being installed as a standard in the Houston M/I Homes. McManus and the builder team wanted to ensure that this product offering, and the manufacturer supporting it, was going to “do right by the customer,” which is a core value of M/I Homes in which all decisions are made. Every six months they evaluate every aspect of their builder product offering and determine if it “adds value” to the homeowner. If not, then they make changes to ensure the highest level of customer satisfaction.
For the evaluation process, M/I Homes made a significant investment to have systems installed in the model homes as well as the homes of several team members so they could live with the product for a bit, including McManus and his family. McManus and his wife both really enjoyed being able to control their Honeywell thermostats to ensure that someone hadn’t overrode the settings and made an area of the house either too hot or cold. They found themselves using the lighting control capabilities and noted that it was convenient to be able to ensure that all of the lights were off at night and liked returning to a well-lit home in the evening for greater security. They also found greater peace of mind using the security cameras.
Not everyone who had a system for evaluation just lived with it. Some wanted to truly test the level of service that Clare was going to provide their customers. Collman recalled a time in which he received a call from his tech-support team regarding one of the homes where a system was installed. They had received six calls regarding problems with the system falling off-line and other random issues. Collman reached out to the M/I Home employee and apologized for the problems. He wanted to dig deeper and come out with IES to further evaluate the glitch and make sure they got it resolved, as this was not a normal occurrence. It turns out that this was all being done intentionally by the M/I Homes employee so he could see how Clare’s Customer Service would handle repetitive issues. As with any business, sometimes you get a customer that experiences more problems than normal, and M/I Homes wanted to see how Clare would support even the most challenging customers.
Speaking of service, one of the biggest benefits of Clare Controls is how they service and support not just their dealers, but also the end-user. Unlike most smart home systems on the market which require advanced programming from the company that installed it, or often times needs someone to be on-site to troubleshoot a problem, Clare’s customer support team can fix about 90 percent of their calls from their office in Sarasota, FL.
The majority of their calls come from homeowners who are looking to add something new like a smart thermostat they bought, or maybe they need to get their new door lock to work with their system. These simple additions take only minutes for a Clare specialist to complete remotely. Clare also has built out a robust database of support for third-party products, which allows for many items such as Sonos and various IP cameras to be discovered automatically, requiring no need to even remote into the system. The customer can simply install the product, and the Clare System sees the device online and automatically integrates it into the user interface. For larger additions to the system, or for problems that can’t be fixed over the phone, Clare will reach out to the dealer partner that installed the system and have them go on-site to assist.
With the increase in popularity of DIY products, it’s no surprise that research has shown that homeowners want to make their own changes and don’t want to have to rely on an installer for simple updates or additions. Unfortunately, many of the larger DIY manufacturers outsource their support team to call centers around the globe. Clare, on the other hand, tackles all of its support in-house (for free), so the tech-support person that a homeowner speaks with is very familiar with the product and has the experience to handle their concern in an efficient manner.
After about a year of testing and working together on a launch strategy, M/I Homes was ready for Brunner and his team from IES to start integrating Clare technology into their homes. Collectively, the three companies worked together to create marketing materials that make it easier for the homeowner to understand the technology and what upgrade packages are available. Every home comes with a standard package that includes the Clare smart home controller with wireless security, HVAC integration, lighting control, a video doorbell, and also free remote access, self-monitoring, and tech support for life.
Together, they outfitted the M/I Home models and design centers, and then trained all of their sales agents on how the technology worked while making sure that every agent had the Clare app installed on their phone and was comfortable demonstrating it to every customer. This was done well in advance of the first system being installed in a customer’s home as an additional measure to ensure there were no performance issues prior to their customers experiencing the product for the first time.
Once a customer purchases the home, a member from IES meets with each customer to go over the technology that is included and make them aware of additional technology packages that are available, such as additional lighting, automated door locks, and home entertainment or music packages. Once installed, IES comes back and spends 60-90 minutes going over how their system works and providing them with the customer support information for both Clare Controls and IES, so customers feel good knowing they don’t have to call the builder down the road should they have any further needs with the technology.
So far, M/I Homes in Houston has included Clare Controls in 260 of their homes in 2019 and is expecting to exceed 400 homes by year’s end. They are finding that their customers are spending four to five times more on additional technology than what they had spent previously because of how easy the system is to use, how affordable it is to expand, and that there are no monthly fees or additional strings attached. McManus and his team are very happy with the response they are getting from their customers, saying that his team has not received any issues so far. This success has led to Clare Controls expanding their program with M/I Homes into 11 other markets with around 2,000 systems forecasted so far to be installed this year, and even more markets likely to follow.
McManus notes that the home buyer market is changing, and customers are expecting the technology to be there just like they do the stove and other standards. He sees that technology will take a bigger role in new homes and feels that a lot of what we are seeing with more minimalist design and younger buyers will continue to create the opportunity for additional technology to be a more important part of the new home requirements. McManus has already seen other builders in the market try and come out with solutions to compete, but it’s more than just about offering technology to your customers.
M/I Homes tagline is “Welcome to Better!” To be better, you need to have the right team of people all working together with the customer’s best interest in mind and with IES and Clare Controls as partners, they definitely have the right technology team in place!