You need to be as smart as the tech

When the Internet of Things is falling down around them and Siri and Cortana leave them high and dry, this is when the knowledgeable independent retailer comes to the customer’s rescue says T21 managing director Paul Laville

This morning, disaster struck.

No Facebook or Twitter, no iPlayer, Netflix or YouTube – even the conflicting weather apps on our phones weren’t working. Both Siri and Cortana spun in their little hamster-wheels, telling us to ‘wait a moment…’ as they searched in vain for a connection.

My internet was down, our mobiles were down, and it was virtually apocalyptic.

My nine-year old, who seemed the worst affected, alerted us to the fact we’d been cut off from the world outside by barging into our bedroom around 6am and announcing: “I can’t do most of my hobbies!”

“Are all your hobbies online?” I asked her blearily, once I’d figured out what was happening.

“All the ones I like,” she answered.

My eldest daughter stormed in next with: “Facetime isn’t working!”

Part of me wondered who the hell she was ‘facetiming’ (yes, I believe that is a real verb now) at this hour, while another part of me began wondering how I’d get any work done if we still had no connection by lunchtime. I had Skype calls booked in, websites to test. Big files to send and receive. What if I couldn’t get on email?

I guess everything has its upside.

Later, scoffing toast and coffee in the kitchen, I pondered our much-talked-about Internet of Things and wondered how connected products would cope with an outage of this magnitude – at least two hours of downtime. My kitchen isn’t a connected kitchen, but if it were, I wondered, would it be completely scuppered now? Would a multitude of error notifications be flashing up on various displays demanding immediate attention before breakfast? Would my connected toaster refuse to do bagels? Would my connected washing machine now be under the impression it was still last Tuesday? If I were a customer, what could you say to reassure me that, despite the downtime and error codes on the system I’d paid thousands of pounds for, everything would be ok?

Possibly, I was overthinking it. I can generally handle things when it all goes a bit wobbly, although last year I was scarred horribly by the ‘Windows 10 incident’ and now my dad’s always saying, “what happens when the internet breaks, lad?” It’s his standard response to anything technology-based and I always tell him it never happens: the fact that his iPad won’t work is due to nothing more than ‘user error’.

Still, after this morning’s outage, maybe he had a point.

From a sales perspective, we want tell customers there’s nothing to worry about. It’s true that most connected products, once set up, will pretty much take care of themselves and will happily install updates during the wee hours. The days when customers had to try to blag an under-the-counter disc from Geoff in the shop to make it all work again are thankfully long gone.

But you can’t offer reassurances without knowledge and, if you’re advising on smart-home solutions, that knowledge has to be incredibly deep and extensive. So you need to invest time in training. Resist the temptation to think you know everything, because changes in this field happen rapidly and frequently.

Luckily, many manufacturers and distributors run training on their own ecosystems of connected products, but I wouldn’t stop there.

It’s worthwhile going out of your way to understand how the kit works in broader frameworks than the product alone. You might pick up some of this from the manufacturer, but if you want to build up real expertise, a good place to start is Cedia.

The Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association operates a packed calendar of training seminars, technology forums and workshops for both highly-experienced and new-to-market retailers, engineers, consultants and installers.

Its courses are often independent of any manufacturer or brand and plenty lead to professional accreditation. They are all run by experts, they’ll tackle new products and technology trends as easily as they’ll lift the lid on current ones. Everything from home cinema to intelligent kitchens, controlled lighting, security and energy management systems, the cabling, the racks and pretty much everything in-between. And there is no such thing as a stupid question.

But training? Really?

Well, yes. Fact is, if you’re making the most of high-end smart-home opportunities, then you’re moving into a service-led business, and you can’t provide a credible service to your customers unless you have the knowledge. You need to be smart, at least as smart as the tech. You need to invest time in training and make it a part of your working career.

If you can tell people like my dad what happens when the internet breaks, it’ll be time well spent.