Home Economics: Home automation flourishes through customer service

Rance Bell (left) talks with Stephen Gantt, a field service technician for Vivint, about smartphone apps. Adding to an existing system is easy, Gantt said.
Rance Bell (left) talks with Stephen Gantt, a field service technician for Vivint, about smartphone apps. Adding to an existing system is easy, Gantt said. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 20, 2012

Today's home-economics class is as much about the consumer as the product and service being consumed.

Rance Bell of Burlington Township has 26 years of service with the Air Force behind him, the first six as a German-speaking linguist and the rest as a readiness superintendent for the Sixth Airlift Squadron at Joint Base McGuire/Dix/Lakehurst.

On a sunny Tuesday morning, standing as he is able in his dining room as he recuperates from foot surgery, the retired master sergeant is extolling the virtues of home-automation technology, for which he pays $55 a month to Vivint, his Utah-based provider.

"If I'm at work and I want the house to be 72 degrees when I arrive home, I call up the app on my smartphone, adjust the heat up to 72, and it is nice and toasty when I arrive home," says Bell, who is pursuing a master's degree in organizational management and has his eye on a doctorate in information technology.

If he were bedridden, he could set the alarm after a visitor left. With an upgrade, said Vivint technician Stephen Gantt of Philadelphia, Bell could even lock the door, or unlock it, remotely.

Pretty cool, for sure. The economy may still be sluggish, and real estate is recovering in more fits than starts, but home automation, apparently, is a growth industry.

ABI Research, a provider of "technology-market intelligence," reports that over the next five years the home-automation market will increase at a compounded annual growth rate of 60 percent.

Companies such as Comcast, ADT, Verizon, and Lowe's are adding home automation to their customer service, ABI says.

And customer service is the operative phrase here. As Bell's experience illustrates, home automation without it is a waste of money and time.

Back in 2004, Bell had a $65-a-month home-security contract with another company that covered the alarm and central monitoring.

"Basic services and not state of the art," Bell says.

He wasn't happy with the provider, he says, "but what turned me off was the customer service. It was terrible."

If Bell had a problem with the alarm, he'd call and get "Bob" in Chicago. If the problem persisted, he'd call again and get "June" in Minnesota.

"Quality is customer-driven," Bell says. "I'm the customer, and I'm in charge. If I own a restaurant and you want a vegetarian sandwich, and I don't make them, you'll go somewhere else.

"If I want your business, I'll offer the sandwich, and you'll become a repeat customer. I've appealed to the consumer in you."

If anyone understands customer service and how important not wasting time is, it's Bell. He transferred from the military's largest post office at Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany to Saudi Arabia in spring 1990. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait, triggering Operation Desert Shield, and virtually overnight he saw his operation grow from 18 people handing 50 mailbags a day to 160 sorting 50 bags every half-hour.

"Customer service means that all the individuals who provide it are trained to the same level," Bell says. "I'm not going to waste money. I'm going to empower myself."

Home automation is one way he can do this, he says. By adjusting his smart thermostat to control energy costs, Bell can save about $100 a month, for example.

Appliance modules on his Vivint app allow him to start the oven or turn on his coffeemaker by smartphone. They also allow him to control the lighting.

Adding to the existing smart system is easy, Gantt says.

"One of the best features is how easily hardwired sensors can be changed into wireless ones," says Gantt, noting that wireless technology and smartphones make automation systems available to those with older homes, too.

Wireless technology lets Bell, on his smartphone, talk through the control main "box" at the doorway to the thermostat, or over the Internet to the coffeemaker.

This is "Z-wave" technology, akin, Gantt says, to Bluetooth. More than 160 home-automation manufacturers use it.

The ability to add on to existing automation packages reduces costs - a good thing because what was new yesterday is old today, and change comes fast.

"In January, new technology will have doorbells that take a snapshot of the person pressing the button and transmit it to a screen for the homeowner to see," Gantt says. And that's only one advance.

Several factors are driving new entrants into the market, says ABI Research: connectivity, with high home broadband-penetration rates; the potential for embedded cellular connections to connect systems; and smartphone apps that allow consumers to control and check their homes wherever they are.

Market changes are also making home automation more affordable. A traditional large up-front installation and equipment purchase is increasingly being replaced by monthly subscription offerings, often bundled along with existing services.

"The focus is on safety and convenience," says Gantt, whose territory of Vivint extends from Harrisburg into New Jersey. "Technology is taking these concerns to the forefront."

Builders, shaking off nearly seven years of lagging sales and construction, appear to have renewed their interest in home automation.

This year's New American Home, a show house built for the National Association of Home Builders convention, emphasized technology that could be scaled from a 2,500-square-foot residence up to 25,000 square feet.

"It's not just smart . . . it's brilliant," the builders group quipped earlier this year.

Bell says he switched to Vivint after the company called out of the blue one day late in 2003 and extensive follow-up research led him to call back.

"The customer-service rep said he'd call me back Tuesday at 8 p.m.," Bell recalls. "He did."

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.

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