Cyber, meat Space

Well, that was interesting. I wrote last time about how AV123 is doing just about everything right to ship the highest quality Chinese-made loudspeaker systems and electronics to the most possible customers at the lowest possible cost. That led to some interesting conversation online and off regarding what the AV123 model means for other companies with similar aspirations. It also led to an interesting lunch with Steve Ozmai, who, I found out, has just become General Manager for the company. 

First, though, I enjoyed a long-delayed listening session at the Main Listening Facility adjacent to AV123’s World Headquarters. Steve had stressed that there were critical technical requirements to facilitate the listening session: “auditioning speakers just doesn’t work without pizza and cheap American beer.”

Note the cheap American beer support technology

I had learned that AV123 is so virtual that they’ve never had a listening room, so I accepted Steve Ozmai’s invitation to stop by his home for some old-fashioned listening. In many audio shops, this is a perfunctory experience, limited to the personally-owned CD or two that the commissioned sales guy carries in his pocket. Instead Steve hauls out a massive portfolio of disks and we settle in his third bedroom for some real listening. “Long-delayed listening session”, indeed! About 20 years, in fact.

Steve started off with a CD I hadn’t even heard of, a 1996 release by Patricia Barber called Café Blue. Stereophile magazine rated it as one of the Records to Die For from that year:

Café Blue has seduced everyone for whom I have ever played it—jazz people, rock people, Medicare people, even computer people. Some call from record stores, sounding slightly desperate: “That album you played for me the other night! What was her name again?” If you have a voice that’s a dark pure whisper straight up from the soul, and if you’ve lived it yourself, you can sing to people of their innermost anxieties and they will not only love it, they will need it.

She sings an amazingly slow and anguished Ode to Billy Joe and, surprisingly, an impactful A Taste of Honey.

He played another CD I hadn’t heard (what planet have I been on?): Roger Waters’ 1992 Amused to Death. Waters was a founder and chief lyricist for Pink Floyd, so I shoulda known what I was in for. The album treats the effect of TV on an ape, trying to tease some sense out of the pixellated world on the tube, mind growing more numb and jaw more slack. The sound on this 2-track CD was beyond belief. “Soundstage” is an overused audio term for how a stereo creates its illusion, laying out the instruments in front of you, usually between the speakers and not just from the two point sources, where logic says the sound should come from. On great systems, the soundstage grows outside of the speakers, which I still don’t understand. I thought that was as good as it could get.

On Perfect Sense, played on the Onix SP3 amp and two bookshelf-size Reference 1‘s, the sound filled the room but came from different spots all over it. The track literally forces you to get up out of your chair to see if any other speakers are playing. The album was playing as the above picture was taken, and the pic proves that I had not over-applied the cheap American beer support tech: you can see that the support solution is still above the label. Listen to this album. It’s an amazing mental excursion, even played on iTunes over SoundSticks, but on the SP3-Ref 1 combo, the sound is a sensory delight, as the reviewer says.

So it is still possible to get a great listening session from an audio retailer, though it seems to take a 21st Century, customer-driven, Net-buzzword compliant company to attract you—a stranger from 2300 miles away—even if it lacks a showroom.

Servicing Customers, not Screwing Consumers

The next day at lunch, Steve filled me in on the fine points of running a fast-growing company online. The obvious limitation is ears-on system tuning. Audio gear can be touchy, and each customer’s listening room affects the sound. This has inspired Mark and his people to constantly monitor their customer forum. As with so many online communities, the forum has had the effect of “deputizing” many of AV123’s customers who are especially knowledgeable and helpful. That seems to solve most complaints. Then there’s the heavy artillery approach I mentioned last time, which puts Mark Schifter on a plane to visit the unhappy customer and setting things right and reporting back to the tribe how it went. That’s certainly on the far end of the high tech-high touch scale that John Naisbitt first described in Megatrends.

Modern CEOs, the plastic ones whose description Doc liked last time, cannot even parse the logic behind such an action. Mark Schifter is dumb like a fox. His Massaging By Exception (cf.) approach is the occasional small price paid for skipping the expensive part of marketing: The marketing.

Mark’s got no MBAs, no agency,  no ads, no distributors, no inventory sitting in warehouses and showrooms, except for the nominal 2-3 week’s worth of JIT gear flowing through the Broomfield facility. His “sales” staff readily admit to being order takers—an admission that people in sales never make. So the community forum and enthusiastic reviews keep the flow of orders coming.

But Mark is driven to such responses by his heart as much as his head. He seems to really need the constant feedback from his chosen community: customers. Would that every CEO was dependent on customer feedback. His community forum is really a group blog with Mark as the chief blogger: 4530 posts since Dec, 2002. Last Friday afternoon, there
had been 138,879 posts to the forum. As I write, another 1,300 have been added, to 140,269. Interestingly, 2,290 members contribute to the forum, or 59 posts on average by people who aren’t the CEO.

Mark crashed for a few hours after landing in Hong Kong Saturday night and woke at 3 to commune with his peeps on a new thread, The Masters Live in Hong Kong. So a little conversation evolved, about golf, and hangin’ out together across the globe and nothing at all about audio gear. Then, on the 12th reply in the thread, a forum member named A&B’s Dad, from Ellicott City, MD, posts a comment that any company would kill for:

“I was standing in the kitchen with the Masters on in the family room, when I heard this thwack coming from my 2 pairs of 250’s. It was Tiger’s tee shot. Incredible power and even more incredible sound. Whoever thought I would be crowing about my Rockets because of a golf shot.”

Steve and I discussed their discovery that doing business in public can be really scary, since customers are not always delighted and amazed, no matter how good you are. My friend and trusted mentor, Micah Sifry, likens online openness to the rock star diving into the mosh pit. It takes more trust than most of us can muster.

Customers can be very vocal about easily solved issues, and some make a career of it. But fixing a problem for an unhappy customer is worth ten reports from customers who start happy and remain so, because the audience is listening, as the THX slogan says, and not just to their gear. The AV123 community sees these complaints pop up, they participate in the problem solving, and witness the company doing whatever it takes to resolve them. Are Mark and his folks better managers and more conscientious than the rest of us? Unlikely. But they have put themselves into an environment, of their own design, where they are forced to be better than the rest of us.

And AV123 is teaching all of us how to put ourselves into an environment where we are forced to be better than we are.

12:53:55 PM    

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