Radio dealerships: threats and opportunities
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
Installing radio equipment increasingly involves linking it to customers’ other systems

Giving the customer what they want even if they don’t yet know it, is part and parcel of being a radio dealership. Sam Fenwick explores how their role has changed and the current threats and opportunities

Dealerships are a key part of the PMR supply chain, providing the link between end users and equipment manufacturers. The pace of technological progress has been breath-taking over the past few years. With the migration to digital still underway and the beginnings of PMR/cellular convergence, how have things changed for dealerships’ customers?

“I think the industry has come full circle,” says Karl Beach, director at SFL Mobile Radio. “Millions of users jumped ship to cellular back in the 1990s. Over the last decade they’ve started coming back because radio has its advantages: push-to-talk, high power, clarity, digital options, and poor cellular coverage in rural areas.”

“Clients require more than just simple PTT now,” says Steve Luscombe, director at DCRS. “A lot of customers are aware that a radio is no longer just a communication device.

“With the applications that are available our clients can do a lot more with digital two-way radios,” he adds. “We’re being asked more and more to link the radios into building management systems or fire alarm systems, and we’re getting requests to make the radio more of a communication tool where it can receive messages from third-party applications and people can operate devices from the radio rather than having to go back to a control room.”

He adds that DCRS also offers dispatch systems and is selling “a lot more wide-area solutions now”, with a focus on linking sites together and allowing them to be controlled by one point using an application. Another area Luscombe highlights is the use of job-ticketing systems that work with two-way radios.

“We’re finding that clients are now carrying one device rather than many. The future is about customers wanting their radios to do more, now that we’ve got the applications that allow them to do so.”

According to Paul Gibson, managing director at Scottish Communications Group, health and safety obligations have led to a significant rise in the use of added features sets – such as man down and lone worker – to help employers fulfil their duty of care.

Who are the points of contact for dealers in big client organisations? “In telecoms the shift has [been] from a telecoms manager to more of an IT manager,” says Andrew Roberts, Pennine Telecom’s managing director, ”but it’s not normally the IT manager who looks after the radio solution. With radio it tends to be security, production, that type of management that benefit from radio communications. The task that we have as radio dealers is to educate those people of the business benefits of radio.”

Dave Scaife, operations manager at DTS.Solutions, adds that customers’ demand for value for money “has become far more important. Many users are now taking a long-term view and they’re focused on how the system can be compatible with other technologies they use.”

Finding a USP
How are dealerships responding to these new requirements? “We’re telling customers about the digital revolution, the interface with SIP and IP products, the things that you can do in terms of redundancy for mission-critical [use]…” says Roberts. “We’re seeing growth in our radio sales business and we think it’s down to those extra applications and features that were not available six or seven years ago.”

According to SFL’s Beach, advances in technology have changed the way dealerships are structured. “Back in analogue days most businesses were very engineer top-heavy. Because the equipment wasn’t as reliable as it is today you’d have maybe 10 to 20 engineers to one salesperson. Now that technology has evolved engineers repairing equipment with a soldering iron and an old analogue test set isn’t really what you see today.”

Many dealerships were keen to stress the importance of innovation and the need to go beyond simply selling handsets.

“To make a company successful, what you ought to be doing is building a system, taking away the commoditisation, and building in apps and business applications that then make the customer a lot stickier to you and your application,” says Roberts. “For instance, we’ve been very successful selling portering solutions for hospitals with integrated software that provides job-ticketing and geo-tracking of porters.”

“To survive in this environment you need to bring something different to the table; have that USP over other dealers,” adds Beach. “Radio engineers need to be encouraged to develop innovative new products to suit the different verticals that are out there.”

He highlights SFL’s Sure Antennas brand, which manufactures and sells covert antennas. “We have weekly engineering meetings and new ideas are thrown round the boardroom... we speak with our customers and research their requirements. With our key clients we will meet up every quarter and discuss the positives and if there’s anything out there that could improve their efficiency.”

Beach says that SFL focuses on developing bespoke solutions. “While we supply run of the mill radio systems, I think it’s very important to offer a bespoke solution as well. It helps with customer satisfaction and loyalty.”

“The ability to program customers’ radios over the air has helped to add small but incremental gains in our sales for customers who want minor changes to their contact list or channel permissions,” says DTS.Solutions’ Scaife. “Those customers would in the past have been put off by the added labour cost to attend sites.”

“Dealerships really need to keep on top of modern technology and make sure there’s resources to sell and install this equipment and make sure employees are trained to do so,” says DCRS’ Luscombe. “We need our staff to be up to speed on all technologies to ensure that we can deliver the best solutions to our clients. We’ve also got to continue to invest in engineering and develop our engineers into IT and IP.”

Gibson says Scottish Communications has recently substantially invested in its marketing functions, including launching a sector-driven website. The company has also developed a bespoke and structural engineer-approved solution for deploying “non-permanent, fully self-powered and low maintenance communications structures” into remote locations that experience harsh and challenging conditions.

Brexit’s impact on dealerships
It now feels like an eternity since the result that shocked a nation, but what effect (if any) has it had on radio dealerships?

“We keep a close eye on the US dollar, that’s the only thing that we see as a threat to the technology industry,” says Pennine's managing director Andrew Roberts. “Everything is bought in US dollars. At some stage in the not-too-distant future [manufacturers’ currency deals] will run out and it is inevitable that we’ll see a price increase in the UK on everything that’s imported. If you want to buy anything buy it before Christmas, because I think prices will start going up afterwards as the effects of the weak pound hit the UK.”

“Since Brexit, we saw one or two local authorities and councils start to rethink whether they have the budget to spend,” says DCRS’ director Steve Luscombe. “But we’ve not really seen a downturn. Maybe one or two authorities are holding off a little. But we’ve just had our best quarter for a number of years on sales.”

Cellular convergence
One often-discussed theme is cellular convergence, which includes using smartphone apps to allow cellular users to speak to those on two-way radio networks, through to rugged smartphones intended to duplicate many of the functions of modern radio handsets. What do dealers make of it?

“We’ve seen our wide-area business completely wiped out by cellular, but we’ve moved on from that and we concentrate on multi-site and on-site communications,” says Pennine’s Roberts. “We see [cellular convergence] as an opportunity.”

“We welcome smartphone PTT apps because they have a place, especially if you look at Motorola Solutions’ WAVE option,” says Luscombe. “But a lot of the systems we supply are mission-critical – they can’t rely on third party networks to operate. [PTT smartphone apps do] have a market, but they will never replace traditional two-way radio systems and the latest applications that digital technology can offer.”

”The convergence with cellular is a must,” says SFL’s Beach. “There’s certainly a need for both two-way radio and cellular. It can only be a good thing for applications and forward-thinking dealers to tap into… Radio has its limitations; the coverage is only as good as the network infrastructure that’s in place. Whereas you can integrate your radio anywhere in the world with a mobile phone if necessary. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for dealers.”

What other threats and opportunities are out there at the moment? DCRS’ Luscombe says the only issue the firm has “is with finding licences and frequencies for clients in some of the major towns and cities. We are struggling at the moment to find spectrum from Ofcom… especially within the M25 area and some of the larger cities.”

However, none of the other dealers I spoke with mentioned this problem, perhaps highlighting its regional nature.

“We see the recent launch of full duplex DMR technology as a real opportunity,” says Scottish Communications’ Gibson. “The one threat we see would be if GSM coverage became significantly higher, especially in remote locations.”

Meeting the grade
SFL was recently awarded ISO 9001:2008 certification, which means the company has processes in place to ensure it’s consistently meeting customers’ requirements and striving to keep improving. Beach says it was mainly prompted by the company’s growth, but also because it was required by some of the larger organisations SFL is working with. “The ISO has helped to ensure that bridges are built between sales, manufacturing, service, stores and R&D departments,” he explains. “It enabled us to assess the bridges between our departments – so anything from the customer’s ideas and expectations, right through to R&D and developing prototypes.”

He advises others looking to obtain the same certification that inter-department communication is key. “Everybody must be aware of the different procedures within each department to have the end result: customer satisfaction.” Beach adds that the process is much simpler for companies that don’t do their own R&D.

It’s increasingly clear that the role of modern dealerships is not to simply push products, but to educate their customers about radio’s benefits while developing new offerings and continually looking for ways to improve their clients’ operations.

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