“You’ve never sold anything and don’t know the first thing about sound masking, why would I ever dream of hiring you?”
Those were the first words Bruce Davidson, Founder and CEO of Speech Privacy Systems said to me when I came in for an interview several years ago. In all fairness, I was an education major who had been a Texas High School Football coach for several years. I had a masters degree in Educational Administration. So the fact that I was sitting in front of him interviewing to be his new sales rep for his sound masking company didn’t exactly line up with your usual career path. Somehow I convinced him that even though my resume had the number of football games won as an accomplishment, I was the right choice for his next sales hire.
The first thing I had to learn was how to understand acoustical solutions so I could confidently help people find the right solutions for their space. Acoustics in general is often seen as a very scientific or mathematic discipline that is not easy for everyone to understand. Consultants are often highly educated and very technical in their understanding of acoustics and how to best measure and solve problems in a space. That doesn’t mean that salespeople who are in the industry have to have a degree in acoustics. I learned early that if I can boil the principles down to a basic understanding for myself, I could then explain it in a simple way to anyone.
Simple as ABC
Acoustics can be addressed in 3 basic ways. For maximum effectiveness, utilizing all 3 in a space is going to be the best option. Many people I talk to who are having noise complaints in their office are looking for information to better understand the problem and potential solutions. If we can make it easy for them to understand and then identify the correct solution, there is much less “selling” happening on the call. The 3 ways to address sound issues are Absorb, Block and Cover.
- Absorb – Absorbing is when a material takes in the sound instead of reflecting. If a space has reverberation or echo, absorptive materials will help reduce the echo and improve the sound quality in a space.
- Block – Blocking is done by a material that stops the free flow of sound from one area to the next. A wall, door, divider or partition all block sound to one degree or another.
- Cover – Covering is done by introducing a background sound to a quiet space to cover over noises and conversations. Typically this is done with sound masking, but some spaces have loud HVAC systems or other background sounds that effectively do the same thing.
Not all three are created equal. Some are more effective than others and some cost more than others. Many offices already have ceiling tiles and carpet that have some absorption, while others have walls and private offices. The key to creating the proper solution for a space is to understand what is already in the space and then add the missing component(s) to the equation.
As a new salesperson starting out, I wanted to make the sale every time to anyone who would listen. We only had one product at the time, so naturally that was going to be the correct solution for them regardless of what they really needed (This is the part where maybe it is better to hire someone with sales experience instead of a football coach). It didn’t take me very long to learn that we were not the correct solution for everyone. Some clients had very bad echo in their space and sound masking would not be the proper solution. I began to make some partnerships with other companies that could handle that problem and would refer the person to them. This process helped me understand how best to create solutions for clients that will solve their problem.
“Let’s just add some acoustic panels to the walls”
After speaking with many, many people about the issues in their office space, I have learned that most of us believe that adding acoustic panels to absorb the sound will be the best option. The assumption that acoustic panels is the best option is probably the #1 misconception I hear from people with acoustical issues. Everyone assumes that you need to add foam to the walls like the drum set from Step Brothers. The problem comes when the panels actually work as they are supposed to work. Many people are having issues with privacy or distractions in their office, so if we simply absorb the sound, we make the space quieter. We have all heard the old saying “so quiet you can hear a pin drop,” and that is typically what you don’t want in an office. If you can hear a pin drop, you can certainly hear all the keys clicking on the keyboard, coffee pouring and boss having a conversation. In this case, we would look to add a background sound like sound masking to the space to improve privacy and reduce distracting noises.
Sometimes a customer has issues with sound traveling and building in the space. Reverberation is the issue and adding sound masking would simply add noise to an already noisy and problematic situation. A combination of acoustic panels and space dividers help absorb and block that sound from building. The key is helping educate a customer so they can fully understand how all the solutions work. Once they have that understanding, our job is to help them navigate the choices available to solve their problem.
Try the Incremental Approach
Many clients begin working with a very knowledgeable acoustical consultant to make recommendations for the acoustical treatments. If the budget allows, that is often recommended. The reality for many businesses is that an acoustical consultant is not going to be in the budget. I have learned that the next best approach can simply be to do an incremental approach to the ABCs of the space. Many times one option is cheaper than the others, so if budgets are the issue, we can try the least expensive first and see how it helps. Then add the next option if more is needed to reach a desired outcome.
I had an experience with a customer who was having major echo problems in their break room. We knew that acoustic panels were needed, but the budget vs the amount needed were a little at odds. We decided to start with a small amount that worked for their budget. Once installed, the client said that it made a major difference and was very happy with the result. The interesting thing that happened after was that since he saw how well that worked, they ended up finding the money in the budget to add more treatments to the space. After the second installation, he was overjoyed with the change in the space. It went from an unusable space to exactly what they had envisioned it to be.
The key was making sure he understood how the ABCs worked in his space and then how to work our way towards a solution. The reason this approach works is while we can take measurements and show the difference mathematically, acoustic comfort is often more subjective to a customer. Sometimes better is perfect for them, and other times better is not quite good enough. Making sure that they understand how it all works helps the customer get to the final solution cheaper and with the right frame of reference.
While acoustics is a very technical field with people much smarter than me working in it, the principles of helping a customer understand it are not. Absorb, Block and Cover used together in a space will always improve the privacy and overall acoustical comfort. My job is to make sure that the people I am talking with understand that concept.