Dan Feinberg and Nolan Johnson recently spoke with David Merritt of Headset Advisor, a company that specializes in supplying headsets to businesses and call centers of all sizes. They discuss the company’s business model, how the pandemic has affected their business, and how the needs of employees have changed in the past year.
Dan Feinberg: David, please tell us how you got started.
David Merritt: My dad started the company in 1994. He was working for a Fortune 500 company, but he was just sick of the corporate world and felt like he could bring more value doing something on his own. So, he started working out of his garage with a focus on office supplies, but after talking with customers he found out headsets was this weird niche that a lot of customers needed help with, and there was a lot of confusion in the technology. My brothers and myself got on board about seven years ago and have taken the technology to the next level with the company.
Feinberg: Tell us more about that.
Merritt: Headset Advisor provides telephone headsets for businesses, a lot like the ones I’m wearing here, like you’re wearing, and like Nolan should be wearing right now. We provide that to companies across the United States, into Canada, and we’re expanding internationally as well.
Feinberg: It’s interesting that you specialized on a particular device like headsets, because there are all kinds of online companies where you can buy devices, but not somebody that specializes in a specific device. I think that it gives you a huge advantage. What gave your father the idea to focus on headsets?
Merritt: I think it was just the demand for the requests. My father did a lot of California state business, he was in a lot of customer locations and the requests kept coming. You’ve got to work with the manufacturers and build these kinds of relationships. We changed our name in 2019 from Merritt Communication to Headset Advisors just to narrow the focus of what we do. This is what we’re experts in. We said, “Let’s stay in our lane, and let’s see how far we can take this.”
But you’re absolutely right as far as providing something that other companies don’t; we have that extra level of expertise. We can make product recommendations, provide technical support through phone, email and live chat.
Feinberg: I was having some problems with my headsets not always staying online. I called and you sent me a new driver file. I’ve never had it drop since.
Merritt: Wow. That’s awesome.
Nolan Johnson: Thanks to so many people working from home, headsets have become standard equipment in our home office. How has that affected your business? Has it changed the customer analysis or product matchup work that you do? Have you had to pivot at all?
Merritt: It’s still too soon for us to really tell because we don’t know how many people will start migrating back to the office. Is it going to be half, 25%, 90% of what it used to be? I don’t really know, but as soon as COVID hit in March, our phones were ringing off the hook. With any USB-related device, people needed it and they needed it quick. It was something that I don’t think I’ll ever experience in my life again—those national and global backorders of anything USB-related—and that was for two or three months. And now supplies have come back in, manufacturing has ramped back out. The market’s able to see those USB headsets come back into stock, but I’ve definitely noticed that the headsets I’m wearing that connect solely to the computer with a USB device are increasing in demand dramatically, and the ones connecting for desk phones are decreasing in demand rapidly.
Johnson: How many employees do you have?
Merritt: We have 31 employees.
Johnson: What was your customer profile prior to COVID?
Merritt: It was all over the map, and still is. Our average order size is about one-and-a-half headsets. Occasionally, we get a large sale, maybe 500 or 1,000 at a time, but that’s rare. Usually, it’s one to two headsets. It could be an individual working from home buying their own headset, to companies like Home Depot and Pepsi who were contacting us. We deal with a vast number of companies, but it seems like the small- to mid-size companies do better for us. There’s a lot of competition on the high-end market of the manufacturers working directly with the larger companies. It’s very hard to narrow in exactly the makeup of the accounts that we deal with.
Johnson: Would you be willing to walk through a couple of exercises to understand what the Headset Advisor experience would be like?
Johnson: Let’s start with me as an example. I’m not using a headset on this conversation. I’ve got a lapel mic and I’m using the speakers in my display. I have the advantage that I live at home alone, so I don’t have other family members creating a lot of background noise, which makes my setup workable. But let’s say I want to go to a headset. I’m running a Macintosh for my laptop and an Android for my phone environment, and I have a little bit of neighborhood background noise. I’m contacting you as an individual. What’s the process I’m going to go through?
Merritt: We would start by asking you a series of questions, such as, “Do you want a wired or wireless headset?” What would you say to that?
Johnson: Wireless preferred.
Merritt: That’s common. We’ve found that most people want wireless because nobody wants to be tied to a cable if they can avoid it. Obviously, budgets come into play when you talk about wireless, because they can be a little bit more expensive, but I would also ask what you need to connect to. You told me you need to connect to both a Mac and your cellphone. Then I ask if you’re using Microsoft Teams, obviously, and if you would like to be able to answer and end your calls while away from the desk, so you could push a button on your headset and answer or end your phone call.
Johnson: Oh, that would be nice.
Merritt: Exactly. That would be nice. And then I would ask if your Mac has a USB-A or a USB-C port.
Johnson: It has two USB-C ports.
Merritt: Sound quality does not seem to be a big concern for you as far as active noise cancellation because you’re in a private room, right?
Merritt: Then I’d probably recommend the Plantronics model that I’m wearing now because it’s designed for Microsoft Teams with the USB-C connection.
Johnson: Now, what if I’m a corporate buyer outfitting a call center and we’re bringing people back into the office? We’re social distancing; we’ve reconfigured our facility. We’re going to use some new headsets and some new equipment for our company PBX or we’re going through a company VoIP. You’re able to help out with that sort of analysis as well?
Merritt: Definitely. The first scenario is more of an individual’s circumstance. With a company doing a big deployment, there are a lot of factors that come into play. If you have too many wireless headsets in close proximity, you have density issues. You need to make sure you’re not packing too many Bluetooth headsets too close together, otherwise you will have sound quality issues. We will come up with a plan to mitigate those types of issues and uncover sound requirements. Other questions might be: Is being on the phone your full day or is it just part-time? Do you like listening to music with just a few phone calls? It’s important to narrow it down to a specific product recommendation that is good for the individual because there are hundreds of headsets available on the internet that you could choose from. Some of them work okay, some aren’t so great; but there’s some that will work really well for your specific scenario.
Feinberg: So, you’re using a Plantronics right now?
Merritt: I test all the headsets. I have the Bose 700 UC here in front of me. I have a Discover back here, another Plantronics. I’m constantly testing. I even have my AirPods here, just so I can do some sound tests with those. I’m constantly testing every headset out there.
Feinberg: One of the things that I particularly like about my headset is the range. I can go anywhere on my property and be in a meeting. Still, you have to be able to get the handset off of the phone. You have lifters for that, right?
Merritt: Yes. For a desk phone connection, there are two ways that you can get remote answering so that you can step away from the desk and still answer your calls. You can use a lifter, which is a mechanical device that picks the handset up off the cradle; or there’s an EHS cable, which is an electronic hook switch cable, and it basically does the same thing but it’s electronically behind the scenes so nothing mechanical moves, like it would with a lifter. Lifters wear out over time because they are mechanical devices. The electronic hook switch cable is not, but it is very make and model specific, so it becomes an issue of trying to find which one works for you. But it seems a lot of people aren’t using desk phones or they’re switching to Microsoft Teams, which means they have the remote answering built into the software of the Plantronics, the Poly headsets, or the Jabra headsets, so that you still get the same functionality that you do on the desk phones.
Feinberg: What kind of improvements have there been over the last year or two, and what are you looking forward to as far as new technology, new applications, and new abilities?
Merritt: One thing that I’ve noticed in the desk phone and the wireless headset is that a lot of them out there are not designed for music but rather a professional work environment. They are great for phone calls, which is what they’re intended for, but now that a lot of people are home and all their phone systems run off their computers, they want both. So, I’ve seen a big improvement in audio quality for music on the more recent models.
You get a lot more bass, and better range in tone, so highs and lows are much better. That’s why you see brands like Bose getting into the professional headset space, putting that active noise cancellation technology together with great sound quality. Something lacking, though, is wireless range. Dan, your headset uses DECTs technology, while mine uses Bluetooth. It’s the same with the Bose—they range from about 10–50 feet before you start cutting in and out, while the DECT products get a range more like 300 feet.
Feinberg: That’s what I’m seeing with this. I can go all the way to the back end of the property easily and have no problem with it.
Johnson: Which makes a lot of sense when you’re using a desk-bound wired landline phone.
Merritt: Exactly. In the office environment, if you’re going to get coffee or go to talk to a supervisor, you need to have that wireless range.
Johnson: Let’s dive into that just a little bit. DECT is a technology for transmission.
Johnson: Bluetooth is as well. Are there others?
Merritt: Well, there’s wired, obviously, but as far as wireless, those are the only two that I know of— Bluetooth and DECT 6.0 technology.
Johnson: As a customer, I go through an analysis, we pick a product, and then I can order that product from you?
Merritt: Correct. We also have a program so you can do a month-to-month rental on any of the headsets that we offer.
Johnson: With typical shipping times to get to me?
Merritt: Indeed. It varies, depending on where you are. If you’re close to our California warehouse, you get it in about a day. If you’re in New York, it takes about three to five days for standard shipping, but we can always overnight and accommodate any shipping requests.
Johnson: That takes us back to where we started: as the two of you have been demonstrating in this conversation, the customer support, follow-up, the technical support is all there.
Feinberg: Another thing what I find interesting about your company is that you’ll offer trade-ins.
Merritt: That is true. A big part of our business is refurbished product. Because we do that part of our business and it’s all in-house, many of our employees are doing it, which gives us the advantage of being able to offer a good trade-in value for old equipment. We can do that with phones and headsets. If you’re getting rid of your desk phone wireless headset and you want to upgrade to the Plantronics ones like I’m wearing, we can give you a significant trade-in value that reduce your costs; or we’ll just buy it back, you don’t even have to do business with us.
Feinberg: I’ll tell you one device I would love to have right now is something that sends out a 20,000-volt low amperage shock when you get a robocall.
Merritt: We’ll work on that (laughs).
Feinberg: The changes in the work environment are just amazing, and I think you guys are at the right place at the right time. What about the length of charge?
Merritt: We get some people who are on the phone all day long and the battery on that particular model may not be sufficient for those people. They may talk for eight, 10 hours straight without putting it back on the charger. Those people may run into issues in that most headsets are designed for a normal, eight-hour day.
Feinberg: You guys provide great service. We appreciate it.