Shut Up and Listen!

Author and educator Stephen R. Covey, probably most well-known for his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” often said in his presentations that: “Most People do not Listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Think about the last meeting you attended. I don’t care what the meeting was for or about. In your mind picture the people sitting around the table and think about their body language.

How many of them were actually listening to the discussion and how many were focused on preparing their own counter remarks or ‘answers’ to questions, some of which had not yet been asked but seemed to be possible.

That second group, which was likely the majority, WAS NOT devoting their full attention to the task at hand, but instead was time-sharing their brain’s focus on other topics or future responses and thus not really gathering all the information in the air around them.

I will guarantee that if there was a quiz after the meeting the second group would get an F because they were not listening effectively!

Image via lunaticoutpost.com

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

As the systems we design, specify and deploy become ever more complex we are faced with a number of systemic changes to the way business is conducted and projects implemented.

In order to effectively navigate this rapidly evolving landscape we need to recognize that our full attention must be given to not only the technical side of things but the human factors elements as well. As Steven Hawking said “A clear sign of intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”.

Once upon a time most projects used an RFP or Bid format to solicit potential suppliers. Current market condition analysis shows that design build is now a much more significant element in the process with the RFP/Bid process usually reserved for very large or governmental funded projects where that method may be a legal requirement.

With the evolution comes a new process that now makes it much more important for any integrator/consultant or design firm to insure it has obtained the entire set of documentation and information on a project and is fully conversant with all the stakeholders’ needs and operational methodologies.

This is especially critical when non-AV management such as IT departments are the lead on a project, as they will have their own unique specific rules and documentation needs that may not always be clearly stated.

Thus, not only listening carefully but also making sure that all your questions and concerns are answered and documented with written follow-up memoranda and signed and authorized agreements on EVERY detail are essential.

Even a minor issue such as different ceiling speaker grill colors for different areas or on different floors could cause a project to get hung up if not defined precisely in advance and signed off by all necessary participants.

In the new business world, change orders are not only far more expensive they can be profit killers as well.

As the renowned 6th-century BC Chinese philosopher/general Lao Tzu (founder of Taoism) said: “Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy.” Getting the simple stuff nailed down leaves time and mental bandwidth for the complex and difficult issues.

One Project Is Really Three Projects

The reality should be, at least in theory, that both the client and the service provider(s) want to achieve a comparable outcome. If they are working off the same fundamentals, they are both trying to meet the needs of the project. The desired outcome should be designed to suit the purchaser’s needs and accomplish the goal for which the system design, chosen hardware, or offered services are intended.

If the client’s objective and the integrators’ solution(s) are consistent, then the result should be acceptable. After all, the client is looking for a reputable supplier who can balance a viable cost with quality execution, dependability and all needed (even if un-spoken) support. The integration firm wants to precisely understand the requirements, responsibilities, and expectations of the customer to insure an effective solution, on budget and on-time.

Missing Information

But, as is most often the case today, when the system must include customized programming whether audio, DSP or control, the parameters of meeting the need increase in complexity, exponentially. It is a given that it will be a far more demanding task to provide an accurate answer, because we have now entered the realm of the subjective. Any programming or software, especially when even modestly customized for a specific client, incorporates a massive amount of individual perception on the nature of the deliverable and the success of the outcome.

Inherently this can and will lead to complexity in defining the requirements and establishing expectations, especially for intangibles like system functionality, end-user understanding, device setup and configuration, technical performance and expected levels of support.

These difficulties are a consequence of the challenges that occur when trying to convey expectations and requirements in words. Often the absence of needed input from or access to the actual technology managers and users who should be providing the necessary insight creates gaps and misunderstandings in the defined goals and results.

Divide and Conquer

Therefore a new methodology might be considered. Divide the project into multiple sectional deliverables and content. For example one section would encompass all the hardware and related goods, something that can be defined, costed and described accurately and approved without much interpretation.

A second deliverable would be a programming, custom software and related functionality roadmap/outline. This document is the one that will frame the third deliverable which is the actual custom work and programming/software. By obtaining full agreement on all aspects of this in advance of actual work and making sure that all participants buy-in to the proposed solution and concepts, you can avoid expensive, time consuming and potentially project delaying revisions or re-work on custom code and other highly subjective areas.

See also  Are You Really Listening to Your Clients?

By removing as much of the subjective component for objectively defined steps and outcomes, it is feasible to reach a solution that will work as intended, and provide what was expected.

Each deliverable has its own work flow, time line and cost, and thus the client can see up front, and along the way, what is being paid for, the results of that expenditure and they can keep tabs on the results.

Less Boilerplate — More Information

As discussed a bit earlier, using a long established proposal/RFP model is going to create problems for any integrator who has to deal with current generation technologies, IP based systems, networking topologies and all the related digital and software based elements of AV in 2018 projects.

The explosion of IT into AV means that you really must consider revising your processes and documentation to allow the separation of projects into workable sections and sub-sections so that each element can be addressed and managed effectively. In fact it is likely that you will need to form separate but parallel teams to deal with this process with appropriate expertise within each.

It might also mean recruiting IT specific expertise and programming talent to keep all of the work in house, if that is your desired approach.

The other option would be strategic alliances or partnerships with specialty resources to provide the skill sets you don’t have on-board, on an as needed, project by project basis.

In any of these operational scenarios you are going to have to revise your information and data collection structure for projects and overall client requirements and information.

There are now far more potential stake-holders in the mix, and extra departments (such as IT/networking) involved. This adds more complex and interwoven in-house personnel layers, and/or potentially multiple locations with decision makers at each, within your client companies and businesses. Therefore, you will need to re-think how much information you need from whom and when. The old-fashioned idea of a boiler-plate agreement that is only modestly customizable for each job will simply not work in the contemporary business climate.

For example your project is located in your normal business’ geographic radius, but the client’s IT department and its decision makers are in another state, in a different time zone and you don’t get to talk to them directly at meetings. The network services group is in a third location somewhere else and is actually a contract specialty business that is not really a part of the company that’s hiring you- but is a vendor to many companies seeking to sub-let that cost center.

Even with teleconferencing and similar meeting technologies this increasingly common geographic split increases complexity and opens the door to miscommunication

However, all of these participants are a part of the project from a decision making standpoint because they control network access and hardware functionality and related services for your client’s company- just like a third party off-shored call center operation works.

A VAR Worldview

To make this new operating structure work for you, a new worldview is in order. In addition to your core competencies as integrators, designers and AV specialists, you need to mix in another group of skills. That is the ability to act and work like a Value-Added Reseller

A structure that takes hardware and software and adds value by making the pile of cardboard boxes into a functional system and working network structure on top of, but fully integrated with the AV systems and software.
As this trend expands our needed core competencies are going to be pushed toward networks, and we’re going to be have to become true experts in IoT. The network is going to be the overriding business ecosystem and we have to establish our place in that world or lose the battle for control of the systems world.

The Added Value Case

To enable and insure long term success you need long term net profitability. In a business climate crowded with super-thin margin discounters, online sourcing and the end-users’ ability to shop almost any hardware product by price, your ability to make real profits on the hardware is entirely dependent on how you add value to a pile of cardboard boxes.

The one group of services and products that cannot be price-shopped easily is the customized and project specific programming, software structure implementation, DSP functionality and how the network, if one is being used, is implemented. This is where you add measurable and clearly demonstrable VALUE to a pile of gear.

Your ability to showcase this aspect of your company’s deliverables, and place the emphasis on the unique work you have done to make this client’s system meet their exact specific needs is something they cannot match up to a definable dollar figure for comparison.

Thus it is sheltered profit territory, and something you need to place laser like focus on in your business strategy.
By combining this capability with the ability to make the whole process seamless and easy for your clients you can prevent them from looking for another way to get there, where you are not in the plan.

Forewarned is forearmed.

Dr. Frederick Ampel

About Dr. Frederick Ampel

Dr. Frederick J. Ampel has been involved in the professional A/V industry for more than 40 years, working as a systems designer, consultant, sales and marketing professional and market researcher. He was the founding editor of Sound & Video Contractor and for SCN, as well as an editorial development consultant for Residential Systems Magazine, Live Sound International and ProSoundWeb. He holds a PhD in Acoustics and MS in Broadcasting and Electrical Engineering from Boston University and has been published by the Institute of Acoustics (UK), Acoustical Society of America, AES, NSCA, InfoComm and quoted in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, and numerous industry publications. He volunteered with and taught for CEDIA, NSCA, InfoComm and AES. In 1991, Fred founded Technology Visions Analytics, a consultancy and market research firm, which he still runs today. Reach him via email at fred@proaudioweb.com.