Being a technology manager in AV has been a wild ride. For years, many of us have felt like we were crashing the party. At first, we were not welcome at InfoComm, then that slowly changed. Then, when manufacturers started communicating directly with us, visiting us on-site, offering training, etc., integrators were not happy. Then — just as these integrators were afraid of — we slowly started doing our own installs and programming, drying up the most lucrative part of their higher ed business. In 2020, many technology managers in higher ed had pushed for what may be the final straw. They want manufacturers to sell items directly to them, rather than through resellers and integrators.
I have been working in the ed-tech field for well over 20 years and have developed some feelings about this myself. In May, I was able to speak at the rAVe’s LAVNCH WEEK during End Users Day and talked about some of these feelings. I fully understand the desire to buy direct. We see it as being easier, faster and cheaper for us. We want our information and product, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to say. Yet, I try to think about the big picture of our industry if this change was implemented. Many business reasons go into why companies choose to sell only to integrators or to resellers. It may be to create exclusivity to their products; it may be to ensure that people installing/using their products are qualified; it may be to stay within a specific budget on customer management. A disruption to the system will be a disruption to the rest of the status quo.
Consider a manufacturer that has reps throughout the regions of the U.S. Those reps then have an internal sales team. Each rep has a certain number of clients they can handle. If that number is 200 clients, and suddenly the manufacturer starts selling direct, that rep’s client list doubles overnight. The same goes for the internal sales team. The manufacturer may need to keep more stock on hand in their warehouse rather than shipping it out to resellers to stock. It would mean bringing on more people for direct customer support (returns, orders, general questions). Manufacturers would have to rework how they know how much product to make and stock to keep. This, in turn, would be reflected in a cost to the customer. What we are asking for is not free. Additionally, in the time between one manufacturer doing this and a dam breaking and them all doing it, there would be lots of tense and frayed relationships among all parties involved (higher ed, manufacturers and integrators). Remember that higher ed is not the only vertical that integrators deal with, so they require a healthy relationship with manufacturers.
In the end, however, companies don’t always get to determine how the market works. Businesses change, markets change and customers change. We all need each other to make our own business work, and for good reasons, many higher ed AV professionals have become in-house integrators. The only reason for a customer to spend money with a firm is that they receive value in return. This desire to buy direct indicates that many higher ed institutions do not feel like buying boxes from an integrator (and paying a markup) provides them value, which is why they are asking to buy direct. That is a tough thing to write about because I believe strongly in our industry and believe we all need to survive to keep it healthy, but it is the truth.
Over the years that I have been writing this blog, my goal has always been to give integrators and manufacturers a view into the mindset and daily life of technology managers — to tell them what we need, what services and products provide us value. Yet, some have been reluctant to listen to what we are asking for. This is actually something I have never understood. A customer stands in front of you, tells you that they would really love an orange, and you tell them that, in fact, a banana is what you’re going to give them. But yet it happens all the time. Our own industry trade show did a panel a couple of years ago about “the future of higher ed” and did not have a single person from higher ed on the panel (a prime case of “here’s your banana”). By not listening or adapting to the customer, some people have made themselves into a firm that does not provide value. Therefore, they are (not so) slowly working themselves out of business.
Alas, I do believe there is still hope. By not adapting, some of these firms have forced their customers to bring services in-house. In my opinion, some of these services do not belong inside a college or university. I would argue that if a higher ed institution has an in-house person whose sole job is purchasing, tracking orders and taking inventory of equipment, the institution is not spending its money wisely. This is a service that should absolutely be provided by an integrator, and a dashboard should be available to you, showing you all these details 24/7. If you have a person whose job it is to maintain the central management (Fusion, GlobalViewer, etc.) servers, then you are not spending money in the right place. An integrator should be able to provide these services cheaper, more secure and more scalable. Yet, because many have been afraid to move into these areas, we have taken on these roles ourselves. As we start to come out of this pandemic, higher ed institutions will be looking carefully at how they spend their money. Be prepared to show them how the services you can provide will save them money and improve their services to their customers. Unfortunately, some may lose jobs in higher ed. Be prepared to demonstrate how your firm can take on the services of that lost position.
I can’t guess what the future of higher ed tech managers buying direct will be. It is a complicated matter, and the market will determine the end result. What I do know is that if you are an integrator who chooses that hill to die on, I fear that you will die.