I know this should be obvious and common sense, but to some people, it is not. Therefore, I always try to understand the reasons behind certain people’s inability to communicate clearly, whether on purpose or due to other circumstances. There are countless articles on this subject, yet I occasionally come across a situation that could have been entirely avoided had all parties communicated with one another, which I note later in this column.
Let’s first talk about the positive attributes of a good communicator: someone who encourages others to communicate as well; effectively and efficiently shares information; builds trust and has skills that are critical to success in life, work and relationships. Without clear communication, a critical message can turn into an error and be completely misunderstood, potentially turning into a disaster* by being misinterpreted, poorly delivered or not shared at all.
These are two universal truths I have experienced:
“If anything can go wrong, it will.”
“The project will get as bad as possible before it gets better.”
I created the theory of Michael’s Law shortly after my initial start in AV integration about eight years ago (I’m now focused on digital signage applications). I learned very quickly that if you do not have at least five key competent resources working together on mid-to-large-sized projects — salesperson (communicator), sales/project engineer (communicator), project manager (communicator), CAD technician (communicator) and control system programmer (communicator) — in conjunction with clear communication engagements with the other vendors on the project (architect, consultant, manufacturers, software developers, etc.) then Michael’s Law could occur.
I learned quickly in the AV business that in order to win projects, you have to communicate to be successful. One of the clients I was working with mentioned there would be a large project in the future and they needed help deciding which technology to use and from which vendors. So, I started my process and reached out to all the vendors I knew who would add value to the project (even initially with those vendors who were not chosen by my client). It turned out to be a long process, but it paid off as I won the (“bid”) project for three main reasons:
- I had worked with different departments within the account (aka “three wide and three deep” communication philosophy) and personally knew most of the decision-makers and/or influencers. I had told them that I would always communicate good news, bad news or indifferent — no effect to them.
- Since no other system integrator knew about this project well in advance of the RFP process, I was able to get competitive price structures from all the vendors (whom I brought in and/or introduced to the client’s project team), which had consisted of a large majority of the project BOM.
- If I did not know the specific technology very well, I had my vendors demonstrate their products for myself and my engineer prior to my clients’ introduction. So, I knew the advantages and disadvantages of every vendors’ product set well in advance of any decision being made by the client’s team.
Back to the story: There were many ongoing changes shortly after the project started and during the entire project process. So, I decided to proactively communicate and reached out to my global client contacts (purchasing/executive support/IT) as soon as I found out there would be change orders. As I was working with some who were relatively new to these types of (very large) projects, I explained — in a personal way — that there are three types of change orders: positive (you owe me), negative (I owe you) and zero (making changes without additional costs to either of us). My client in the purchasing department had previously only experienced change orders where they had to pay extra to their system integrators. So, none of his vendors ever credited back money, which I did, and the client greatly appreciated my efforts.
The next story is about when the communication process did not go well. We had won multiple projects with a client. The first project went okay; there were some slight communication issues with our subcontractor, but the project manager was able to resolve them. It was fine because it was the smallest of three projects. The real issues started at the beginning of the second project. During the (on-site/VMR) weekly project meetings, it appeared everything was going “well.” The vendors were told to have separate meetings to discuss any potential issues as the project progressed forward. I remember initiating at least one VMR call with the architects to discuss some of their floor and elevation diagrams — they had labeled a wall-mounted iPad as a Crestron room scheduler and did not know the difference.
The general contractor sold all the components of the second project to the client. So, we had sent our AV proposal to the main contacts at the GC for review and approval (I requested meetings multiple times to review with them, which they declined). However, they sent it to the client who then approved it, so the GC signed our proposal contract and we moved forward on our project process. During our initial on-site meeting with the GC team, they asked my project engineer many questions, but the construction had already begun. They were up to the AV installation section of the project. I asked the project manager from the GC if he had reviewed my very detailed proposal (SOW and BOM). He said no. So, after reeling in shock, my project engineer and I went through the entire floor with them. We — somehow — completed the second project and started on the third project; that’s when Michael’s Law really began to take effect.
Part of this project was to hang displays/mounts onto four different columns all in a row (typically hollow to enable cabling and other components to be hidden within the column). Our local PM was excellent and shared updates with us every day, including trying to ensure clear communication between our client, the building owner, our internal team and our install subcontractor in addition to all of our vendors. However, the floor drawings we had were either incomplete or just incorrect. When our install team drilled into each of the first three columns, they properly hung the three displays. However, when they drilled into the fourth column, water spewed out from the water pipe inside of the column for TWO HOURS. My team quickly obtained large garbage bins to catch the water, but a lot of damage was already done. The reason it leaked for so long was that no one knew immediately how to turn off the water. Please, make sure you know — prior to every project — what is inside every column, behind every wall, within the ceiling, etc. If you, your engineer or your PM does not know, ask prior to the start of your project.
Fast forward a couple of months later, as I went on-site to see the status of the third project and any remnants of the water leak. My PM joined our on-site meeting with our main client contact, and everything looked great— no evidence of water anywhere near the column or floor. The client was pleased with how the project turned out. Michael’s Law had truly taken effect.
There are plenty of other communication challenges I have experienced over the years. One has been the coordination of meetings (audio/video conference calls and/or on-site). There are often one or more people who decline my invitation without explaining why nor suggesting another day and time after expressing previously that they would be available.
Regarding texting or emailing, my suggestion is if you can’t finish your communication to an associate within two texts and/or emails, pick up the phone or set up a VMR call. Sometimes follow-up items get lost in translation over email or texts.
Speaking of VMR calls, I find that communication flows best when everyone has video turned on. Since my first video call in 2008, I have been on thousands of video calls. In just March of this year, I was on over 100 of them. It is just easier and so much more effective to develop a business relationship with another person when you can visually interact with each other. (See my fifth column: “The Evolution of Videoconferencing.”) With the proliferation of many different VMR platforms particularly over the span of COVID-19, most people should be used to being on video by now.
Finally, sometimes the best form of communication is to just listen. This goes for conversations with clients, associates, colleagues, friends and family alike. Since you have two ears and one mouth, you should listen twice as much as you speak. I do have to remind myself of that every now and then.
Here is a link with definitions to a few of the terms I use in this column.