Sometimes, choosing a technology partner feels like going on a blind date. You may have some idea of what they’re all about, you might even meet once or twice and get to know them a little more, but in the end, it’s scary. How do you really know they are the right match for you, your company, and your buying process?
This phenomenon of anxiety around technology purchasing didn’t come from nowhere. The shaky economic environment and rapid changes to corporate structures over last few decades have had a major impact on the process of choosing technology partners.
Technology Purchasing: A Brief History
In the ’80s, corporate buying was often thought of as simply an advanced administrative task. Not so today. These days, companies rely on powerful purchasing methodologies and sophisticated supply chain management models. When a company makes a major technology purchase, it’s not unusual for the entire team to have a hand in the decision.
What brought this change about? It’s hard to say for sure, but perhaps the most important factor was the 2008 recession, which put a pause on much of corporate spending. Of course, the recession doesn’t account for all of the changes we see. Another important element is the simple fact that technology products, and even technology services, have become increasingly commoditized.
As more people look to spend less money on the technology they depend on, AV and IT vendors have had to step up their game to communicate their value to clients who might not understand just why cheaper isn’t always better.
The Value Question
Integrators will find this story familiar: You hold some promising meetings with a potential client, talk to key decision makers, and, let’s face it, get prematurely excited — only to later find yourself haggling at the last minute with the person in charge of sending the PO.
Customers are pushing integrators to sharpen our pencils at every bend, and we’re getting down to the eraser. As technology becomes cheaper and AV continues to converge with IT, clients have started to challenge the value of bringing on AV specialists. They’ve begun to question the role of integrators and even look to fill the role internally.
So what’s the real value of an AV integrator?
Why We Don’t Sell Steak — or Sizzle
There’s an old marketing expression you might have heard of: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Well, that plan might work if you’re a butcher, but it’s terrible advice for a restaurant. People can buy the steak and make it sizzle themselves, just as a company might buy AV technology and (maybe) set it up themselves.
And yet, people still pay for restaurants, and they regularly shell out small fortunes for Michelin-star dining. And believe me, it isn’t about steak or even “sizzle.”
People pay top dollar for the unique expertise and craftsmanship it takes to deliver total excellence at every stage of a meal. They pay for the integrity and service of the entire staff, the careful selection and preparation of prime ingredients, the chef’s trained palate and custom creations, and the sommelier’s knowledge in selecting the perfect wine to go with the meal.
All those little touches of expertise add up to something more valuable than “sizzle.” Together, they form an exceptional, unforgettable service experience that you can’t create for yourself at home. Fast food restaurants sell the sizzle, but successful restaurateurs don’t even try. Instead, they sell themselves and the unique dining experiences they are able to cultivate thanks to years of dedication to their craft.
Technology is the steak — the commodity — and integrators need to see themselves as the chefs. We can’t expect to impress clients by talking about product features, prices, and benefits that they can easily find for themselves with a Google search. We can’t settle for selling the sizzle.
AV integrators need to prove our true value. Even more than solving challenges for our clients, the greatest value we can offer is the agility, integrity, and expertise it takes to work quickly and effectively under pressure to deliver comprehensive technology solutions that foster exceptional collaboration experiences. As of now, you still can’t order that off of Amazon.
People will always need AV specialists, just as we will always need restaurants. But it’s important to get what you pay for. There’s nothing worse than finding out the hard way that an integrator who talks the talk doesn’t necessarily walk the walk. Before making any major technology decision, you have to take the extra time to make sure you hire the right team for the job.
The Role of the AV Consultant
What happens when your project is so large, so complex, that a single AV team isn’t enough? Well, just as there’s often more than one chef in the kitchen, some projects depend on the combined expertise of multiple AV specialists to deliver exceptional results.
Enter the AV consultant.
There’s been a rise in third-party consultants across all industries in the last several years, and such consultants have operated in the AV industry for a while now. Manufacturers have long exalted the role of independent consultants, and for good reason.
The typical AV consultant isn’t simply well-versed in one aspect of AV (e.g., systems integration). Rather, they have a wide range of expertise in many areas that have a major impact on AV integration. Thanks to the depth and variety of their expertise, a good AV consultant can be an extremely valuable partner for larger, more complicated projects.
That’s not to say AV integrators necessarily lack this level of expertise. But many times, AV consultants are the ones initially hired to bring an AV project together — at the very least, on paper. Consultants have a pivotal role in paving the way for the AV integrator who will follow through on their designs.
The Case for AV Consultants
Third-party AV consultants aren’t always necessary. Many times, an experienced integrator can do as good of a job if they’re brought in early on. But in some cases, a third party consultant is essential to the success of your project. As integrators, we’ve seen firsthand how important consultants can be.
No matter the size of your project, it’s important to have some sort of AV specialist involved as soon as possible to ensure AV design isn’t forgotten. This is especially true in the early stages of larger projects and new construction.
In addition to designing AV systems, consultants must plan for the infrastructure to support those systems. They provide plans, make budgets, draw designs, create specifications for bidding, select contractors and even act as “quarterback” for the AV deployment. The larger the project, the more complex and intricate those details become.
Take planning for AV cabling and interconnections as an example. Consultants translate the AV plans into sets of construction drawings that clearly show:
- The size and locations of floor boxes
- Conduit size, locations, and destinations
- AC power requirements — including BTU calculations for proper HVAC sizing by the engineers
The fact is, audio visual design gets complicated quickly. The complexity only grows when designing an interconnected and fully automated building. A good AV consultant knows how to manage that complexity and ensure your project goes as smoothly as possible.
All too often, AV is one of the last considerations during construction — even though it’s the first thing end-users will interact with when they move in. By bringing in an AV partner early on, you can avoid the frustration of retrofitting systems into an existing structure that wasn’t designed with AV in mind.
Here are three of the most common scenarios that call for an AV consultant:
Large, Complex Installations Across All Trades
If you require AV systems for an entire building, you need an AV specialist with expertise in more than just AV integration. You’ll want someone familiar with all aspects of construction — including mechanical, electrical, and plumbing, not to mention AV design and acoustical engineering. Many AV consultants started out in those other trades before gaining additional experience in AV, so they’re uniquely qualified to help you plan out AV for large construction projects.
When choosing an AV consultant, it’s important to look for a nationally accredited firm. Don’t be afraid to ask consultants to provide references, and check that they have the proper certifications (AIA, CTS, and AQAV, to name a few).
Starting Without an AV Partner
If you don’t have a regular AV integrator, it’s a good idea to hire a consultant to create an initial design that integrators will bid on. Sometimes the consultant chooses to make bids invitation only, meaning only they decide who can bid on their design. This can be a great way to see who can give you the best pricing in town and narrow down your choices to potentially more competent integrators.
If you do have a regular AV partner, then you should ask them to recommend a consultant. Remember, the best AV consultants are not necessarily the largest. And since your AV integrator will likely work closely with the design consultant, it’s a good idea to get an integrator’s perspective before making your decision.
Using an Internal Installation Team
It’s common for house of worship and higher education clients to have experienced staff and/or volunteers who can install AV. In that case, you may you have a general idea of what you want, and already have the people to install it. You may even have onsite AV technology managers and technicians with the skill to read and understand drawings.
Still, an experienced AV consultant brings the creativity and practical industry knowledge you’ll need to translate your goals into actual solutions. They can be an indispensable guide for your team — helping you find the best gear for your goals and budget, as well as providing you with a full document set of installation drawings and a complete bill of materials.
AV Isn’t an Afterthought
The fact is, you could wait to worry about AV. Even for a new construction, you might be able to get away without an AV specialist, at least for a while. Of course, you could wait to think about HVAC, electrical or plumbing, too.
Call me biased, but I think it’s just as important to bring in an AV specialist early on as it is to bring in architects, electricians, or plumbers. Treating AV as an afterthought is a sure-fire way to end up frustrated later on.
The fact is, AV and communications technologies have become even more mission-critical in today’s global economy. More people than ever rely on the ability to work remotely, collaborate over long distances, and share content from all types of devices. Too many companies leave AV on the back burner, only to later wish they’d brought in an AV partner early on.
In fact, the surest sign that you need an AV consultant is having the assumption that AV is easy or will take care of itself. If you want to end up with dependable technology that you’ll actually enjoy using, you need the expertise and services of a specialist who can make it happen.
So don’t settle for just any old AV consultant. Look for a partner who gets AV done right. You and your team will be glad you did!
This column was reprinted with permission and originally appeared here.