One of my old bosses and business mentors had a key motto that he ran the company by: “I believe that we have the capability to design a home automation system to fit any of our qualified client’s needs.”
The key word in this case was “qualified” and uniquely, he wasn’t referring to the usual sales definition of a qualified customer: They have money. For him, being a qualified client had nothing to do with their ability to pay the bill. What he meant was the client understood that the AV company needed to maintain control of the implementation of the system.
It’s simple: The client has a vision, the AV pro executes it and the client doesn’t meddle in the execution. Everyone wins!
So what happens if the client doesn’t understand that? In a perfect world the AV pro wishes the client all the best and sends them to find another AV pro. But in the real world it’s not always that simple. What sometimes happens is that two or more different AV companies end up working together on the same project.
Perhaps the original contractor was unable to communicate the importance and value to the client of providing a complete system solution from one company. Perhaps there was a late change in the client’s vision and they felt that the original contractor would not be able to help them realize it and they need someone else. Regardless, sometime two or more contractors end up working together, and that’s where things get complicated.
In one instance with which I am familiar, the client came to a second AV pro after she had initiated a project with another company. Being sensible, the first thing the second company asked her was “why?” The reason given was that they had an expertise and product that she wanted as part of her automation solution that was outside the capabilities of the original contractor.
This is a touchy subject, and the decision to team up with another company had to be evaluated carefully. The second contractor needed to try to look into the future and visualize how the client was going to feel at the end of their project. It was explained to me that their thinking was that if the final result was anything less than amazing or there was a possibility that the client was not going to refer their company after the project, then it would not be worth it.
The second contractor had to decide if this project made sense for the client in both function and dollars. They reviewed their past experiences to try and get an idea about what the end project would look like. They came up with some scenarios and concerns that were specific to the project:
The client’s vision was that Company A was to control the lights with low voltage keypads but could not meet the level of touch panel control that she desired. Company A had already specified and begun implementing their approved control system and keypads. Company B was to implement its approved touch panel system that will control all of the AV, HVAC and window coverings.
Additionally the client wanted Company A’s keypads to control the shades as well the lights and she wanted Company B’s touch panels to control the lights as well as the other sub systems.
This is where Company B foresaw the problems would start.
Most control systems have an open architecture that will allow them to control anything that has a network, RS232 or IR port. This is great in theory; however, they know that if they have priced the job with their usually programming times then introducing unfamiliar equipment is going to drive their programmers over budget.
Programmers spend many hours becoming familiar with all of the quirks of their standard equipment. Designers are able to avoid design flaws by being familiar with their equipment that they work with regularly. This is where a good automation company provides value to the client by being efficient and meeting client automation system requirements with a mix of electronics and expertise.
Once company B decides to take on the responsibility to control the lights through their touch panels and Company A controls the shades through their keypads now there is a very confusing demarcation point for the client to understand.
Who is responsible for the lights and shades now? If something doesn’t work, whose responsibility is to fix it? Managing expectation at that point is going to be difficult. In the end Company B decided that there was too great a risk of complications that would be outside of their control; and they passed on the project.
But what happens when AV pros don’t say “no?”
In another instance with which I’m familiar, the client that had contracted multiple automation companies from the beginning of his project. It may be hard to believe, but in this particular example some of the automation companies were unaware that they were not the only automation company on the project until they started to run into each other on the jobsite. No, really. I couldn’t make something like this up.
Obviously, the project had enough issues for its own MTV reality show.
First and foremost, it meant that there was a very low level of integration if the other companies were not aware of all these other sub systems being installed in the residence. Sure, you and I know that the client isn’t going to end up with an integrated system, just a bunch of parallel silos of hardware doing their own thing.
Unsurprisingly, it turned out that the client, fully in the driver’s seat of this runaway train later decided they wanted integration and equipment requirements for these parallel systems long after the design phase was over and nearly at the end of the pre-wire phase.
It ended up being the case that Company X’s audio distribution now needed to be fed to the home theater that was provided by company Y and Company Z’s video distribution required a video feed from a video source in Company Y’s theater system.
In the end it was made to work. As my grandfather was fond of saying, ‘’You can fix anything if you’re handy with money!” But of course the end result was an abomination: It left the client switching inputs on the front of his AVR instead of hitting a button on the TPS interface because the client balked at the cost of reprogramming all the TPS interfaces.
Was this the AV pro’s fault, or the client’s? Why were none or the companies complete solutions considered? Unfortunately and inexplicably, no one was able to find out; the client never shared his motivations.
As a professional, you have to answer the following questions before the project is tackled: Is the customer going to be thrilled with the system? Do you believe the client be happy to refer your company? Can you foresee turmoil between yourself, the client and other contractors? If you don’t like the answers you reach, walk.
During discovery interviews, you need to be up front about the possibility that you may not be able to help the prospective clients. It’s certainly been my experience and that of my peers that people when you’re upfront and honest with a “no” in the beginning then potentially moving forward with a project that will never finish or will finish poorly.