We Can Do Better! A Look Into CTS

We can do better

In June of 2014 I earned my CTS certification at InfoComm in Las Vegas. In fact, I was so excited at the time that I threw out a challenge to other members to follow me to the CTS-I and CTS-D certifications as to get 100 more people on the roster that had both the CTS–I and CTS–D designations.

I can’t blame InfoComm members for not coming along, as I never went there myself. I returned back to my home state of California after InfoComm 2014, and after a few conversations with CTS-D holders in my area here, I wasn’t so convinced any more.

I started to again question the value of the CTS initials, including their –I and –D specializations.

I started thinking about how I may potentially investigate, in an objective manner, how valuable the designations were to the industry as a whole. Asking people outright seemed a rather subjective approach, as anyone who had sunk money into certification would certainly be reluctant to admit that the dollars were indeed wasted or at least not proportional to the advantages the initials ultimately conveyed upon them. So I started thinking about the greatest measure of success an AV firm can demonstrate, and then I had it. Repeat customers. Repeat customers are the biggest indicator of value. If you do a great job and provide a valuable service as an integrator, your customers reward you by hiring you again.

In the instance of CTS repeat customers could be identified through one stat: renewal rate. 

CTS holders who renew their certifications are at least some small indicator of the value of the program on the whole.

Renewal rate is not one of those stats that InfoComm publishes; in fact, according to InfoComm, they don’t even keep tabs on an ongoing renewal rate, and only calculate it for planning purposes. Given that, a friend and I took to the InfoComm.org site and started pulling CTS holder data. Our initial results after about four months were quite astonishing. The renewal rate was tracking at 42 percent based on the sample we had (we’ll talk about that in a minute). I was not willing to put pen to paper at that point, and I went instead to Betsy Jaffe at InfoComm to inquire about the renewal rate. She related that in 2014 the renewal rate was 80.7 percent, and that the figure was up a few points from previous years.

At that point I decided that I didn’t have enough data yet, so I didn’t write anything, but my friend quietly continued to track the renewals by pulling data from the InfoComm site. I figured that another few months of data may get things back on track with the InfoComm reported 80.7% figure for 2014. I also knew that June would most likely be a large month for potential renewals, as many may renew at the show, given they were there anyway, and that those figures may tip the number.

After 3 more months, including June and July, the renewal rate of our sample crept up to 52%, but that was still a far cry from the 80.7% figure related for 2014.

At this point I reached out to Brad Grimes at InfoComm for a comment the numbers. The first thing he asked me was how we got our figures. What was our methodology? That was a fair question, so I explained to him how we did it, and I’ll share that here as well.

The Methodology

If you are looking for a CTS holder, InfoComm actually provides an online tool to assist. This tool was originally created to allow a potential client or employer to validate a credential holders status. It allows you to search CTS holders by name, city, state and country. Try it yourself here: http://www.infocomm.org/cps/rde/xchg/infocomm/hs.xsl/ctssearch.htm

However the CTS holder search tool stops at 100 results per inquiry, no matter what field you search by, (that’s interesting in itself and we’ll talk about that in a minute).

So we pulled the CTS holders by running 50 different searches, one for each state. The search tool sorts members alphabetically by first name and then by last name. Some states, like Alaska, would show four CTS holders, so we would get 100% of them in the search. Other states, like CA, have several hundred CTS holders, so the search tool would return the first 100 results, currently that stops with the first name “Chris” meaning all the members with first names starting with D-Z are not represented in this type of search.

All in all, to keep the numbers round for this explanation, we came up with close to 3,500 results for the US.  That means about 1/3 of the total stated 10,000 CTS holders that InfoComm currently claims.

Then we sorted all of those names by expiration date in a spread sheet. Every month we pulled the list again to see if those who were set to expire disappeared or if their date was extended indicating a renewal.

We also did a double check on anyone that disappeared from the list, by searching by name specifically. This secondary check actually yielded a couple members who did renew but had moved to different states, and a few that showed back up a couple months later, as InfoComm does offer a grace period on the renewal.

Based on all this, we felt we were extremely objective and fair in our data gathering.  

When I spoke with Brad Grimes at InfoComm and explained the methodology used, he said that our efforts were “heroic” but that the CTS search tool could not be used for this purpose.

He related that the search tool is a web-based front end to InfoComm’s back end CRM, and that back-end tool was how InfoComm determined renewal rate.

For one, he related that the CTS holder we search doesn’t return all the results, only the back end tool does that, and that is a tool that only InfoComm has access to. Given that, the web tool won’t let anyone extract a renewal rate that includes all the data. However, given that a 3,500 person sample, randomly assorted by first name across 50 states, returns a 52% renewal rate for those whose certificates were expiring, you can say that in order to hit the 80% figure from 2014, approximately 95% of the remaining 6500 unseen members whose certificates are expiring would have to renew.

That is of course possible, but highly improbable.

The other issue that Brad related was that some can opt out of being listed as CTS holders on the site. Given the fact that these people would not show up in the search at all that actually doesn’t affect the sample much. Mr. Grimes was unsure of the number of people who have opted not to be listed, however I would assume it’s a very small fraction of the total CTS holders.

For both of these reasons, Mr. Grimes felt using the search tool for gathering data on renewal rates was not a proper methodology. I respectfully disagree, especially given InfoComm’s assurance that “its CTS data is, in fact, accurate.”

In any event, Mr. Grimes related that given the 120 day grace period, InfoComm could not speculate on what the retention rate of CTS holders currently is or would be in 2015 until about May 2016, at which time I could make an inquiry and they may release the figure at that time.

He also stated that the 80.7% in 2014 was indeed a stand-out year for them, and that it typically ranged from 65-80% and that InfoComm expected to fall in that range for 2015 as well. But why the drop? He also related that for a certification that was not required by law to practice your profession, (like a CPA for example), that these figures were actually above average.

So was the 80.7% renewal rate reported in 2014 accurate? InfoComm assures me it is and has offered to give some underlying numbers. Are we on that same trajectory for 2015? InfoComm says I have no way to judge that, and I say based on the data at hand provided by InfoComm themselves, it seems we are tracking well below that figure, at least YTD.

As many of our intellectual inquiries go in life, our little experiment in tracking CTS renewal rates raised a question.

Can’t we do better?

There were several things in this venture that became eye opening to me as a member, and a few statements by InfoComm that were interesting to me as well.

  • Why is there a 100 result limit on the CTS holder search? It does not seem to be a limitation of the interface between InfoComm’s CRM and the front end web search tool.  How do I know?  If you search the member directory, it will return all results for each state.  E. The California CTS holder search stops at 100, while the Member Directory search returns 464 results for the same statewide search.  Mr. Grimes related that InfoComm is now exploring the potential of expanding the CTS search’s 100 result limit based on my bringing it to their attention. http://www.infocomm.org/cps/rde/xchg/infocomm/hs.xsl/memberdirectory.htm
  • Does the CTS holder search favor those with first names lower in the alphabet? If in a given state there are more than 100 CTS holders, in many cases if your name starts anything from a “C” to an “M” through a “Z”, your info won’t be shown.  When asked about this, Mr. Grimes said he had never considered that potential effect, but again, the tool was originally designed to verify CTS status of individuals, not find CTS holders.  Even so, he thought most potential customers would search by city and not state, so that 100 limit and alphabetization would not play a significant role.
  • Why does the CTS holder search sort by city and not zip code? We’ve all used Google maps or a restaurant or store’s location finder tool online.  They typically allow you to set a target zip code as well as a range of miles around that zip code to find wat you are looking for.  In the case of the CTS holder directory, it is very strict by city if you choose to sort that way.  For example, a search of Los Angeles returns 33 results but does not include the 11 members from Hawthorne that may be even closer to the potential end user depending on where in Los Angeles they are.
  • How accurate is InfoComm’s record keeping? I wouldn’t raise this question without just cause.  In our search of CTS members, we found a handful with expiration dates in 2020 and 2021.  This is impossible with a 3 year certification, even given the ability to renew up to 6 months in advance.  InfoComm related they found 10 of these records after I brought them to their attention, and that these CTS holders were accidentally renewed for two more terms (6 years) as well as charged twice for their renewal. InfoComm said it corrected the technical error in the online renewal system and that the 10 errors they found included searches for more current expiration dates as well. We also saw records from Western Australia appear in Washington state searches, as InfoComm uses the WA abbreviation in multiple ways.  The same goes for AK as Alaska and as a part of New Zealand, etc.  I’m unsure of the number of repeat abbreviations here but they do have the potential to categorize people and companies incorrectly in both the CTS holder and member directory searches.
  • How valuable is the CTS holder search tool to CTS holders? Given all of the above, how valuable is the CTS search holder tool in helping a potential client who may actually know about CTS in connecting with a CTS holder?  It seems the only real value to the tool would be for an end user or potential employer to verify the credential of a CTS holder, if indeed that person had submitted a bid or an application for a job and touted the credential.  This of course again goes back to the original reason for this whole exercise.
  • How valuable is CTS to the CTS holder in the first place? How valuable is it in the marketplace in charging more for work done well and in the workplace for demanding more salary? Any end-user researching CTS as a valid qualifier for winnowing down their bid list is faced with one very troubling sentence right there on the CTS page of the InfoComm website   “Certification is not a guarantee for performance by certified individual.”  Even Mr. Grimes said that he “would never say that a CTS professional would always do a better job than a non-CTS professional.” He continued, “But the CTS certification demonstrates an individual’s level of knowledge about AV science, skills and best practices. That body of knowledge is determined by fellow AV professionals and CTS holders and makes the CTS a valuable indicator of an individual’s competence and ability to deliver for the customer”.  When I asked him how the AV Project Manager was supposed to leverage CTS with a potential employer to earn more salary, he responded that “it is InfoComm’s job to market CTS and it is the CTS holder’s job to market themselves. For example InfoComm spent millions of dollars marketing the credential to the architect community, which resulted in a significant jump in architects’ awareness of CTS.”  The question is, how does that assist the CTS holder who pays out of his pocket for certification leverage the certificate for more salary when there is no guarantee of performance or even verification of real world competence?
  • Why is there no longer a hands on test for any CTS designation? It seems logical to assume that any certification that requires hands on performance or some type of real world demonstration of a skill set is more valuable than one that relies on a multiple choice test.  CTS used to have some hands on components at one time.  The CTS-D used to require a system design with signal flow and equipment diagrams.  I have even heard those that took the old test refer to it as the “Big D” and the new CTS-D course as the “Little d”.  I asked Mr. Grimes about this potential to verify skill sets again, and he stated that it was unlikely to happen again.  Why?  When CTS became an ANSI program, along with it came rules about access to the curriculum and testing centers which make it cost prohibitive to build in a hands on component.  It seems ANSI also prohibits the use of subjective judging criteria, meaning something like a wire termination could only be judged as pass/fail, but not graded as poor, average, or exceptional.
  • How valuable is ANSI to CTS anyway? I don’t know the answer to this. What I do know is that when talking with Mr. Grimes he mentioned that the ANSI designation meant less to the international community, as ANSI is an American body, not an international one. “Internationally, we talk about CTS in relation to International Organization of Standardization (ISO) certification standards, which are administered by ANSI in the U.S.”  I would have assumed that after the ANSI designation was bestowed on CTS and CTS-I in 2008, and then on CTS-D in 2009, there would have been at least a jump in the US CTS holders if it meant much.  However, from what I can find, there were already and with the trade show growing at over 5% a year in attendance, it seems to be tracking rather low.  InfoComm shared that the ramp to CTS has actually been steeper, given that once ANSI accreditation was achieved, InfoComm lost CTS holders based on the new exam rules and testing center regulations.  I would argue that regaining those members that were lost is not actually a net gain to the program, but is instead “delayed retention”.  Grimes did relate however that it seemed the AV Technologist program, AVT, which was launched in 2010 to provide a stepping-stone to CTS, was indeed getting some traction internationally, as well as with stage hands and other business that lie on the AV perimeter.
  • Shouldn’t we see more international growth? Despite the article posted on rAVe a few days ago, the percentage of CTS holders abroad indicates that InfoComm may be having some trouble with momentum outside the US.  It may indeed be InfoComm interNATIONAL.  Given the size of ISE this surprised me honestly.  However when speaking with a couple InfoComm educators, they said that the focus on education abroad is much different, that the courses need to be an hour or less, and that 10-15 people in a class is success.  Given the figures available based on the reduced access to CTS holders online, it seems that the international contingent may be as high as 2,000 CTS holders, with 240 of those being our Canadian neighbors.  InfoComm related that the number of CTS holders outside the U.S. is growing, and that “it may not be as fast as we’d like, but many of our international programs are still young, unlike our 76-year presence in North America.”
  • What is InfoComm’s stated value proposition? I had a call with both Brad Grimes and InfoComm’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, Dan Goldstein, to discuss this blog, the CTS numbers, and CTS in general.  When speaking with Mr. Goldstein, he related that one of InfoComm’s current objectives was to define, in writing, InfoComm’s value proposition.  What does InfoComm do as an organization that would be nearly impossible for someone else to do?  He was uncertain when the last time was that InfoComm had defined their value in this way.  They have set a deadline to define this, although it is still almost a year out.
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At the end of the day, this is our trade association. It exists not only for the manufacturers but also for the integrators.  They are the life blood of the AV business, and they need ways to leverage their dedication to their trade and their membership in InfoComm to drive business.  Individuals investing money in themselves for certification need ways to prove that they are worth more than the next guy in line. If there are 10,000 CTS holders, and there is zero ability for them to differentiate themselves from one another based on their credentials, how do they leverage that?

The only way to have a CTS certification revoked is to be shown to have committed an ethical violation of its conditions.  Here is the problem though. Incompetence is not an ethics violation, so those “who can’t” share the same favor as those “who can” when it comes to CTS.

We should be asking for more transparency on statistics, more outreach and visibility, more demographics on trade show growth, and some type of accountability program for not just companies, like InfoComm now has with APEx, but also for CTS certified individuals, like AQAV has with their CQD and CQT programs. These are the types of things we need to drive the industry forward and re-establish the relationship between InfoComm and the integrator community that is starting to show obvious signs of strain like those related recently between InfoComm and PSNI.

The good news is, it’s in our hands. InfoComm gets between $30 and $40 million of our dollars every year. Let’s make sure we have the visibility and answers we need to leverage those dollars and grow not just our trade show every year, but to advance our industry as a whole.

Thanks to Mr. Brad Grimes and the InfoComm team who were very gracious with their time in sharing InfoComm’s unique perspective on these questions and potential issues.

What are your thoughts? What would you like to see? Contribute in the comments below!