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I recently read an interesting blog posting by a small regional technology systems integrator, claiming there is a changing paradigm in audiovisual consulting where the integrator is now “agnostic” in their recommendations to their clients because of wide access to products and “real world” experience.
Almost 20 years ago, I made a similar argument in my byline column in Systems Contractor News, one of the leaders in the AV industry trade press, while I served as design director for national systems integration company. I suspected then—and know today—I was wrong. While there may be some truth to the fact that most integrators have access to most manufacturer’s equipment, “most’ never equates with “all,” nor does most necessarily or logically equate with “agnostic.” Nor does “real world” inherently equate to expertise or focus on client value.
My perspective comes from having worked most of my 36-year career in the audiovisual industry, serving in leadership roles in nationally-recognized consulting, integration, and manufacturing companies. I have also served on the executive staff of two large national architecture/engineering firms, who hire consultants and work with integrators and manufacturers, as well as serving on the board of InfoComm International, and as the founding chair of their independent consultants’ council.
Consultants, integrators, and manufacturers each serve a valuable role in the supply chain of providing effective production, presentation, and performance systems to meet our clients’ needs for communication, collaboration, and celebration. Each role is also inherently distinct. Each role has perspective and bias. Each role has value. Having served in the executive management of all three roles, I know from experience that each has a motivation to make a profit.
The true independent consultant, as exemplified by firms (Full disclosure I am a principal with The Sextant Group, one of the better ones, IMHO) that provide design expertise in conceptual planning, infrastructure design using the latest 3-dimensional building information modeling protocols, detailed systems design interconnection diagrams, functional and performance systems specifications, and thorough systems testing and commissioning. They sell value-based, solution-focused, expertise, which is based on optimizing quality, schedule, and cost for the client’s benefit. They make their profit from “selling the invisible,” as author Harry Beckwith would say. Their value comes in helping their clients develop a vision that creates a long-term lasting solution that adapts to the inevitable change of technology and, more often than not, saves money by creating a robust infrastructure and tightly specified, competitively bid, systems designs.
The systems integrator provides technical expertise in system procurement configuration, installation, setup, training, and maintenance support. They sell the products and labor to implement the design consultant’s vision. Where they serve in the role of a self-performing contractor or sub-contractor in a design/build project delivery, at the end of the day, they still make their profit from selling products and labor.
The manufacturer provides product-specific expertise in applications and performance in support of the consultant’s “need to know” and the integrator’s “need to know how.” Most manufacturers sell products in a narrowly defined niche (i.e., audio, video, control, furniture, etc.) in the audiovisual systems market. Those that offer products across multiple vertical niches (e.g., Crestron, Harman, FSR, etc.) gray the lines, but, for the most part, they rely on consultants to “specify” and integrators to “sell” their products and generate profit.
Some might argue that consultant, integrator or manufacturer may have staff who carry industry “expertise-based” certifications (i.e., InfoComm’s CTS and CTS-D), and therefore are qualified to consult. Those certifications only establish a baseline bar of knowledge. They do nothing to invalidate the fundamental business motivators of each, nor predict the application of that expertise will be focused solely on client value.
For the client, the service and product provider’s profit is not a bad thing. These are all high value roles. However, when any stray from their core competency, that value becomes less clear, and often of diminished, or even questionable value. A consultant who has a financial tie or interest to a product, system, or service they are recommending is not “agnostic.” They are inherently biased. And the client will pay a higher price for that bias in the form of their counsel and their recommendations.
An integrator who offers consulting services, claiming they are “agnostic” is either a fool or delusional. Integrators make profit from recommending and selling the products that net them the greatest competitive advantage. Their management sees the business model this way, their sales staff is incentivized this way, and their installation staff is directed this way. If they do not, they will not survive in the competitive marketplace.
Integrators have an inherent bias to recommend the products that net them the most profit, period, end of story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but saying so up front would be the honest thing. Claiming “real world” experience trumps true independent consulting is self-serving at least and disingenuous at best. Their clients are paying the price not necessarily in dollars but in potentially lower or lesser system performance.
A manufacturer who offers consulting (for free) or integration (for fee) is never agnostic either, and rarely claims to be. However, they may be myopic. They only know what they know. The client may benefit from a bespoke solution, but it will be at the expense of a concept narrowly defined and integration that is not part of the manufacturer’s real skill set.
To further muddy the waters, manufacturers almost always incentivize their dealers, represented by the systems integrator’s management and sales staff, to promote their products. The integrator counts on the fact that client won’t know that to maintain their annual purchasing (profit) margin, the integrator’s management commits to selling x-dollars of a manufacturer’s products each year. Nor will they know that the sales person is getting a “spiff” in the form of a free trip to Hawaii because they just “recommended” (read “sold”) a particular product to a customer x-amount of times.
Similarly, clients are usually unaware that the manufacturer underwrites the integrator’s marketing budget with cooperative spending accounts (Beware of “sponsored content” used to embellish the integrator’s credibility that is really just an advertisement for someone’s product.). Some might call that collaboration; I think “incestuous” is more accurate, but certainly never “agnostic.”
To be fair, there are no “perfect” consultants, as there are no perfect integrators, nor manufacturers. Many consultants may be independent, but lack the expertise or experience to truly lead their clients toward well-planned, future-proof, technically appropriate and responsibly budgeted solutions, not just document, like stenographers, what their clients say they want. The field is ripe with consultants who deliver limited detail, poorly defined, or worse, gold-plated solutions, designed to “see what happens.” Even worse, some consultants rely on the integrator to cover their shortcomings and use their relationship with the client to ensure that happens. I’ve had the displeasure of representing clients in litigation against the former and working for the latter in the past. Neither was exemplary of an industry where the majority serve their clients well.
And I’ve dealt too often with a few manufacturers who over-promise and under-deliver on products that were touted as the new, new thing, guaranteed to not only meet but exceed a client’s expectation at a reduced budget, but did neither.
One of my old bosses, a retired colonel from the Army’s Corps of Engineers, used to say to me, “Stay in your own lane!” whenever I would offer commentary outside of my role in the firm. His perspective may have come from the old command and control paradigm, but was usually right because I did not have the “real” perspective of the operations or financial managers who were my peers that I was second guessing.
In this case, I’ve walked in all three lanes, so When it comes to AV systems design, integration and product production, I believe he could not have been more right. These lanes of consulting, integration, and manufacturing provide our clients with the optimal mix of expertise and beneficial high value technical solutions.
My advice to client’s seeking counsel, “Be aware of the differences and work collaboratively with each leveraging their unique expertise and contribution to your project for the highest value.”
For more on this topic, please see John Cook’s perspective at The Sextant Group’s True North.
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Change is the one constant we can count on. Whether revolutionary or evolutionary, the dynamic of progress leads to transition. It sometimes seems that these transitions are often the hardest aspects of business to comprehend and resolve. As a wise friend once told me, recognizing that change happens “for” us, not “to” us, can help frame the challenge into an opportunity for growth.
In professional services, the vagaries of global economics means no market is “certain.” Staying the course is too often a recipe for disaster. In this era of big data and predictive analytics, there are many tools and resources that can be leveraged to identify both trends in current markets and opportunities in new markets. The savvy marketer will make it a priority to pay as much or more attention to the horizon as to the present moment. Finding the balance between now and “when” is critical to navigating the waters of change that will impact the future of the practice.
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It’s that time of year when we look back and find those aspects of our personal and professional lives that we know we could change—should change—to enable improved outcomes in our life and our work. And like most, developing a laundry list of resolutions is easy: spend less, eat less, and drink less and exercise more to improve health; network more, learn more, focus more and spend less to improve business. And like most, realizing the path from could to should to will is too often littered with a loss of resolve.
So this year, what will be different? In my case ‘all of the above’ top the list. However, that ‘do it all’ attitude is tempered by a new insight into the what, why, how and when I will achieve those resolutions.
For most professional service firms, it’s a little different. In most companies, the strategic goals that define the resolutions for improvement are not universally clear. Everyone in the firm has a set that most often are defined by personal need (or want) that may or may not align with the goals for the practice. If leadership has a clear vision—and communicates not only the impact and effort needed to reach a far horizon objective, but the anticipated results as well—then alignment of personal goals that support the larger effort is possible; maybe even highly probable.
I approach 2015 with a new perspective on the planning process that I believe can lead to a more effective plan. I had the opportunity to work with a client who introduced me to the concept of appreciative inquiry and a foundational structure based on identifying positive attributes of goals, strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results. Different than more traditional planning formats that emphasize overcoming weaknesses or threats, which can stratify and stultify an organization, appreciative planning focuses on five simple yet important questions:
1. What’s Important? Define goals as an outcome. Frame the outcome as benefit to your clients, your people, and the larger community in which you serve. This can be one or a series of core objectives that define the vision and mission of the practice.
2. What’s Working? Define the structures, processes, focus, markets, people, expertise, value, etc.—the strengths—that are bringing the highest value to your clients, the organization, and the industry where you practice, today.
3. What’s Could Be? This is the chance to dream, and dream big! If all things were possible (no restrictions) what would we do differently? What else could we do? This is a real opportunity for blue sky thinking can create a sense of adventure and excitement and reignite passions for the practice that may have waned with the daily rigors of too much work too little time.
4. What Should Be? What are our core aspirations? What would be the ideal? This is where dream meets design. How can you take your expertise, experience, and excellent proofs of concept, and apply them to the opportunities identified for growth? This stage identifies strategies needed to achieve the aspirations, and aligns them with the people who will be responsible for leading the effort to see them to fruition.
5. What Will Be? For the leadership, these are the results-oriented and agreed upon set of strategies and tactics for the given measure of time where resources will be focused to achieve the goals. This iterative roadmap sets the direction and identifies the highest and best opportunities for positive change.
Note that iterative and change are important aspects of the fifth phase of the planning process. We live/work in an ever more rapidly changing world, so that no matter how detailed the plan becomes, there need to be built in regular reviews and revisions to adjust to changing markets and take advantage of new opportunities as the present themselves.
Equally important is developing how the plan is communicated. For most organizations, not everyone is engaged in the planning process, so that informing your staff of the strengths, opportunities, aspirations and desired results is critical. Similarly, engaging your clients, client’s clients, and your community can have the added benefit on extending the value of your services.
Marketing is the communication arm of any practice that is best positioned to help translate the plans vision, mission, and objectives into tactical messages, with a view toward those strategic initiatives that will differentiate the practice and provide the highest customer value. Engaging the marketing staff from the outset of the planning process ensures that message aligns with core values.
With a focus on clarity and measurable result expectations—tied to realistic budget and schedule—communicating strategy should be the first resolution for each year. It sets the stage for firm-wide and personal resolutions that we each resolve to meet—and better—exceed.
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One of the biggest challenges for the professional service firm is learning from losing. Most of us familiar with the request for qualifications/interview/select/negotiate/award (RFQ) process, know that odds are decidedly not in our favor. Like baseball’s best .300-average hitters, a great “hit rate” is usually about 30-35 percent. But that also means that more than half the time you are not on the winning team.
The measure of the strong practice is its resilience to loss. Unfortunately, many firms see this process as just a numbers game. Thinking that by submitting on as many RFQ opportunities as possible, the percentages will average out is what makes Las Vegas casino owners smile. While a strong portfolio of experience and resident experts may get the attention of a client during the submittal review, it is rare that those same qualifiers will alone win the work.
When a project is lost, whether at the submittal stage or at the interview, the best course of action is not to keep cranking out qualifications statements for under-qualified opportunities, but to continue to develop the relationship with the clients you actually want to work with. Spending time and money on to really know and understand a potential client’s needs, more often than not, put you a step ahead of the competition.
So if that loss was for a client you really want, set up a meeting to debrief. Talk about the plusses the wining firm had, not the minuses of your submittal or interview team. Learn what they value, and take it to heart.
The criteria I have found best for identifying new potential clients is creating a list of those companies who look like my best (i.e., most revenue, most profitable) clients. Mindlessly chasing anything that moves is a waste of time and talent.
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One of the notable technology trends in the last year has been the proliferation of smart phones and tablets, replacing laptops and desktops as the “bring your own device” (BYOD) of choice. A BYOD world adds to the immediacy of email, tweets, and the variety of social media posts. With mobile devices as, if not more, powerful than traditional computers, our e-enabled lifestyle allows us the flexibility to be productive, communicative and collaborative as we choose.
The challenge is that this ever-present immediacy threatens to completely eliminate the expectation that we are ever “off-line” and unavailable. I’ve noted a significant increase in business-related correspondence signed “sent from my iPad” arriving at all hours and (too) often on weekends. I’m not sure this is really productive, or just another sign that the expectation of a challenged economy is causing us to think we need to work harder and expect the same from everyone we communicate and collaborate with.
Regardless of the motivation, the reality is our communication and productivity tools are smaller, lighter, easily connected to the net and the web, allowing us both the freedom and the chains of “always on.” Learning and applying balance and priority will become more important than ever.
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I am happy to announce that my new book, The Architecture of Image: Branding Your Professional Service is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Bookwire. The book will also be available at the bookstore at SMPS’ Build Business Conference in Orlando, FL, July 31-August 2.
The premise: The brand of the professional service firm is one of the most misunderstood and often under-utilized tools used to build market share and increase business. Your brand is critical to establishing and sustaining your firm’s image in the market, and critical to the creation of a successful and enduring professional practice.
In the book, I explore how culture, collaboration, and communication create, develop, and sustain an enduring brand. Beginning with a fundamental discovery process, building on collaborative values, and becoming finite, definable and reportable results, this book will help you establish a culture that values the power of your brand. Sharing insights, best practices, and examples from some of the leading brands and marketing thought leaders in the AEC industry, The Architecture of Image provides your firm with the understanding and tools to establish an enduring brand in the professional service marketplace.
I’ve been very pleased with the initial response to the publication, and am happy to share some of the first reviews:
“Park has captured for all of us in the AEC industry the essence of what it takes to be successful developers and marketers of our brand–a heretofore little understood concept in the industry. His book should be required reading for every client-facing member of our firms from new grad to CEO.”
Director of Corporate Marketing
Burns & McDonnell
“As a nationally recognized master of marketing A/E services, Park takes a fresh and fascinating look at the whole concept of branding. His book guides you to a highly effective approach to evaluate and implement a brand strategy. A must read!”
Patrick C. Bell & Company
“Dispelling the myths of what branding isn’t, Park provides a laser focus on what many have found to be an elusive and mysterious concept for professional service firms and gets to the heart of the matter of effectivebranding. Drawn on real-world experiences from his exemplary career and those of other marketing legends, the examples provided, advice cited, and recommendations made can make an immediate and lasting difference.”
JUDY L. HRICAK, CPSM
Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer
You can also order an autographed copy from my website, craigpark.com. I also provide a presentation on the subjects covered by the book, including profiles of some of the AEC industry’s leading brands. Contact me for more information.
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I continue to wonder at the times where what is said and what is heard are misinterpreted. Working in the AV/IT/multimedia communications industry, we see interesting and innovative technologies every day. It is easy for me as a technologist to think my explanation of some relatively common idea or new development is always clear.
But for those who are not familiar with those same concepts, my seemingly clear explanation is often perceived as obtuse, or worse, obfuscated. In my role as a marketer (the other hat), the goal is to describe value, benefit, and proof of concept that speaks directly to a client’s needs and the impact and results that our services will deliver.
To reach a level of common understanding, it behooves the marketer (and the professional) to find language that is clear, concise, and that focuses on the client or potential client’s vocabulary, not on the vocabulary of your particular industry. Framing dialogue around their needs, issues, constraints, and connecting concepts to the realities of their business or enterprise is critical to build a successful professional B2B relationship.
Using language that sounds good, but actually means nothing, only serves to frustrate the reader (or listener). Worse, that approach builds barriers to effective communication and collaboration. So the next time you are tempted to say, “By maneuvering imaginatively within operational boundaries, the latent potentials of the project can be teased out of the very restrictions that would seem to weigh it down,” think twice.
The client’s reaction is more likely to be “WTF” than, “Wow, that’s really clear.” I know we can all do better.
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Last night, I finished what I thought of as the “final” draft of my new book, The Architecture of Image: Branding Your Professional Practice. I said to myself, “I’m done!”
Then I thought, there are actually several more steps of done before I’m really done (and you have the book in your hand). There are editors, and book designers, and publishers (thankfully that’s me), and printers, and reviewers who will all contribute to the final “done.”
Like most projects, we begin with an end in mind. As an author, it was the completion of the actual writing. However, the inspiration, research, and collaboration that took place along the way were all just part of the “getting there.” And, like most projects, it took much more time than I ever imagined.
So, realizing that my book is still “a work in progress,” I take a deep breath and go back to completing the real seven phases of done.
4. Just about
6. I think I’m…
7. I’m done!
And sometime in the “real soon now” near future, I will be smokin’ done! I hope.
Look for The Architecture of Image at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, later this Spring.
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The information tsunami continues unabated. The massive volume of Internet-posted data, videos, music, updates, connections, and communication in what has become a myriad of social media forms, challenges the professional marketer to keep up or forever be passed by.
Nearly 200 million emails are sent every minute. In that same 60 seconds, more than 600 videos are posted to YouTube, representing more than 25 hours of content. There are now over 1 billion Facebook users — growing at a faster rate than the populations of every major country on Earth.
In an era known as “big data,” finding the small nuggets of relevancy to your positioning, branding, and interactions with your clients is becoming more and more difficult. The time spent sifting (more like wading) through even the simple filters like Google’s “Alerts” can be time better spent connecting directly with the information needs of your clients and potential clients.
How we think about communication has to shift. Every day, we are inundated with well-intentioned e-news, seasonal greetings, and just plain spam. I find myself unsubscribing sending more and more outreach-oriented email from senders I know and respect — or worse, simply flagging them into my spam filter. No disrespect, but I don’t have the time or energy to waste.
If you want to reach me, know me first. Send something personal, but not a solicitation. Pre-email, a solid outreach strategy was snail-mailing a reprint of an interesting article to a client or prospect. Hand-written thank you notes were seen as a positive reflection of character. Both can still be used in technology-enabled communication. But connect with me first. Let me opt into the conversation.
I may be old school (well, certainly old), but I believe we can still be personal. Social connectors like LinkedIn give you access to the ever-shrinking degrees of separation. Find a personal connection to those who lead, manage, and interact with your professional service. Don’t make them try to find you in the clutter and chaff of the data deluge.
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