Aug 27

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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2 Responses to “an honest look at audiovisual consulting.”

  1. Erich Friend says:

    There is another disconcerting element that is not addressed in your post, and that is the legality of contractors / integrators / manufacturers being involved in the systems design process for public works projects. When an owner or an architect uses a system design and/or specification that is developed by someone other than an independent consultant they may well be violating state or federal laws. This path is strewn with mines that can derail a project. Should another vendor ask a question or request a product substitution, how likely is it that an unbiased response will be provided by the original author? If the contract to install the system designed by contractor ‘A” is awarded to contractor ‘B’, who is going to review shop drawings, provide job site inspections, and oversee the final commissioning of the system? It would be unusual and awkward for one contractor to have that level of influence over another competitor, particularly if they were defeated in getting the job they designed in the hopes of being the one installing it.  With tax dollars at stake, it is incumbent for the purchasing agent to be assured that good stewardship of the public’s money is achieved. With biased entities in the loop there has to be a system of checks and balances, otherwise you truly have a case of the fox watching the hen-house.

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  2. […] to be continued… (And if you are interested in Craig Park’s thoughts on this topic, see his rant. And tell him to get back on the […]

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