an honest look at audiovisual consulting.

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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facts tell, stories sell.

One of the most impactful business development strategies is storytelling.

However, in this era of ‘big data,’ professional service firms — and particularly their marketers and business developers — rely primarily on facts and statistics to convey their value proposition. There is nothing more scintillating to a client than hearing that a firm is ‘over 100 years old,’ has ‘20 (or more) offices,’ has ‘500 licensed engineers,’ or has constructed ‘more than 1M square feet’ of new buildings in the last 10 years. Oh, and by the way, we are ‘always’ on time and on budget.

Just kidding!

Too often, these mind-numbing, eye-glazing factoids have replaced real narrative about the challenge, the approach, the solution, and the benefits, as ‘proof’ of the ability of the firm to provide real and sustainable value for their clients. Why? Facts are simple to remember and to regurgitate. For the non-technical marketing and business developer, facts are the ‘easy’ answer. Writing value-based narrative is increasingly a lost art. And, again too often, the original storytellers (those involved in the development and delivery of the service) are gone or weren’t asked.

Today, there is such a focus on the structure and the data contained in ‘customer relationship management’ systems as the ‘be all, end all’ resource for ‘knowledge’ that the stories have gotten lost in the database. And, with the rise of visual media (i.e., film and television) and instant, mass communication (i.e., the Internet and all of its resources; combined with the era of instant access of the ‘bring your own device’) has had a noticeable impact on both the narrator and the narrative.

To get back to effective storytelling, communicators, whether marketer or business developer, must engage with the consultants, designers, engineers, and project managers, and the clients, who are involved in each project at the outset. Start a dialogue, document the progress, and create a story worth telling, and hearing. Nothing ‘sells’ like a good story.

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the six phases of the creative act.

Creativity is the life blood of the marketing effort. Without skillful ideation, every firm would look like every other firm—the death knell of a brand. Over the years, I’ve written and spoken about the six phases of a project, both seriously and tongue in cheek because an organized process is critical to the successful delivery of high value service.

Similarly, this process approach can be applied to the creating a new message, establishing or sustaining a position in the market, or simply identifying possibilities for new services. This process also is defined in six phases.

1. considering the possibilities
Engage regularly in a freewheeling, no holds barred, no wrong answers, brainstorming, “idea factory” meeting. Set a strategic premise (what is your goal) and then let the creativity begin. Without exception there will be some good, some bad, and some “what if we could…” ideas. Avoid setting implicit or implied limits (e.g., don’t stop at “going global” when you could be “going galactic”), and definitely don’t raise judgments or doubts for anyone’s suggestion. Inspiration and innovation often come from the least likely idea. Don’t be afraid to look outside your normal spheres of influence. Check out the completion; better check out your clients. A marketing message that resonates is driven by benefits and value.

2. freeform associative cognition
Spend some time prioritizing (but don’t throw any ideas away). Focus on three good ideas that meet your strategic goal and expand on them. What is their message? How would they be seen or experienced by the customer? How will they be extended into other aspects of your practice. How are they expressed (i.e., what medium and media)? As in step 1, there are no wrong answers—all ideas are good ideas. Look back at the early ideas (that didn’t move forward) and see if any expand, complement, or improve the ones you are studying.

3. discipline and focus
Pick one! This is the hardest step, since you probably have many good ideas to choose from. Take that “really” good idea and think through all the options to take it from concept to fruition, from inspiration to execution. What resources are needed? What budget? How quickly can you “go to market.” This is the time to set out a plan that moves from the idea forward. Most plans can be developed in just a few hours, no more than a few days, and none should span more than 6 weeks. Setting an aggressive schedule keeps the focus on the goal, and keeps the idea fresh.

4. effecting a solution
This is where the “rubber meets the road!” Buddha said, “An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that only exists as an idea.” However your idea manifests—as a new piece of collateral or e-marketing; a move into new market; or an event or promotional effort—this is the time to follow through by making it visible. This is where the idea is translated into form, where you show it to the world, and where it builds your brand.

5. retrospection
Take a breath. Sleep on it. Don’t worry. And definitely, don’t second guess yourself. Many good (even great) ideas go to market and don’t realize the impact that was hoped for. But conversely, many do make a difference, set a new high water mark for the brand, and become iconic and remain memorable. And many great ideas morph into new, new ideas that take that initial creativity and expand into even greater innovation.

6. happy feet.
Smile. At the end of the day, you’ll have developed a new, new marketing program, built on the six phases of the creative act, and will be ready to go back to number one and start again.

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collaborative intelligence.

Each year, the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) stages a major event, their Build Business conference. This building industry-focused conference, features speakers covering topics of advanced marketing and business development techniques, market-sector focused panels, and keynotes from noted thought leaders and authors. Examples of some of the best “award winning” ideas for collateral, communication, and client appreciation are featured at the conference’s black-tie Awards Gala. Details of the programs and speakers can be found at

I’ve been attending these annual gatherings of professional service marketing’s leaders and thought leaders since 1989. In over 20 years, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing such business greats as Tom Peters and Dan Pink, and meeting thousands of my peers from across the country and from every sector of the building industry. What distinguishes this convention over many other industry events is the quality of the programming and the emphasis on networking, combined with the exuberant enthusiasm and optimism that you will only find in the company of dedicated marketing professionals. “Work hard, play hard” could easily be the subtext of the conference.

At the end of the three days, stimulated by new ideas, invigorated by the collaborative intelligence gained from interacting with professionals focused on growing their business, expanding their market share, and delivering increasingly differentiated service, I return to my firm prepared to “hit the ground running” motivated by new ideas and new connections.

If you’re in the professional service industry, especially if you work in a building-industry related firm, SMPS’ Build Business conference is not to be missed. Attend, learn and share!

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smart. savvy. strategic.

I admire those marketers that ‘get it.’ They focus on strategic innovation, clarity of client-facing message, and creative application of the breadth and depth of the marketer’s toolkit. They have a drive to not just meet their firm’s marketing needs (collateral, communication, proposals, standards, etc.), but to exceed any expectation by their implementation of memorable and contemporary message—pieces that capture the imagination and leave a lasting impression on the reader.

Can you say that about your marketing message? We talk about the need for a professional services firm to innovate—to develop a ‘unique value proposition’—in order to differentiate their service from those of their competitors. Where that is critically true for the ‘service,’ the same holds true for the marketing program. It is where the message emanates—and that message must grab the attention of the reader, and make them say, “Tell me more.”

While I am not a big fan of ‘awards’ for marketing—feeling that those who design to win awards are not necessarily designing for memorable message—I do think that reviewing award winning marketing programs can illustrate the look, feel, and message that resonates with the audience. Better, review the marketing materials of your client’s market sector to see what message, aesthetic, and audience they target. Take your queue from those, and craft a marketing program that allows your client’s to see a message that strategically captures their attention, and see you as someone who ‘gets it.’

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unconventional wisdom.

“It’s the way we’ve always done it!” “If it ain’t broke, don’t break it!” “But, everyone else is doing it!” So goes the litany of why we follow the path of least resistance or go with the “herd,” and continue to market “the way we always have” (even with a few “new” outlets for the “same old story”) regardless of the radical changes in market conditions that permeate the professional service industry today.

There is no discounting of the growing impact of social media. However, most clients of professional service firms don’t rely on reading your “tweet” or your “blog” or how much they “like” your Facebook page, when finding, or especially when choosing your firm for their business. There is no doubt that social media is connecting new customers to new products and services, but, to date, that has been almost exclusively in the retail world.

So why do we have a blog, and tweet, and keep our Facebook pages up to date? Because, in addition to the more traditional marketing efforts of outward-facing communication (eg, brochures, websites, advertising, sponsorship, events, public relations, publications and conference presentations, etc.) and the business development efforts of relationship building (eg, telephone calls, face-to-face meetings, bonding over meals or golf, networking mixers, etc.), these new outlets are an important part of continuing to build your network and validate your brand.

Still many firms build a website, assign someone to blog and/or tweet, monitor and update “status” on Facebook, and expect the work will roll in the door. “Are you kidding me!,” as one friend said. Closing new business is not a function of rehashing your “years in business” or how great you are (according to you) or even your latest project pictures, regardless of venue. If you continue to tell the same old same old, you will, however gradually, see market share erode. Clients looking for professional services have a very hard time distinguishing one firm from another (ask them to name another architect, engineer, accountant, or even attorney; and then ask them what they see as the differences between them and you). It is up to you to help them differentiate.

Today, especially in this economic climate (18 months of “recovery” notwithstanding), defining “benefit” and “value” in terms the client (and potential clients) can actually measure is critical. Providing accurate and “real-time” benchmarked data on project experience (eg, cost v. budget, time v. schedule, satisfaction v. expectation, performance v. specification, etc.) helps give confidence that you can actually deliver on that lofty “brand promise.” Providing pre-project planning tools and business models (for “free” — what a concept!), will draw potential clients to your website (and maybe even to your office), and really give you something to tweet about.

It is critical when budgets are tight that those responsible don’t make a mistake in a capital investment (of any magnitude). Helping your clients navigate major investments with an accurate history and insight is the hallmark of the valuable professional service firm. Create valued resources, and then go tweet about that!

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there’s an app for that.

Becoming almost ubiquitous, the ‘app’ for iPhone or other smart communication device has revolutionized the B2C market, allowing retailers and restaurants to know who you are, where you are (and have been) and when you are usually there. Scary, but definitely a future you can’t avoid. So what’s available for the B2B marketplace?

Not a lot, really. But there is a new trend toward ‘information on demand’ that may supersede your website, your Facebook ‘fan’ page, and certainly will make your brochure obsolete. I recently saw a cool (for its potential) app for a company called “Saint Consulting Group” available on iTunes (and other platforms), created by Mobile Roadie.

Saint specializes in working with real estate developers and building owners who run into the ever-challenging “Not in My Back Yard” (NIMBY) syndrome. They work as a liaison and help identify objections and build consensus to see projects move forward; sort of a lobbyist at street level. The Saint app provides an overview of their services, links to their new book, “The NIMBY Wars,” and connections to learn more. I think this is a very simple, very deceptive piece of great marketing.

Why? Because if what they post through their app is viewed as cheaper (ie, ‘free’), better (‘perfect’), and more timely (‘now’) than other more tedious ways to get pertinent information and engage with a proven advisor, they will have a strong barrier-to-entry for their services in their market.

Rather than go through the typical consultant selection RFQ cycle of qualifications, dog-and-pony presentations, and ‘lowest price wins’ negotiations, they provide almost immediate access to relevant information that puts them metaphorically and figuratively in the pocket of the customer.

So as you plan your next marketing campaign, you might ask what information you can provide ‘freely’ that has high value and think about developing an ‘app for that!’

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One of the major challenges facing the professional service business is internal communication. Sharing information from the various functional and market-facing departments that make up the enterprise is critical for any individual to feel connected, involved, and engaged. Regardless of role, we all want to feel we are contributing. It becomes the mandate for leadership to find ways to tell the stories of the best and celebrate the successes of the practice. Developing a venue for sharing information that provides easy input by the leadership, the practice leaders, and especially the staff is critical to disseminating the positive stories that help build and maintain moral, and extend the firm’s brand to individual.

Certain issues need to be vetted first, before distributing to the entire company. Recent trends in open social media challenge the corporate gate-keepers (IT and/or Marketing/Communications) ability to control the content or the message. The ability of anyone to post their opinion (good or bad) about the practice, the work, or the staff, must be addressed by CIOs without appearing to limit free speech. Simple editorial review controls are usually the answer.

Further, the mandates of fiscal responsibility for the privately-held or publically-traded company to carefully monitor content leads the former toward control and secrecy, while the laws governing the latter require open (if not always honest) exposure of pertinent financial information. However, where possible and prudent, an open dialogue on the fiscal soundness and prognosis for the firm removes questions (and fear) from those responsible for the “doing” of the work.

At the end of the day, one of best opportunities for building a collaborative culture is to create a regular, meaningful, pertinent, communiqué that illuminates the best of your people (staff), your clients (and your work for them), your work (the best practice of the practice), and your success (financial rewards and industry recognition), so that everyone can stand up and say, proudly, “this is a great company to work for.” Brand strength at its best.

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the collateral crutch.

I think it is very important to have marketing collateral that reflects, and aligns with, your company’s brand identity (who you think you are) as part of your brand image (who they think you are) strategy. In an era of “design” as a differentiator, it is equally important that the material reflects a design aesthetic that is also aligned with your identity/image (e.g., conservative, high tech, hip, or environmental, etc.). Message should be simple and straightforward (“Don’t make me think.”), and graphics and production value should reflect an appropriate level of quality.

All that said―a good brochure is not a marketing strategy. At best it’s a tactic to send ahead or leave behind to remind the client of who you are and what you do (and why they should care). Not having a brochure is not an excuse to not do business development, though many business developers seem to be afraid to go out the door without one. Having a brochure that reflects the company’s “brand” but not your personal design aesthetic is not an excuse to go to market, but too many business developers think that the competitor’s “high level graphics” gives them a competitive edge.

Personally (and professionally) I think a good business developer only needs a phone, a pen or PDA, and a credit card to do as much business as they need to generate for their company. I’d say they just need a phone, but someone, on occasion, should pick up the lunch tab. I don’t think they really need the pen or PDA either, but most need someplace to capture the data necessary about the prospect or client to input into your CRM system (and that assumes you have one, and that they use it―but more on that subject in later posts). What they don’t need is a brochure. They actually don’t need a website either (more on that too―later).

If you need a non-personal introduction, have someone they know, who knows you, introduce you. If you can’t do that, your network isn’t deep enough (yet). If you need a leave behind, have a business card. If you need a follow-up, send a hand-written note (expressing gratitude for the meeting), or a type written letter summarizing your understanding of their needs and the next steps you will take to address them―not more about you.

The collateral crutch is a common problem in professional services firms where technical staff, used to doing the work are put in the uncomfortable position of having to sell the work. Inexperienced at relationship development, they fall back on “portfolio presentation” as the only story to tell. That’s not always a bad thing, but it won’t move a deal closer to close. The same issue is often exacerbated by business developers who’s skills seem sufficient when times are good (i.e., work is readily available), but whose personality “quirks” become much more evident (See the “who you gonna call?” post below).

My advice is get on the phone, set up a meeting, get out of the office, ask good questions, and follow-up (Do what you say!). And leave the brochure behind.

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collaboration without travel.

The Internet has provided a level of connection that no one would have imagined even 10 years ago. The ability to communicate, collaborate, and connect is unprecedented in the history of the civilized world. The savvy marketer is learning to leverage this connectivity with value-based communication that provides both a platform to share expertise and a method to foster greater collaboration.

Telepresence quality videoconferencing provides enhanced communication simply by allowing participants to feel that they are sharing the same space even when the distance between sites is substantial. The quality and scale of image, lack of audio delay, and ability to share data in addition to the voice and video creates an environment that allows for immediacy and interaction.

In an important way the technology actually focuses the typical meeting communication making the outcome more likely to bear positive results. Further, the ability to connect (and re-connect), without the hindrance of travel and non-productive time and their dual impact on quality of life and personal productivity, makes it likely that we will see a greater acceptance and use of this collaborative technology in the very near future.

Creating media and message that leverages this new connectivity is more than just creating another PowerPoint deck. Analytics and information must be as focused and compelling as the human connection video telepresence allows. That challenge will define the connected marketer from the pack.

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