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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the one constant.

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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passion to print to podium.

One of the challenges of the professional service firm is being seen in the market as an “expert.” One of the hallmarks of the strong brands in professional service is their thought leadership both in print and on stage. How does the marketing professional help the often introverted expert make the leap from personal passion for the ideas around which they practice and the visibility of publication or presentation?

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to interview marketing expert and author of more than a dozen books, Seth Godin for a cover article for SMPS’ journal, Marketer. Having done several interviews in the past —using a preset list of questions, taking copious notes, and relying on my memory to flush out the article — I called to set up a time for he and I to talk, suggesting I’d need about an hour. Godin called back and suggested I tape our interview, have it transcribed, and then edit the draft conversation into the article.

His comment was, “If I gave you an hour, we’d have another book.” He noted that a typical 30-minute interview, where he spoke — on a topic where he was passionately and intellectually expert — would generate 3,000-4,000 words. As they typical magazine or journal article is 1,000-1,500 words, I would have plenty of raw material to draw from. He was right.

I’ve used that simple method ever since to help take technical staff within my firms, who are reticent about writing for publication, into respected experts, who were then sought after for their expertise by other publications. And, by extension, it gave those same individuals the confidence to present that same content as part of a client-facing industry trade conference.

Use this technique and soon you will have experts visible in your clients eyes, and you brand stronger for the effort.

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everything changes… get used to it.

Welcome to my first blog posting of 2013. In the past I’ve written about patience and impermanence, but thought it was timely to revisit Buddha, the marketing strategist.

One of the basic precepts of Buddhism teaches that impermanence is reality. Nothing stays the same. Change is constant. When you realize that circumstances — often situations well out of our control — can have a significant and sustained influence on our business, it can help focus our strategic marketing efforts on flexible, adaptable and agile programs. Realize that the same influence of impermanence impacts in equal measure our clients (and our clients’ clients). This, in turn, implies the need to be ever mindful of the social, technologic, economic and political factors surrounding our marketplace.

It is easy to overlook big picture shifts that happen at a glacial pace. The subtle can be much more insidious than the gross. Disruptive changes — whether catastrophic like major weather events or innovative like a new discovery or technology — are far easier to grasp and respond to. When the shift is long in coming, elusive or amorphous it can be harder to make the necessary adjustments. Take the demise of Kodak as an example. Their failure to acknowledge the slow but steady change over the last two decades from film to digital forced their bankruptcy and forever changes the market’s perception of their value.

A second Buddhist precept is acceptance. However change manifests it is critical to not react by “hunkering down” and hoping (more often praying) that this will all be back to normal “real soon now.” One only need to read the volumes on the “new normal” economy triggered by the 2008/09 “Great Recession” to realize that those firms that hunkered were quickly surpassed by those that took immediate action to restructure, redesign, and reposition to capture a smaller, but still relevant market share.

Once you accept impermanence, you can act effectively and accordingly. Increasing the frequency of your market planning, monitoring closely the direct and indirect influences having an impact your clients, and even more closely monitoring the communication efforts of your competitors, and prepare our firms to move quickly when circumstances change.

Patience is the third of the Buddhist virtues, as it is in many other cultures and philosophical paradigms. Though impermanence may force radical action and acceptance may help rationalize the need for change, adopting a patient perspective provides the foundation for long-term success. Rarely do new strategies have immediate impact. Focusing on consistent communication of value — defined in client-facing terms and based on the new realities driven by change — positions your firm for an enduring and profitable future.

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fundamental foundational focus.

As we start a new year, I’ve found myself going back to the fundamental business development processes that I learned from early mentors.

1) Know your market. Expertise, experience and proven excellence define your niche (and be happy for that). The challenge when opportunities are slim, is chasing after anything that smells like work. Unfortunately, many succumb to fear and waste good energy on bad behavior. Revisit your vision and values and spend time researching clients (and their clients) who align with your strengths. Knowledge trumps unfocused activity every time.

2) Respect your network. Everyone in professional services, regardless of specialty, are in the same boat: fewer projects, more competition, and downward fee pressure. Invest time connecting and reconnecting with those you know, whether they can bring you business (or lead you to business). Learn what they see, share what you know, seek commonalities, consider jointly beneficial strategies.

3) Tell your story. Even with fewer projects, there are still projects to talk about. Leverage the media (“All PR is good PR!”) and share challenges, benefits and proofs with your clients, potential clients, and their clients, and their communities. When times are slow, building your media network is as critical as building your pipeline.

Spend each day researching what’s new, calling old friends, and sharing stories (and get in some billable time too, please… lol!). A few years ago, we were saying “It will be heaven in 2011.” Well, that didn’t exactly pan out. Last year, we were saying “Stay lean until 2013.” That is still good advice. Put your time, effort and money in simple, focused efforts that will pay off in the long run. That’s where your priorities should be.

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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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transition. transform. transend.

I just returned from a marketing conference focusing on professional services. It was clear from the themes discussed over the two days that we continue to face an economy that challenges the professional service industry and the construction sector in particular.

From 2008-2010, we transitioned from high demand to limited opportunities. At the time, the unexpected recessive economic pressures (the tsunami from the sub-prime collapse and the financial market meltdown—unfortunate metaphors foreshadowing today’s tragedy in Japan) were causing the buyers of services for capital program to stall any growth unless demand was overwhelming. That transition from buy now to buy later put the brakes on service demand, and resulted in a realignment and retrenchment. In many cases, successful firms in many service areas where reduced in scale by a third, and a significant number of small to mid-size firms did not survive.

While at best we can say we see the tunnel (no real light yet), the ‘new normal’ economy has caused a major transformation on the services business model. Unless financial support (e.g., public private partnerships), alternative service delivery (e.g., shared risk integrated project contractual models), or technological leverage (e.g., dynamic information modeling) are perceived as providing high value solutions to client growth (or retrenchment) goals, the service provider is indistinguishable from their competitors. This furthers the commoditization of the perceived service value, and drives down revenue and profit. The growth of the mega-firm through acquisition and absorption is a direct result—providing some service in all areas of expertise or geography allows the large firms to continue to capture market share.

However, the future may actually be defined by those firms who transcend traditional service models, and create new value by supporting the causal growth that underlie the demand for their expertise. Creating alliances across broad sectors of like-interest organizations—spanning manufacturing, development, and consumers—creates great potential for sustained and supported growth. Basing business strategies on the greater needs of the sector, not just the immediate transaction, can fuel resurgence in demand for the professional service provider.

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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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Nothing that stays the same survives. To continue to grow your business, services, message, delivery and culture must continually evolve. The concept of transformation is important to keeping the organization aware that status quo will ultimately yield declining results.

Developing a vision of transformation at the leadership level within the organization, marketing, and operations of your practice allows for input from clients, staff, and affiliates (consultants, vendors, peers) to provide open and honest observations that will enhance awareness, and stimulate change.

Economic upheaval, changing technology, new practice models all challenge “the way we’ve always done it” thinking. Many firms stubbornly hang on to methods that worked in the past, but refuse to acknowledge that the circumstances that defined the past have changed.

The enduring practice embraces change, seeks change, and celebrates the transformation that comes from change. Engaging in open dialogue, modeling, and experimentation creates a culture that embraces the entrepreneurial spirit that began the organization to begin with. Keeping that spirit fresh and ever evolving is the message that leaders need to convey throughout the organization. Setting open communications pathways, through intranet, wikis, and regular discourse will fuel the development of new ideas. Sharing those ideas with the community in which you serve further feeds the process.

Seeing the path (and experiences) of the past, both successes and failures, as learning and not as a predictors, opens new opportunities for true transformation. Fearlessly taking the path untried will yield unexpected results. Creativity is spurred by the willingness of the organization to trust. Transformation is guaranteed by the willingness of the organization to believe.

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