EDITORS CHOICE 30.01.17

The ripple effect - Consultants Roundtable

consultants roundtable 1

Paul Milligan gathered a group of consultants together and discovered, despite a sometimes lofty reputation, they were under just the same pressures as the rest of the AV world.

The discussion began by asking the consultants how they won business, and predominantly it was a mix of word of mouth and reputation, because as Richard Northwood, from RH Consulting put it; “There’s no magazine we can advertise in”. 

So was it often a case of ‘you are only as good as your last job’? Kind of, says Northwood; “You can go to great heights or come crashing down quite rapidly due to a bizarre set of circumstances.  You are only as good as what your client thinks of your last job is, it doesn’t matter what you think of it.” 

WATCH VIDEO FROM THE EVENT HERE
Does the repeated use of using established AV tech stall innovation?
Why is there often a clash between AV consultants and architects?
Should AV consultants have IT skills?
What do architects want from AV products?

The bulk of the work our attendees won was through referrals, based on previous jobs or a recommendation from ‘someone who knows someone’.  But a referral doesn’t always guarantee you’ll win the work says Mike Halliday from Cordless Consultants, it just means you get your foot in the door.  “That’s why it’s increasingly important to make as many friends and contacts on a particular project, so that your work spreads out, as people will always end up working somewhere else.”

consultants roundtable

Daniel Lee, from Hewshott International expanded on that point; “Relationships is the key to new business.  It’s very unusual for us to be successful on a project if we don’t know anyone who is already part of the process.  We have to conduct ourselves in such a way that means that everyone leaves this project and goes off to other projects with the memory that we did a good job on it, and that we are nice people to work with.  It’s a ripple effect, because that project team of 10 might go off into 5 or 10 other projects, and then those teams get split into even more projects.   We’re not selling anything apart from ourselves, so they have to trust us and have confidence in us.”

As mentioned in previous roundtable events, getting in early to a project can be critical, and this is no different for consultants as it is for integrators.  “It can make the difference between technology being part of the building or stuck onto a building,” says Lee.   “You can either integrate all of the infrastructure from the beginning and end up with a seamless outcome or you can come to the party too late and you are then fighting against various factors and the outcome is that the AV is on the wall rather than in the wall, or on a table rather than contained within a table.” 

So is it crucial to be there for every meeting that takes place? It certainly helps, but it helps to have lots of patience, as this comment from Peter Mapp, from Peter Mapp Associates perfectly illustrates; “I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve gone to and talked about drainage.” 

Another factor in getting in early is the ability to ‘stake your claim’ on the budget, before it is all divided up without your input; “If the foundations need more concrete, the ‘A’ part of the AV budget  always seems to suffer, as we are in last,” says Mapp.  “The cost consultant will normally have a number per square foot in his/her head, irrespective of whether it’s a floor of office space or a floor of meeting rooms.  So it’s really important to influence that as early as possible,” adds Lee.

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We then moved on to discussing IT and AV, and we asked them how important it was for AV consultants to have IT skills? “It’s becoming mandatory to offer a platform of skills rather than specialising,” says Halliday.  “You can’t just do one and forget the other. Increasingly we are seeing tenders for the whole package (AV, IT etc), whilst there was an initial danger you would end up with a half-baked solution from one end or another, people now realise if the tender is going out as a combined package they will need to see expertise in all those areas.”

For over a decade now the pro AV industry has been debating the coming together of AV and IT, but for Lee that discussion is not relevant anymore; “People are still talking about it, but it’s happened.  There is no more coming together.  On every project now we are talking about AV over IP in some way.”

So has that changed how Lee approaches project work? “There are some projects where an AV consultant with lots of experience is absolutely the right person for the job, but more and more we are looking at projects where its 100% AV over the network, so there is scope there for someone who is more IT focused and has an understanding of AV.  We are definitely technology consultants now, rather than AV consultants.”  

Mark Johnson, from PTS Consulting, was lucky enough to come from a multi-disciplinary practice, so he was able to draw people from all sides of the IT world within his own company to work on projects, including specialists on data centres and structured cabling.  Even though AV consultants now have to wear an IT hat, that doesn’t mean traditional skills don’t still hold some value says Johnson.  “It’s important not to forget there are areas of knowledge that are specific to what we hold dear, as AV consultants.  There are lots of areas around acuity, in terms of how we see things and how we hear things, which frankly the IT guys have no appreciation of whatsoever.” 

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Others agreed that even though AV and IT worlds had converged, there were still variances between the way the two sectors did things.   “A big difference between AV and IT is that in AV we design a system but also a user experience,” says Lee.  “In IT they design a system but a software designer has created the user experience, they don’t need to worry about what it feels like for the user, because Microsoft has already done that for them.  Whereas the systems we design, we have to think about how it will look and feel and be experienced by the end user, and that’s based on knowledge we have on how our clients operate.”

AV equipment is now being accepted far more readily onto the IT network it was agreed by all, partly because in recent years there has been a move away from proprietary AV protocols into more general IT languages, or as Lee put it; “AV products speak their language now.”

There is still work to be done on this front though, as Johnson illustrates; “What hasn’t changed, and I can’t see it changing anytime soon, is that the IT world is much more ordered that ours.  How many operating systems does an IT team have to deal with? Windows Server and Windows Desktop and maybe one other.  How many operating systems does an average AV integrator have to deal with? One with every manufacturer.  How many endpoints does your typical IT engineer have to deal with? A desktop, laptop PC, printer, Wi-Fi access point, server and telephone.  There are all very standardised and are all typically running the same software.  How many devices do we deal with typically? 350 or 400 on a typical job. On a recent job, we had to introduce 33 new pieces of software, mostly used for commissioning bespoke operating systems.”    

One criticism leveled at integrators and consultants from distributors and manufacturers is that the need to install reliable or ‘tried and trusted’ technology is stalling innovation, is this fair? “There is a risk that if you keep going back to the same ‘go to’ manufacturers the market becomes a lot less competitive and it does stifles innovation,” admits Halliday.  The consultants around the table all wanted to use new technology, but were honest to admit that with very new products there is an element of risk and fear involved that it won’t work and the client will be left unhappy. 

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So how can you install new kit but keep the risk element low? “It’s all down to sounding your client out,” says Johnson. “There will be individuals and organisations who have an appetite for new technology and want to surf the crest of a wave and they are prepared to take the risk that comes with that.  You have to be absolutely upfront with them and tell they ‘we are in uncharted territory here’, and there are no guarantees.  There are processes and procedures to mitigate against it (failures) but ultimately its about openness and transparency with the client.  If you think you are headed into shark infested waters, you better tell them so.”

Lee agreed, but was keen to see the positives in choosing brand new technology; “I always think we have hit the jackpot when we get clients who say ‘it may not be tried and tested but we want to see what we can do with this’, because ultimately we are all in this industry because we like technology, and rolling out the same stuff over and over again is not massively engaging for us as individuals.”  Over the years Peter Mapp has created what he called ‘specials’ for clients, which were adapted pieces of technology to fit a particular need because there was no product available on the market at that time to do what he wanted to do.  But he says those days are over, “We’ve gone so far away from that now, I would never want one on a job. With DSP you can always put something together to make it do what you want it to do.”  
 
We then went on to discuss the current state of the relationship between architects and AV consultants, was it always difficult? or are they starting to consider what AV technology needs to succeed? “I fight architects every day of my life,” says Mapp.  “There are some very good ones, who understand you are an expert in that field, but there are others who just don’t want to know. The big well-known architects are the worst.  I’ve worked on big projects that have been hell, but you do it because you want that particular name on your CV.”  The issues of working with architects were many it seemed, “I have sat in meetings where I have had to remind the design team it was actually an auditorium, and people were going into that space to look at pictures and listen to sound, which kind of sums up the problem,” adds Johnson.  

Where the consultant sits in terms of the job’s hierarchy can have a big impact says Mapp, “Sometimes you end up having to fight the architect to protect the client.   I’d rather be appointed by a client than an architect because I’ve got (notionally) equal status, actually you haven’t really, but you can always go to the client and say ‘this isn’t working’, if you are working for the architect that’s as far as you can go.”

Finally we asked them about the relationship between integrators and consultants.  In the last roundtable event we held (with integrators), it was said that consultants picked the same integrators over and over again, could be difficult to engage with, and were sometimes used to reduce the costs of the integrator.  The consultants around the table were sympathetic to the needs of integrators, but were insistent they had their own problems.

“The biggest challenge I have at the moment is that some integrators work well with us and they understand it’s a two-way street, someone will make a mistake at some point, instead of there being a blame culture and someone is hung out to dry, it’s flagged quickly so everyone wins at the end.  Some contractors, who are newer to the party, don’t necessarily understand that, and it becomes a battle then,” says Halliday. Mark Johnson agreed, saying the relationship was symbiotic; “We can’t deliver client’s AV systems without an integrator and similarly they want us to do the client design and procurement exercise, we have to work hand in glove ultimately.   Those that don’t realise the benefit of not approaching these things with a cooperative mindset won’t thrive.  We don’t succeed by beating integrators unreasonably and similarly they don’t thrive by seeking to embarrass and humiliate a consultant that has ultimately recommended them for the job.”

Are consultants guilty of using the same integrators over and over again? “We’re asked all the time ‘what do we need to do to get on your list?’ as if there is a magic list on the wall where all the tenders go to.  It’s project specific and it changes all the time.  It can be about a particular team or even individuals sometimes,” says Lee.  “It’s the classic Catch 22 situation,” admits Mapp, “How do you win work without a track record, but how do you get a track record if you aren’t given work?”

Lee added that quite often a client will have a preference for an integrator, so the decision is taken out of their hands.  “There’s a feeling amongst integrators that we just wander around grabbing work here, there and everywhere, and it’s easy for us.  It’s exactly the same for us, there aren’t clients throwing work around without us making any effort.  Integrators don’t see that side of things, whereas we see them doing that, because we are a target for them, they don’t see us doing it because they are not the target, somebody else is.   Everyone is competing to win new business.”

Single stage tenders was an issue brought up by all our attendees as having a direct effect on the relationship between consultants and integrators.   “The number of projects where we don’t have the ability to choose or influence can be frustratingly large, single stage tenders are a big challenge for all consultants.  We find them enormously challenging with regards to our ability to control the quality of the result,’ says Johnson. 

Single stage tenders often meant the consultant was just policing the spec rather than being a cooperative player in the process said Mapp.  “What happens regularly is the main contractor gets the tender, knocks 10% of all of the prices because it wants to win the bid, then everyone else has to take 10% off.  If you have designed the thing properly then the price you’ve given is the real price."


Attendees

Simon Druce, CUK Audio
Mike Halliday, Cordless Consultants
Mark Johnson, PTS Consulting 
Daniel Lee, Hewshott International
Peter Mapp, Peter Mapp Associates
Richard Northwood, RH Consulting
Montse Romero, Arthur Holm