GUEST COLUMN: Contracts and commodities

Kevin Murphy, director of sales and marketing, Kraftwerk Living Technologies, on the life of a creative systems integrator.

I have been directly involved in the AV business now for way over 40 years, as a customer and specifier as well as a supplier and integrator, and if there is one thing I am passionate about it is good systems integration and what this role has enabled me to achieve. I spent a lot of time supporting, managing and working with commercial and AV systems but most of my experience and passion is with what we broadly call Leisure and Entertainment – what the public use and see. So, this is what I will focus on as the rules of engagement are slightly different for meeting and education spaces, and Integrators there have their own challenges. 

It feels to me that all the requirements and skills are under extreme pressure and it gets harder to remain a good integrator in a changing market. Passion is a strong word but you need to be strong in this business with a creative flair, patience and thick skin but I still love it and appreciate the ability to tackle a huge range of projects and budgets (plus take my family there five years later and still see it bringing a smile to faces). However, the role is clearly misunderstood by the vast majority of end clients and potentially even suppliers and manufacturers, so it is a subject I have a little rant about every few years along with contracts.

I am lucky to have joined an integrator in my ‘later’ years with people that know a lot more than me. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, I probably would have been called an ‘technical expert’ in my field but I now work with a younger team that not only knows more than me, they also have the experience and the breadth to explore. Hence, I no longer need to put pen to paper and design. A good integrator has a pool of people that ‘know’ and linked with the commercial, business and client skills of others such as myself and many colleagues, a team is formed that supports our clients and projects. First and foremost a good integrator is focused on the clients and their needs; a good integrator listens first and applies the right technology with the right solution. Skill, experience, knowledge and independence are four of the main criteria but also honesty, the ability to look at projects with their clients, be able to tell them bluntly when something will not work or steer them away, but work with them on new ideas that will work. Whilst many of us have ‘standard’ products or packages, the approach tends to be custom and improvement for every engineering project, looking at the right and better way to do things and coming up with ideas to make the next big ‘wow’. A good integrator has the ability to be open, change, explore and move on in a changing market and must never be in a manufacturer’s pockets.

So why is it becoming harder to be an integrator? Well, in my opinion with a growing use of AV technology and the expansion and the exposure of AV in our modern world, we have client teams that think they ‘know it all’ and quite frankly they just do not understand the integrator’s role. The products that are selected for any project are seen as commodities and the internet has just made it possible for everyone to be an expert with online pricing at their fingertips. Some clients just do not appreciate the real understanding and depth of engineering and knowledge to make it all work reliably and with ease of maintenance for many years and thought through from concept to completion. They want free engineering and products at the cheapest level.

The ‘equipment’ list is seen as the solution and the end result. Margins are severely under attack, yet we have to make great guesses with fixed price proposals even when working on something that has never been done before.  One analogy of an integrator that I like to use is that of a master chef; it takes skills and expertise to design a recipe and to pull together a list of ingredients. However, following a recipe does not make for a skilled chef – the ability to choose, feel and taste ingredients, blend and make something memorable – that is our role. I have had the chance to work on many hundreds of projects; and yes, there still is a passion to do something memorable and astonishing and to focus on the skills and not just the equipment, but the balance has changed.

So, on a key project a client has identified the few integrators that know their stuff. The project is defined and there is a competition to win the project. Hopefully a good client has chosen based on skills and experience along with personalities and the ability to work as a team – not just on price. I have no issue with good competition and if a client has done its homework, it is always a pleasure to compete. What comes next is the ‘contract’…

I would need too many pages and a locked room to express all my opinions on contracts for an integrator, but unfortunately, many are just unfair and not aimed to provide a lasting relationship between a client and a trusted integrator that supplies services, knowledge, skill and oh, equipment.

Many clients seem to believe that they not only get a free design and engineering that has little value, but that the integrator can finance the project as well. A subtle clause that will often pop up but should be illegal in any civilised country is the ‘paid when paid’ principle. Try that when shopping at your local supermarket; yet it is commonplace, especially with a contractor between the integrator and the client with only one interest.

Was it ever easy, no, and we had problems in the 80’s and plenty of competition, but margins were better to help finance the skills needed and the talent. The AV industry and End Users needs to recognise specialised Integrators and all integrators for what they are or should be – the creators of AV systems that stand proud by their achievements and never walk away from a problem – but clients and contracts are making it harder and harder.

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