IT managers are buying audio technology, how can AV technology providers sell to them?

Great audio is critical for productivity. Tim Kridel explores why it’s tough to get that point across to IT departments, which often are responsible for AV.

Over 1.5 billion people have some form of hearing loss, including deafness, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). That’s roughly 19% of the people on this planet, which means that a lot of meetings are disrupted because attendees struggle to understand one another.

There are several reasons why things could get even worse. For starters, by the end of this decade, the WHO predicts that another billion people will have hearing loss. And it’s not just because the average age of the global population keeps increasing, meaning more grey hairs in the office. Thanks to factors such as loud music, over 1 billion people age 12-35 are at risk of hearing loss, the WHO estimates.

All of these numbers highlight the business case for investing in mics, headsets, loudspeakers and other AV systems to improve intelligibility. For example, constantly asking people to repeat themselves quickly leads to conferencing fatigue, which undermines productivity. Poor audio is particularly problematic for international meetings where attendees have heavy accents and aren’t speaking their native tongue.

“The effect of poor audio experiences on staff wellbeing negatively impacts productivity, which has significant cost repercussions on the organisation,” Robert Arnold, Frost & Sullivan principal analyst of connected work research says in a 2021 study that his firm conducted with Shure. “Businesses must prevent avoidable disruptions and ensure resources are appropriated to technologies that make the most impact. Successful hybrid work initiatives require businesses to prioritise solving the many audio challenges team members face today.”


Language barrier

But there’s a big catch: At many businesses, the IT department is responsible for all things AV. Their understanding of audio often is limited to network aspects such as jitter, latency and packet loss. Those are all important, of course, but they’re also only part of the equation that adds up to a reliable, satisfying user experience — and all of the productivity that comes with that.

AV pros reading this are nodding their heads right now. The trick is to get the same reaction from the IT pros they’re selling to.

“Typically, 30% of users are actually not even using video, so audio is obviously the most important part of any particular conference that you do,” says Nigel Dunn, Jabra managing director for EMEA North. “So we've always tried to expose that message as best we can to users, but often it's fallen on some deaf ears.”

Even on the network side, IT managers and their staff often are unaware of the additional considerations and nuances that affect audio.

“One of the biggest knowledge or experience gaps IT typically encounters is how to properly configure their infrastructure for the real-time media protocol(s) being deployed,” says Trent Wagner, QSC senior product manager for the Q-Sys platform. “While most protocols do not require anything beyond what the typical managed switch can provide — QoS with at least four strictly weighted egress queues, and Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP) management — there can be some challenges, such as overlapping QoS values between protocols, which requires some familiarity and a nuanced approach.

“There is also the security conscious who require technologies such as 802.1x and encrypted media not yet implemented by many AV devices on the market. For these reasons and more, AV networks are still often physically or virtually isolated.”

Another common hurdle is environmental. For example, IT staff often are unaware of how building materials such as hard surfaces affect acoustics, as well as the technologies capable of making the best of those bad situations.

“Another knowledge gap is audio domain experience in relation to both actual products and principles of acoustics,” Wagner says. “Most IT professionals do not understand acoustics versus application and the need to acoustically treat the space, select the right products for the space and properly configure and tune a system to increase intelligibility.”

Take call centres, for example. Filled with dozens of voices all going at once, they’re the kind of environment that screams for a quality headset whose noise reduction benefits agents and callers alike.

“Some companies just simply didn't value it,” says Dunn. “They thought: ‘The cheapest piece of plastic on your head will do the job. We've got 100 people in the contact centre. We can't afford to buy 100 decent headsets.’”

“But I think times have changed. The experience of the pandemic has changed people. Now we're getting more sponsorship in the business of people who are saying: ‘That's how employees want to work, and therefore we're going to have to get products that will fit the needs of the new business.’”

This mindset change creates opportunities for integrators, vendors and consultants to help IT departments navigate those options.

“I have found that a lot of the clients we deal with will have a certain amount of knowledge based on experience or research relevant to what they are looking to achieve,” says Don Lambresa, Project Audio Visual CEO. “They will look to integrators such as ourselves who have knowledge of a variety of products, experience of those products being used in varying spaces and the degree of success that has been achieved including any inherent issues.”


Hearing is believing

Like a lot of clients, IT pros don’t know what they don’t know.

“Most IT professionals, the minutia of audio is not part of their formal training,” says Rob Smith, Shure senior director of integrated systems sales for Western Europe. “Unless they're musicians or have an audio background that comes from their private lives, they typically don't know a great deal about it. It's really partly our fault we don't explain it.

“We start talking about the acoustic properties of the room, the frequency response of the microphones and all this kind of thing. It's not particularly clear if we share in jargon, which is a pitfall of a technical person talking about it.”

Product demos are an alternative for making the case — and the sale. That’s why Shure opened Experience Centres in cities such as London.

“If you've only ever used the microphone and speakers on your laptop, you're not aware that you sound terrible at the far end,” Smith says.


What IT pros look for

Education goes both ways. In AV’s case, that means understanding IT’s nuanced needs.

“IT managers are primarily concerned with how AV products affect, and integrate with, their infrastructure or services,” Wagner says. “In particular, they are concerned about how AV products complement or go against their standards or policies, service, user experience, connectivity and security. Based on that, they are typically concerned with how to update their policies to accommodate their stake holders’ applications.”

Vendor support also is key.

“The key aspects that IT managers we deal with consider critical are whether the hardware [is] certified by the VC/UC vendor and if it is positioned in the correct spaces to deliver the quality experience required,” Lambresa says. “How will it sit within the corporate infrastructure is a very important point, as it leads to other considerations such as the number of devices being specified, switch requirement/compatibility to support required features for digital audio, switch fabric capability, PoE(+) budget, required bandwidth and security considerations. Another key priority is how simple is it to monitor and manage their devices from as few interfaces as possible to streamline maintenance and support.”

Others agree that manageability is a major plus.

“The panacea for IT managers is a single-vendor solution that can scale organisation-wide and offer comprehensive remote management and monitoring,” Wagner says. “In lieu of that, it’s important for the chosen solution from each vendor to offer their own remote management and monitoring capabilities that can be easily integrated with preferred IT software tools to offer that ‘single pane of glass’ view of all systems and assets. The ability for systems and products to either provision themselves or be deployed en masse with templated or preset programming is also key.”

IT departments also often prefer brands they know and use, such as Microsoft. For example, during the sales process, playing up Teams certification can help differentiate — not only from other pro gear, but also consumer-grade products that look just as good to the untrained eye. Microsoft certification also can be used to show how Teams products can streamline troubleshooting, including remotely.

“There's a lot of embedded stuff within Teams that allows you to diagnose problems,” Dunn says. “They can pick up the configurations of the devices. A lot of our products go one step further than just Teams certification or Teams room certification. We look at the Microsoft open office standard.”

As its name implies, that standard sets higher-than-normal requirements for headsets used in open floor plans such as former warehouses and factories that have been converted to loft-style offices. Besides few or no interior walls, they typically have high ceilings, large windows, bare concrete floors and exposed brick walls — exactly the kinds of architectural features that fuel echoes and other cacophony that make it difficult to hear and be heard. Boom mics are one way to ensure intelligibility and meet the standard.

“[With Teams, IT staff also] can see where the open office standard isn't being used,” Dunn says. “An example is users not deploying their boom arms.”


The pandemic effect

The pandemic changed workstyles in ways that make audio more important than ever. For example, colleagues who held most of their meetings in person pre-Covid are now working remotely at least some of the time. As a result, many enterprises are adding audio and video systems to more rooms to facilitate collaboration between dispersed teams.

Developed long before Covid, GPA’s Velocity initiative plays to this need by helping integrators meet that kind of large-scale demand — as in a thousand rooms in 90 days.

“Our take is that with the level of cloud/AI/processing capability, etc. already here — let alone what’s coming within the hardware/software solutions — there’s incredible power to now overcome the traditional factors that compromised things like audio quality just through configuration and self-healing in the hardware,” says Byron Tarry, GPA managing director and CEO. “So trying to ‘optimise’ solution designs is actually of far less importance than ever before. 

“Our Velocity premise is actually trying to take advantage of that. We try to mitigate room infrastructure requirements and compliance for the client by using a combination of structural and technical design choices that in fact let the solution designs do the work to mitigate risk and the need for room modification across the huge diversity of spaces that a scaled, standardised solution deployment faces.” 

In the process, that would free integrators to focus on spaces that require more custom work, including for audio.

“Our focus then can shift in terms of where the effort and energy is placed in terms of the “smart” guys who really can optimise acoustic design, etc. to the custom spaces,” Tarry says. “The highly experiential spaces that do need ‘optimal’ versus acceptable as they become centrepieces to earning the attendance of staff to come to the office versus staying in their home office.”

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