Push and Pull: The relationship between AV consultants and system integrators

Friction between consultants and integrators on a project is nothing new, but is the issue getting better or worse? Paul Milligan speaks to both sides.

Perhaps the relationship between consultants and integrators can be best summed up by a consultant asking me ‘is this still an issue?’ when I was asked people to take part, soon after messages from four different integrators told me it still was.

For those not up to speed on the complexities of this particular relationship, this from Christian Bozeat, UK managing director from consultants Macom, who has worked in both roles in his career, sums it up perfectly. “How does a consultant see an integrator? They don’t know what they are doing, they bad mouth the design to the client without knowing the reason behind it, they don’t allow the correct resource for a project, they do design and build projects when we don’t sell hardware. How does an integrator see a consultant? Doesn’t stand by their design (CDP make the functionality the responsibility of the integrator), doesn’t provide a detailed design, doesn’t allow me to add my input to design, they all have favourites and we never win anything, it’s just cut and paste from the last project.”

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The grievances, which go back decades in some instances, often seem never ending, and are weighted towards a central theme of ‘consultants hold all the power’. Is this situation improving or getting worse? “I do think it's getting better but it’s certainly hit or miss and depends who you get paired up”, says Joe Dunbar, senior account executive from integrators Diversified.

Kevin Murphy, from integrators Kraftwerk LT doesn’t think the situation has changed very much, even if the players and names involved have. “I can certainly think of instances going back 20-25 years and cases from last week.” Previously having work in Europe throughout his career, Patrick Stewart-Blacker, a workspace technology consultant has been based in Hong Kong for the past two years and has seen the problem in Asia too. “We've still got that attritional relationship where the consultant will do a design and then the integrator will come in and try and chip away at it and make changes. It's still a very complicated relationship and I think it's been driven not only from client side but also by integrators trying to find value in that design process.”

Rather than looking at individuals, it is the process, whether its construction process or the tender process, which is adding pressure on an already tense situation? “I think procurement is a problem, it drives the industry downwards rather than upwards. The procurement process is all about price, getting to the lowest figure possible, and then something's got to give and it's generally quality,” says Stuart Davidson, technical director from integrators AVMI.

Chris Phillips, director of CP-VC consulting may sit on the other side of the fence to Davidson but faces the same problems. “I've been in CapEx meetings in front of a board of trustees who have no idea, and I'd suggest no interest in technology, as far as they're concerned it's got to work. One thing I’ve found is the benchmark sometimes changes during the rollout, that's just the reality of projects. The problem is that you find when everything has already been spec’d it's very hard to make changes.” It’s important to remember in all this that consultants also go through the pain of tenders too says Bozeat “If you think that tenders from AV consultants are limited on detail, then it might be worth reading the tenders that are issued to the AV consultant.”

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It’s not just the procurement and planning phases that need updating, Stewart-Blacker thinks the construction process is in dire need of change too. “The way we build and construct buildings is going to have to change and the process will have to become more inclusive and more collaborative, we need to speed the process up, and reduce the cost unsurety that is created by the process and the way its driven.” When integrators get engaged in the process is another cause of pain says Dunbar, “We like to get involved as early as we can in an effort to be able to provide perspective and bounce ideas off and just be involved in the conversation. But I still see construction projects where we're not even on the schedule, literally.” Consultants can often be piggy in the middle between the client and the integrator on a project, and it’s not a nice place to be. “I think that a lot of consultants inherit processes from their clients, which they have to adhere to, and I see consultants pulling their hair out as much as we are,” says Murphy. “They need to go back to the client and tell them they're doing it wrong. Sometimes it's the process from the client that makes the relationships difficult. But the consultant has to argue back, the consultant is in a difficult position because they're being paid by the client and they need to consult and they need to advise, and in some cases they actually need to walk.”

Despite the two groups having roughly the same skills (we’ll get to that later) and working in the same industry is it not strange that the two groups often work individually rather than collaborating? It's very rare they collaborate, there's exceptions but there are many projects where we don't even know the consultant and they don't know us, says Murphy. “A good consultant who acts as a good client rep, sits alongside the client, and puts their requirements into our language can make our life a hell of a lot easier. On other projects, frankly, we'd rather just get the briefing from the client and design our own system.”

Collaboration is not only possible says Phillips, but beneficial too, “I felt much more constructive when I've been able to sit down with all of the teams and work out what's what, and have a collaborative approach because ultimately, we're all in that to make that system work. Not in there to just get in get out as quickly as possible.”

The reason the two groups don’t work together more can be down to the timeline of a project but can also be down to ego says Stewart-Blacker. “Some consultants hold that their designs very preciously, and if the integrator tries to change things they feel their role is to protect the integrity of their design.  I quite liked the fact that the integrator came in and challenged what we wanted to do because I think that gives you the best of what the integrator has to offer but I know a lot of my contemporaries don't like that approach. I would suggest the majority of consultants in the AV industry don't do any consulting. What they're doing is design engineering. They are going into a client, taking a brief and designing to that brief. That to me isn’t consulting, consulting is where you go and understand the business.”

One complaint aimed at consultants from integrators is that they often have a favourite integrator to use on projects, and if that isn’t you then you stand little chance of breaking the status quo and winning the job.  The reasons for it are obvious (we all have favourites) but not getting a chance get hurt your firm’s bottom line. “I would like to see consultants build the opportunity for integrators to work with them, I think what happens is in an effort to build their business they make partnerships, which is what we all have to do, but I think we all can work inside of that and still play nice, even if we're favouring someone over another,” said Dunbar. It’s an issue that consultants are aware of says Stewart-Blacker, “We have to open up the integrator portfolio, I’m guilty of it, you work with an integrator and you get comfortable with them because you know they can deliver. In our industry there are some very strong relationships and I think that taints the whole process, the belief within the industry that certain people will only work with certain other companies needs to disappear. It needs to be a far more open game on both sides of the fence.”

As we have said many times before the AV industry is built on relationships, and that can be the difference between winning a job and losing one, but sometimes fault can be found closer to home says Bozeat; “In any tender situation it can feel like there are favourites. In my experience on both sides of the fence it certainly can feel that way but more often than not it is the response quality and the interview performance that are the issue. These can clearly show the difference between bidding parties. Can everyone say that their tender responses are always the best? How do they stack up against the opposition? Of course, there is price you may be the best but if another price is lower from someone who is seemingly equally good then it can be difficult to ignore.”  

In the roundtable we held at ISE 2020 on this topic, one suggestion from Kevin Madeja from integrators Snelling that has since picked up some traction among other integrators was if integrators could receive what the intent of the system was from consultants, as he said “You get a schematic, you get a kit list etc.  Anyone can put a quote in based on that, but what is it supposed to do?” Getting that info is key says Dunbar; “There's so many ways to skin the cat, right? We all know that in terms of a huddle space, we can talk to manufacturers, they all have a solution and they’re all a little different. So we really need to know the intent.” Again, its something consultants are all too aware of says Bozeat, but placing blame on them isn’t always fair; “I can see that receiving a blank Excel sheet and be asked to respond with a fully costed design by a consultant is not ideal (it is one of the reasons I became a consultant!) but this may not be the consultant’s fault because this is what they have been paid to do, it may be that is how the client wants to run the procurement process.” Is this something that consultants could provide from now on? It should be done at all times says Phillips, “My initial question as a consultant is, what are you doing in this room? How's it going to be used? have you got someone at the back controlling this? Someone at the front? Or is no one in control of it? Is it supposed to be technician-led? Until I get clarity on how the room is going to be used, I wouldn't even bother with a kit list.”

So now we have acknowledged the problems that exist (on both sides), and the reasons for many of them, how do we fix this relationship going forward? “If a consultant is putting an integrator on the list, they should have a relationship with them.  if they haven't worked with them, they must go and see them,” says Murphy.  “A good consultant should provide a very clear indication of what the client wants. As much time should be spent what is the end result the client is looking for, rather than the technical specification. A good consultant will give freedom to the integrator to apply their skills and to change equipment and explain why. to make corrections to the design or come up with their own design in exceptional cases.  A good consultant has to be able to compare apples with apples, pears with pears. I don't believe that happens. I think some consultants don't understand the bids coming back, and why that equipment been used and why it's more expensive.”

Open communication and honest discussions is the way forward says Dunbar. “It's reaching out to a consultant in a way that says look, I'm not saying that I know more than you guys or I know everything, we might have some fragile egos in our industry, especially when you’re crossing paths like this.” Trust is key says Stewart-Blacker, “I think the consultants need to be more open with each other, they have to be more engaged with integrators. I think the both sides need to trust each other more, we need to work more collaboratively, and consultants need to share more knowledge between themselves. As we move away from specialist AV consultants it’s going to become more and more important, because it's very difficult to be a master of all of those disciplines.”

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