Thursday, July 7, 2016

Just Another Con Job

If and when you need a con(sultant)?

What is a consultant?  A person who borrows your watch to charge you to tell you what time it is?  So why hire one?  This is a can of worms.  Let’s open it together.  First, we have to determine what does a consultant do? And when does a consumer need a consultant? Does a System Integrator need a consultant? Let’s look for some of the answers to these questions.

What does a consultant do? When I am talking about consultants, I’m referring to the purists, if you will, these are the Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology.  These are usually design consultants, but they can also be service or commissioning consultants. These consultants don’t sell any of the equipment that they specify into their designs. These consultants are used solely to provide information and guidance with an owner or their representative on their communications and audiovisual technology needs, write a program report and/or bid documents, they develop the facility infrastructure and develop a systems design and may manage the implementation of such a design. Let’s use an architect that is designing a home for someone as an example of a consultant. Although an architect does all of the drawings, specifies the types of wood, brick and so on used in their design, they don’t usually purchase the materials to actually conduct the build. They are, however, on hand to supervise the construction in some manner of speaking, make corrections and manage the progress of the project as needed. They are there to represent the buyer’s best interests or even just the integrity of the design. Well, the same stands true for the Independent Consultant in AV Technology.

One of the most important aspects of what a consultant offers is their objectivity.  Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology are product agnostic and they are separate (hence the use of the term independent in their title) from undue influence of a parent firm or company.  This does not mean they cannot be part of a larger company or firm, but there should be clear lines that dictate that their decision making processes are separated from those in that firm’s structure.  It is all the better if the legal structure of the entities or firms are separated. Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology are there to provide services related to the identification of the needs and the design a system that best suits the user’s (purchasers’) needs and to make sure the system is implemented per their design.

I like to use the model architects use with the construction of a new building as an analogy for describing they Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology work.  The only way an architect can stand behind their design is to make absolutely sure their design is followed to the letter and to position themselves as the approving authority for design changes (as the owner representative or working with the owner representative). This also holds true for the Independent Consultant in Audiovisual Technology. Again the consultant’s number one focus is designing a system that meets the needs of the users. Since consultants are not equipment dealers, they don’t have any overstock items they need to get rid of (or any stock for that matter) or a quota of specific product to move. They can be focused on picking the right products for the application.  They can focus on the right fit and best in breed. Often, a consultant’s value is actually in preventing owners from spending money on technology that they don’t really need or that will not yield high value for the user’s or owner’s money.  Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology can focus on return on objective (functional needs and business objectives) along with return on investment and total cost of ownership.

When does a consumer need a consultant? A lot of the answer to this question can be found in the definition of what an Independent Consultant in Audiovisual Technology does. Independent consultants typically work on large, long-term projects. There is no clear-cut dollar amount the project must exceed or project time cut off to help decide when to use a consultant. Independent Consultant in Audiovisual Technology, as a general rule of thumb, don’t work on the smaller short-term projects. The consultant’s bread and butter comes from the management process of a given project and if the project is too small it doesn’t require much of a management process then many consultants will turn it over to systems integrators.  There are exceptions when smaller projects still have a level of complexity to them that may require some expertise that will keep the consultant engaged and adding value. System Integrators, however, can save you a lot of money on these “smaller” projects because of the buying power they have with the manufacturers. Their profitability mainly comes from the margins they can generate from their volume discounts, their value add proposition in pre-engineered systems or lightly engineered systems and the services they can offer on an ongoing basis (of which some of the Independent Consultants in Audiovisual provide as well).

Does a System Integrator need a consultant? If you want my opinion (if you don’t…stop reading), all System Integrators should develop a healthy, mutually respecting relationship with one or a few consulting firms. This way they can make it an option for their customers to use a consultant and even have a list of a few on hand. One of the challenges is that many systems integrators assume that consultant work will automatically equate to a low-bid, low-margin project when it comes back their way after the design process. That is not necessarily the case. For example: many AV customers are adopting the same practices that we are seeing in the construction industry. There are alternate deliveries and award models wherein negotiated award, cost-plus arrangements or qualifications based awards are becoming more common. We also see the growing trend toward the construction industry model of design-build where designers and contractors work together to deliver solutions to owners outside of the antagonistic design-bid-build model. But, don’t think you consultants are getting off easy. The fact that System Integrators should use consultants goes hand-in-hand with the fact that I believe that all Independent Consultant in Audiovisual Technology need System Integrators with whom they can build a solid track record of success. Let’s face it, the consultant can design the greatest system in the world, but eventually some integrator has to build it in order to bring that system to life. Even those System Integrators that have design personnel on staff would benefit from having this type of relationship with a design firm. Consultants are routinely designing for technology two to three years in the future. The experience that these consultants gain from these types of long-term, large-scale projects provides them with skill sets that would benefit designers at design-build firms on their own large, complex projects. The best part of these types of relationships is that the consumer will have the ultimate choice. Using our architect example, we see the importance of the General Contractor and Architect relationship proven time and time again in the new building process.

These two professions are truly codependent, despite the fact that at times they can be in direct competition with each other. They provide more than just the benefits of a combined solution to the consumer; they also provide a united front from which the consumer can get consistent messaging. They even form companies that represent a combination of the architects and general contractors. We in the AV technology industry have learned a lot from this and other relationships like this one and we are continually building on what we have learned. As we learn to better coexist, we can get the consistent messaging out to the consumer so they can learn of all of the benefits to integrated systems and the entire industry can grow as a result of this relationship.

So how do I sum this one up? Just because the term consultant contains the word “CON” doesn’t mean it is a bad thing. I leave you with this thought: “you get what you pay for.” You may not want to pay for your design and consulting services, which works fine, but remember you will always get what you ask for and that may not always be what you need. One last example and a piece of advice - think of the consultant as your attorney. Imagine you are in court. If the “charges” are small enough then maybe you can defend yourself (and your best interests), but if the stakes were high enough you’d use the attorney, right? Well if you are considering a sizable investment in AV Integrated System, then you want an “attorney” on your side. Remember: “he who states his own case, has a fool for a client.” – Proverb.  Bottom line is it’s all about relationships and trust, and while I know you can trust most of the people in this industry it is up to you to find people YOU can trust to (even sometimes) protect you from yourself.  That is what consultants do.

I look forward in great anticipation to the colorful emails and discussion this article will inspire.