Published in July 2004

It’s All About Communication
By Mario J. Maltese, CTS-D, CTS-I

The Process involves coordination across all skill sets.

     Some years ago I had the unique opportunity to do a temporary installation for a finishing school graduation in Connecticut. That doesn’t seem like much of a statement, except for the fact that I was practically the only one from my company (then about 40 employees) involved due to a busy period. I surveyed the site, designed a solution, sold it, collected a deposit, procured the equipment, fabricated and tested the rack, installed the system, operated the system during the ceremony, packed and returned the equipment and the rental truck, even prepared the invoice and handled the paperwork.
     The customer praised the system’s performance as well as my services. It was a rewarding as well as a learning experience: As a one-man-show, it was easy to maintain quality. I possessed all the skills and equipment necessary to do the job. Whatever mistakes materialized were corrected quickly.

Not Typical
     Most companies don’t work as one-person operations, however. The reality is that one person couldn’t do that many jobs per year with anywhere near the same efficiency as creating separate departments of specialized effort, which also lowers the requisite skill-sets required for each team member. But as a company grows, so does the size and number of departments.
At some point, lack of communication between departments starts to take its toll. Information has to flow as well as it would have if only one person were providing the system. Yet, some impediments to information flow hamper the progress of the work: lack of clearly defined processes, confusion over who is accountable for what, delicate egos, no “vehicles of information” and documentation, and inadequate training, instruments and equipment to name a few.
     As the company grows, so to does the need for more effective leadership and communications, and on a geometric scale. Lack of communication results in poor quality and waste, and typically profits as much as 30% of gross sales are lost. My previous articles in Sound & Communications have addressed this issue.
     And yet it can work, and it can work well. When departments work together, the whole company feels the herd on the move. The culture, chemistry between departments and information flow, all are conducive to speed, quality and profits.

Think in Terms of the Process
     Technical skills are indeed important. Yet, quality and profits depend at least, if not more, on the processes people use as compared to the technical abilities of the people on the team. All companies have their processes, some well defined and written down, others not so defined. There are processes for operational issues such as purchasing, fabrication and installation. And there are processes for getting technical training, payroll, etc. A company then has a system of processes, with the goal of not only staying in business but also assuring consistent quality. This system is defined as a Quality Management System (QMS).
     Our industry is comprised primarily of small regional companies that know their market and work it regularly. Even the larger organizations are an aggregate of a number of smaller, regional organizations that share some infrastructure. Everyone in the company depends heavily on other employees to do their jobs well in order for the organization to succeed. For example, you can take a systems integrator who carefully sold a job, reviewed the design, made a submission that was an unambiguous paper model of what is to be built, staged the system carefully and accurately emulated what it would have at the installation site, properly prepare the site for the installation of the system, coordinating with the trades and the design team and pack the system securely on the truck.
     But, the driver has been out all night and decides he can’t make the last delivery that day, causing the electrical contractor to have a half-dozen angry workers waiting at a freight elevator, but no truck. The results are immediate and devastating because the owner promises to back-charge the company for the additional expenses. The company gets a bad name and the electrical contractor vows never to work with that company again.
     One team member can make an otherwise excellent organization lose quality, customers
and profits.
     But wait! It gets worse!

What Do You Do For a Living?
     Being in AV for more than a third of a century, I long for the day that the general public can identify readily what someone in this industry actually does for a living, without necessitating a long explanation complete with several examples, metaphors, diagrams and photographs. Alas, I remind myself how young the industry is, heave a sigh, and I am again patient.
     But, doesn’t success in sales, quality and customer satisfaction demand that what we do be defined crystalline clear? Further, our role may change from time to time, depending on whether a job is a “design-build” project, or an “AV Designer and AV Contractor” project. Depending on the skill-sets of an organization, the opportunity to cross the line from one role to another may come upon you. Corporate leadership may need to make some decisions as to what is best for the company.
     Manufacturers aside, AV integration involves several types of entities with their own specialization of effort as a company. The literature, it would appear, has no shortage of articles from designers and consultants giving the benefits and disadvantages to each option. Yet many articles indicate that things are more black and white than what they really are.

‘What’s Best’
     The answer to the “what’s best?” question may necessitate another question to be answered first: “for whom?” Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages, conditions and considerations. And with that, the need for leadership and communications is exacerbated when two or more companies have to work together as a team toward a common goal, just as different departments within a company need to.
     The role of the “AV consultant” is relatively new, dating back only to the late 60s. In the earlier stages of the industry, a builder would query the regional design-build company of a manufacturer. Manufacturers would distribute to preferred regional contractors, who were required to maintain the skills and equipment necessary to apply their products correctly.
Some early AV consultants were a class act. They added value. Selling to the interior designers, they convinced owners that the AV project had to be broken out from the electrical contract, educated owners and guided them into properly funding the project with down payments for the expensive equipment, and actually assured that the contractor put sufficient profit into a job to assure quality and avoid “nickel and diming.”
     Further, they were accountable for their designs. If an error was found or an improvement required, they would go to the owner and explain that additional funding would be necessary and that it is in the owner’s best interest to do so. The smart ones recruited their technical talent from the best of the design-builders to quickly acquire the operational art, and service the customer well.

Not Profitable?
     Many contractors lament the fact that working with an AV consultant isn’t profitable. That may be, but I would urge those contractors to first pay close attention to the math. Whereas I would agree that, during dry periods, pricing on competitive bids falls abysmally low, the net profit should include an allowance for the fact that a qualified buyer of AV systems, who already approved a budget for what he is purchasing, sent you a request for a proposal without the need for the contractor to hire, train, equip, commission and finance a salesperson. In fact, working with an “enlightened” consultant who assures your profit, is accountable for his designs and who doesn’t have an ego problem when a correction or improvement must be made is, in fact, the most profitable course a contractor can take.
     With the proliferation of AV consultants who entered the market during the past 20 years, there have, indeed, been some who fall out of the “enlightened” category. If a correction is needed, some strong-arm the contractor into absorbing the additional costs, and forbid direct communication with the owner. I know of one consultant who browbeats the contractor by telling him that he is his “real customer” even though no contractual ties exist between consultant and the contractor!
     I’m especially amused by the AV consultant who touts that he is an “independent” consultant, implying that he has no ties to any manufacturer, and is somehow free to choose any manufacturer that fits the application best. With all the shmoozing that goes on at the trade shows, this is laughable at best.
     Manufacturers and AV consultants are unabashed with their ties, however informal they may be. The fact is that an application often demands a particular product because it is more suitable than another. No design-builder or AV contractor offers every line there is, but the product is always available somehow. Whether there is a dealership agreement in place or not, the more suitable product will be installed by the designer or design-builder who’s worth his salt.
Given that engineered AV is by its nature very complex, and its path is riddled with pitfalls, it may help if we look at things from the customer’s perspective.

Start with ‘The Goal’
     The Goal for the AV integration effort, then, is to provide the customer with what he expects, when he expects it and in a manner that meets the most stringent standard of the design team’s QMSes, the industry’s and all applicable jurisdictions. Now let’s look into the major milestones in providing the AV system.
     For quality to be maintained, a cross-functional review must take place at each major milestone: Needs Analysis, System Designed, System Engineered (submissions and drawings issued for fabrication and installation), System Staged, System Commissioned.
At each of these milestones, the project is reviewed, and if it develops in such a way as to become clear that the final system will not meet the Goal as originally designed, changes will have to be made. This may or may not become more difficult to do for “AV designer and AV contractor” projects, depending on the relationship between the consultant and the contractor. If the consultant takes the empirical approach, stays focused on The Goal without letting his ego get in the way, and the contractor can correct the problem while remaining within budget, and without fanfare, everyone comes out a winner.
     The Graphic on page 72 depicts the interrelationships of the AV designer, AV contractor and AV design-builder:
     • The designer-builder requires the skills for both the AV consultant and the AV contractor combined in order to sufficiently integrate a system, and has the advantage of making corrections in the original design in order to maintain The Goal without having to negotiate with a third party.
     • On AV consultant-AV contractor jobs, each company performs separately and with a different contractual commitment to different customers. BUT, if the chemistry, communications and skill-sets are in place, they perform as one team and this is not an issue.

We’re All in This Together
     But it goes beyond that. All the companies are, in some part, equally dependent on each other as well, much the same way as departments within a company. And when the chemistry is dysfunctional, profits go south.
     • On an AV consultant-AV contractor job, the owner awards an AV contract with a complex audio system to a company that lacks the necessary skills. The system is furnished late, and the contractor has no one on staff familiar with, or who even understands, the audio system. The architect puts pressure on the AV consultant to “fix the problem.” If the consultant has someone on staff with the skills, he only loses some time and profits; it is even worse if he does not.
     • The AV contractor is asked to furnish a system that cannot work due to a poor design. No amount of tweaking or adjusting can get a sound system to perform when it has a microphone placed five feet from a column loudspeaker intended to “throw” 85 feet. Days are lost in the field, profits leak and both reputations are lost. (This brings out the fact that the AV contractor must review the design before building the system. He cannot relinquish accountability completely because the AV contractor is the one with a contractual commitment to complete The Goal.)
     • The AV consultant prepares a fine set of system drawings that the architect summarily disregards, and the tin knocker installs duct right where the ceiling loudspeakers are intended to go, over the ears of the boardroom members. The mix-minus system performs marginally, if at all, and many more hours than estimated are expended trying to get the most out of the system.
     • The union electrical contractor on the job has two low-voltage “expert installers” who take two hours to terminate five BNCs on a computer video cable, and the AV contractor keeps his field supervisors in the field for several man-weeks more than originally estimated.
You can say that there is a need for an external QMS that straddles all the companies that work on a project.
     As mentioned before, when it works well, everyone’s rewards are multiplied to a greater extent. Consider a certain AV consultant who is constantly making improvements to his designs, and is often sought after by interior designers with the same commitment to excellence. When the time comes for the AV contract to be let out, the consultant wishing to work with a particular contractor to assure a consistent quality negotiates the contract to assure the amount of the contract to be within the budgeted amount, which allows a 40% gross profit for the contractor. The contractor, already familiar with working with the consultant, automatically corrects minor errors in the design. The job is completed on time and within budget. The contractor learns of a new design solution that he may not have acquired otherwise.

     • The job you do is important, but it matters more how you do your job, than the job you actually do. Quality and profits come to those who focus on The Goal, and do it well. Whatever line of work you’re in, you must have the requisite skill-sets and equipment to perform the work with a consistent quality. Always define, scrutinize and improve your processes as well as your technical skills.
     • Your profits are dependent not only on your internal quality management system, but on the quality management systems of the other companies on the Design Team, as well as how the Design Team members interacts with one another.
     • If everyone profits well when the total “human system” works well, consider applying the same process improvement methods you use within your company and extend them to other members of the Design Team. Use post-project interviews, questionnaires, after-action improvement meetings. Over-communicate if necessary to assure overlap between people operating independently.
     • Address all the costs in a project. If profits do not improve within a certain Design Team, reconsider future work with those team members. Some AV consultants have “Approved Bidders” lists of contractors they know can do the job. AV contractors are best advised to create and maintain “Approved Consultants” in the same way.

     At every Systems Design class at the ICIA Academy, I ask the question if any people do not particularly like the job they do. The response is always a resounding one for the opposite. All are enthusiastic about working in this field. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but I believe that one reason is that our work is indeed meaningful. We use our knowledge, experience and our tools to come up with solutions that help groups of people to communicate with each other. This is rewarding because it is by its very nature meaningful work; it has an innate significance in the overall scheme of things. With that in mind, it’s important to stay focused on The Goal in whatever role we are playing.
     “He profits most who serves best.” - Arthur Frederick Sheldon

A 33-year industry veteran, mostly as a design-builder, Mario Maltese is CEO of Audio Visual Resources, Inc., Williston Park NY. He is one of the few people who hold both CTS-D and CTS-I advanced certifications from the ICIA. His partner and son, James, also holds both certifications. A regular contributor to Sound & Communications, Mario Maltese was named the ICIA’s 2004 Educator of the Year.

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