For those new to commercial AV the industry, it can initially appear intimidating. Even for those already involved there is a need to review the key elements of this genre in a systematic way.
So what are the key factors of understanding that lead to success in this complex industry, and how do you approach and embrace them?
The good news is that yours truly (with four decades of experience in commercial AV) can provide 5 “things” that will help organize your thinking and you can use them as a guide to your success.
1. It All Starts as a Business
What drives most people toward commercial AV is a passion for one or more of the core technologies.
A person might be an audiophile, a videophile, or even an IT techie (or perhaps all three), and this drives their deep desire for involvement.
While passion is a great motivator, what is most important to realize is that commercial AV is (first and foremost) a business.
A formalized business assessment and plan is critical. For the business overall (and for each project) the investment and the return on investment (ROI) must be considered.
Once the math has been done, a clear and continuing profit needs to be attained. The old adage about making it up in volume is a fool’s tale.
From the client’s perspective, you must make a profit to stay in business enabling you to continue to be there to serve them. It is all about the customer and your profitability long term.
The markets and verticals you wish to address must be understood and taken into consideration. It is critical to explore the breadth of opportunities and where they might exist. The tendency is to take too big a bite out of the apple.
Best practice tells us to look at the markets, verticals, and applications and pick a few where you are most likely to find early success.
Let your expertise, internal resources, and teams be your guide. Once success is found (remember ROI!), further expansion can take place with other opportunities.
2. Understand the Technologies
We use technologies to solve problems… thus it is imperative to understand what technologies can (and can’t) do.
The key question is how deep that understanding must be in each area and by whom. There will be areas of expertise inside a company but most of those involved in commercial AV should have a fundamental understanding of audio, video, IT, and unified communication and collaboration.
Let’s explore a brief overview of the subject matter areas, remembering that in each one, this is where the journey begins towards the attainment of expertise.
In the case of audio, an introduction to audio course should be a requirement. This begins with the basics of how sound is created and what range of sounds or frequencies that humans hear. This is followed by understanding how sound is converted to an electrical signal (for example with a microphone), and then how that electrical signal is converted back to sound (as with a speaker).
Then comes how that signal is measured in decibels and sound pressure level and how humans respond to sound.
Once the basics of sound reproduction are understood then audio devices can be explored.
These range from types of microphones, to signal processors, mixers, and amplifiers and then speakers.
The key point for the generalist is to understand the concepts of audio and not necessarily the nuances of brands and one product over another. From here, the most common audio challenges and applications can be explored.
As we know, video is the visual part of AV and obviously goes hand in hand with audio. As with audio, an introduction to video should be a requirement. This should begin with basics of human vision, followed by an explanation of video.
There should then be a discussion of recording and playback as well as formats and video signal standards.
IP streaming video requires an explanation closely followed by an understanding of bandwidth and how compression of video signals and the various codecs (coders and decoders) fit into the picture (pun intended).
Finally, applications should be discussed along with the various video products that are utilized in a commercial AV project design.
With the convergence of AV and IT, the understanding of networks, connectivity, and addressability take center stage. We can no longer just tell a client to have the IT department handle their part of a project. AV and IT are now inexorably linked.
An introduction to networks is in order. It begins with an understanding of IT network architecture. Then you need to understand the most common mediums of transmission for that network architecture, such as wired Ethernet cabling or wireless using Wi-Fi.
For the generalist it is necessary to understand how a network is constructed and the basic hardware building blocks i.e. switches, routers, etc.
3. ‘Services R Us’
Hardware devices are the tools of commercial AV, but it is the ancillary support services provided by the integrator that ultimately determine profitability. Commercial AV is all about adding value beyond a given piece of equipment. Services become the differentiator in a sale.
In a highly competitive environment, there is a natural inclination to give away (or at the least heavily discount) services to win the business, but this path is fraught with business danger in the form of reduced (or non-existent) profit. Remember, profit is not a dirty word!
The list of services includes but is not limited to the following:
AV design is the intellectual property of the commercial AV integrator. This includes a needs analysis, site survey, and product selection, all combined in a final design that will work as a finely tuned system.
Project management is the conversion of a design into reality. This process involves logistics and oversight while keeping things on time and on budget for both the commercial AV integrator and end user.
Installation is all about craftsmanship, reliability, serviceability, and pride in the installed system for the client.
Training translates the design and integration into the vernacular of those that use the technologies and the system.
This is a recurring revenue stream for the commercial AV integrator. It also protects the end user’s investment and keeps them in contact with those who did the original project.
Many times, a company is not able to manage all their systems in-house. Managed services are outsourced to the commercial AV integrators who has the experience and resources to monitor and manage things at a prescribed level of performance.
4. Understand the Need for Support
The foundation of commercial AV is built around support. If we look at the hardware we sell and the services we just mentioned, they all have one thing in common… the need for support.
In our world, it is not if but when a problem arises and how that problem is solved that determines success or failure.
The success or failure of support may be limited to a single instance, affect a specific project, or even an entire relationship with a client.
There must be a formalized internal support structure. This includes each department in a company including executive management, operations, marketing, sales, design/engineering, and integration.
When the dark rain clouds appear (and they will at some point!), who is responsible for the umbrella and raincoats? Is there an escalation plan? Who makes the decision? Formalized internal support prevents passing the buck.
While a commercial AV company must have an internal support structure plan, it is equally important to have external support resources.
This support resides with the vendors a company works with and the distributors where they buy their products. The level and quality of their support can determine success or failure and it varies by vendor and distributor so do your homework.
Our final topic regarding support is outsourced services. While some large commercial AV companies may have all the resources they need under their own roof, many integrators may not.
Understand what is necessary to have in-house and what may be more practical and economical to outsource. You can still offer a full menu of services and support, but some elements should be outsourced.
The key is to select and vet those outsourced service providers up front.
5. Understand Continuing Education
In commercial AV, the only constant is change. What you learned only two short years ago probably has evolved as is now beyond what it was. Technologies seem to have a 6 to 18-month lifecycle.
Change may be in the form of hardware, firmware, or software. What we do know for sure is that things will change. We also know that to be relevant to our clients, we need to change along with the technologies.
This is where continuing education comes into focus. We need to continuously learn in order to keep abreast of changes and trends. It is a companies and individuals responsibility to learn but it is the industry associations, vendors, and distributors you work with who need to provide those opportunities and resources.
As commercial AV integrators you need to have educational development paths inside your companies mirroring the support structure we spoke about earlier.
If each area is continually in the process of learning, then the aggregate total of knowledge residing in the company will make our companies as strong as they can be, and this will be obvious to clients.
If one area falls behind, that weak link risks breaking the whole chain.
One truism in the world of business is especially true to commercial AV… If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Our motto should be that failure is not an option. If we understand the business, the technologies, services, and support, as well as the need for continuing education then we will be prepared for and can expect success. Yes, this will take time.
This won’t (and can’t) be a case of instant gratification where we spend a few hours and emerge with all we need to know. What we are talking about is making a commitment to learn and understand.
It will be a matter of milestones in a continuing journey. Most will select an area of expertise and specialize but for all of us involved in this industry we need to have a solid overview of what is involved. Understanding the “possible” means we need to understand the current state of affairs.
By understanding the 5 things noted above we will add value beyond the confines of the products we sell and gratify the expectations of our clients.