The integration market is demanding value and differentiation from vendors, and those that provide these elements will be rewarded with profitable sales. The value that our customers receive from us goes far beyond the individual products that we sell-particularly in the form of expertise and service that stems from specialized training.To quote the old movie Cool Hand Luke, the scene where the famous character actor Strother Martin, playing the guard, makes a notorious declaration to Paul Newman, "What we have here is a failure to communicate!" Unlike the movie, where Cool Hand Luke was "communicated with" using the butt of a shotgun, hopefully we in the AV industry will heed the messages sent by the market without such drastic encouragement.
Now that I have your attention, the message is quite clear. The integration market is demanding value and differentiation from vendors, and those that provide these elements will be rewarded with profitable sales.
In order to meet the needs of the integration market and clearly show that commercial AV design and integration is not a commodity-laden mixture of technologies, rather a complex matrix of art and craft, we have to prepare ourselves to adopt a solutions and value-added approach to audiovisual. We must adopt an "anti-commodity" attitude toward our suppliers and customers alike and show the value that our customers receive from us goes far beyond the individual products that we sell. In this way we will be able to charge for the added value that we provide, including pre-engineering proposals, system design, as-built engineering and documentation, project management, training, and service after the sale.
On the surface a lot of what we provide may look like a commodity to the outside world. This is most evident when we speak of displays. Every end user "thinks" they know about displays but in fact do they really know? The answer is probably not. For example, the buzz in the industry is all about LCD flat panel displays but the reality is that plasma outperforms LCD from a brightness, color saturation, contrast, and response time perspective. The customer will say yes, but they claim plasma burns in and LCD displays do not. Is it not our job to inform the customer about LCD image retention as a possibility and do a true comparison of the two technologies for them?
As we know, the solution and application will be the deciding factor of which technology you use and that cannot be provided by looking at a spec sheet or on the outside of a box or what some might call common knowledge. In other words, they really do need you, the integrator, to sort this out. We used displays as an example, but the same engineering thinking holds true for everything from cables and connectors to projection screens to remote control to networking, etc. Every facet of our business takes in-depth knowledge on the part of the integrator and the ability to sort it all out for the end user in a fully integrated system.
Since we are now selling solutions from a design perspective as well as value added services, it is incumbent on us to educate ourselves far beyond the ubiquitous specification sheet. We need to know all of the features of the products we represent, and more importantly all of the possible benefits that may accrue from those features. The added value we provide comes in knowing which feature is a real benefit to the end user, and how that fits into their unique system design. The knowledge of features and benefits does not come for free and is not intuitive in a spec sheet of a given product. This leads us to the need for more and better education to meet the market conditions as they are developing.
Education comes in two distinct categories: AV industry training and certifications such as InfoComm and its CTS variations of CTS, CTS-I, and CTS-D; NSCA; ISF-Commercial and its ISF-C certification; and manufacturer-supplied training. The industry organization curriculums and certifications are designed to give the student a background in the standards and practices of the industry. These courses are the foundations we need for our sales and technical staffs. At this point there are over 8,000 InfoComm CTS certificate holders in the world, and the number is growing. Not only do you get the benefit of the education from an industry organization like InfoComm and taught by some of the most respected people in the business, you can proactively market this as proof of your professional credentials and compete at a higher level than those who do not ascribe to these standards.
Now comes the more difficult topic, and that is the "training" provided by manufacturers. To say that this is all over the planet in terms of quality would be an understatement. At best it is invaluable, and at worst it is useless. We can point to companies which take the education of their vendors seriously and have designed numerous programs that address the needs of their customer base. My advice to manufacturers and integrators alike is simple: Education takes time, and time is the only thing you cannot buy more of, so treat it as a precious commodity. Most integrators have literally hundreds of manufacturers that they represent, and if they gave time to each one to educate their staffs then there would be no time for anything else.
The answer is to create an education strategy for your company starting with the list of your most important suppliers. Once the list is created, break it down into sales and technical training, and be descriptive and proactive in what you need. Do not permit a manufacturer to take up your time with a "training" event that simply goes over product spec sheets and features. You can do this on your own. What you do need from the manufacturers is a tutorial on applications, solutions, and benefits that solve problems for the integrator's customers. In other words, you need information that will help you in your solutions/value-added approach, and at best, clear differentiation in their products that you can represent to your end users.
Properly designed educational curriculums that are deployed within a company are invaluable from any perspective. As noted earlier, we must fly in the face of the commodity mentality and convince those we serve that we provide value far beyond the features of a "box".
According to a Gallup Survey, price is number eight on the top 10 of customer concerns. Number one is risk abatement, and the number-two customer desire is value. The low price is long forgotten once the system is installed and it does not work as planned. The customers need to know this and the best way to convince them of the value of your solutions is to educate your company from the ground up selling the benefits of proper design, integration, and service. You will need a continuing education program to properly address this market reality. Education does not cost-it pays.
Grow From Within
The process of education has never been so important. In the recent InfoComm 2006 Market Forecast, some very interesting statistics are presented. First of all, the respondents to the survey forecast that the market would grow in double digits from 10 to 12 percent over the next few years. Secondly, an overwhelming number of respondents said they would be hiring more employees to handle the increased market load. Finally, in the area of concerns, the respondents noted that their number-two concern was hiring qualified people to fill the jobs being created in the industry.
As I note in my seminars around the country, it used to be that if you needed a new or better engineer or sales person, you simply went to your competitor and raided its staff. The problem here is that we do not need just one new and qualified person, we need numbers from two to 10 or more per company to address the solutions and value-added approach that is required in today's world of commercial AV.
Our studies have shown clearly that it is much better to grow your own staff from within. The percentage of people who stay with a given company increases exponentially with an internal educational approach. There is also the huge benefit of training people your own way, and the added benefit of the staff feeling that the company cares about them in the process. In other words, the integration company is interested in the individual as well as the bottom line. This translates into more control of the information your staff receives and increased employee morale, less turnover of personnel, and ultimately, increased sales, profits, and customer retention.