Answers For Customers' Security Questions

If you consider your company an "electronic systems integrator", from time to time you must answer the question, "is it time to add to our core offerings"? We're not talking here about whether to add another product line; we're talking about adding a complete core discipline. Like many integrators you are probably getting lots of requests for security of all types. You may be wondering if it's too late to grab a share of this rapidly growing market. You may be dabbling in security but are you really committed to the market? Does an AV systems integrator really stand a chance in the security market?

There are lots of other questions that must be answered. How big is the market? What part of the market should I start with? Can the security market provide the kinds of profits we're used to? If my core business is AV integration, what chance do I have to get the rest of the company on board with expansion? Are these markets closely related disciplines or does one have little in common with the other?

To all of these questions there is one basic answer-it depends. If you are at all interested in pursuing security as a core discipline in your organization, you might want to set aside these lower level questions and start by considering the answers to these two higher level questions. Number one: Does your company embrace a culture of change, new ideas, exploration, and risk? Number two: How do you define integration, and are you and your staff completely comfortable with local and wide area networks?

Embrace Change
Most established AV contractors are pretty good at what they do. They are probably very comfortable with who they are. They have a solid customer base with which they have built a reliable reputation. The fact is that most people don't like change and if that trait is found at the owner and management level of the company, adding a new core discipline may prove a fatal mistake. This is especially true when the new discipline significantly stretches the technical knowledge within the organization.

There are plenty of examples of companies that embrace new ideas, new markets, and new ways of doing business. They are always questioning the status quo and have established a culture of innovation and purposefully looking for ways to leverage the assets of the company in new ways and new core disciplines. They attract criticism from their competitors who will claim they lack focus and key vendors who worry they may not remain the most important vendor. But somehow these companies know how to persevere, and remain committed to growth, partially through expanding into new markets and disciplines. If this doesn't describe your company, keep doing what you are doing and find ways to do it better and more profitably. But don't try to force a new discipline on the organization whose culture is entrenched in the traditional until you change that culture.

If you think your company embodies a culture of change and risk, then a thorough discussion of the second question, "How do you define integration?" comes next.

Define Yourself
Twenty years ago when a low voltage contractor had several product lines other than sound and video, they called themselves an integrator. For instance, if they could bid a new school and provide the sound system, intercom system, video distribution, security, and fire alarm system, they called themselves an integrator. None of these systems actually integrated with each other. There might have been no real value from any possible integration, but because they could provide a complete low voltage package, they adopted the term integrator.

Then along came the network or multiple versions of a network, not just IP. Now it became possible to multiplex complex communications on a single path to interconnect large venue audio systems, fire alarm systems, intercom systems, and security systems. These systems weren't really integrated with each other, but they started using some kind of digital network to lower installation costs, increase flexibility, and simplify the system architecture.

During this period of enlightenment (which isn't over), the debate over which network protocol to use was dominated by manufactures desire for proprietary marketing and a rush to be the company that set the standards. Finally the end users spoke up and started complaining that there were too many different networks and began demanding a universal standard.

I'll never forget a discussion during an NSCA board meeting in Atlanta several years ago. We were being wooed to bring the NSCA Expo to the Atlanta Convention Center after they completed a major expansion. I sat at the dinner table one night with Chuck Wilson of the NSCA and the executive director of the convention center who clearly voiced his frustration with our entire low voltage industry and the need for so many different networks, all doing different things. He asked a fair question: "Why can't your industry find a way to talk together on the same network which would significantly lower our infrastructure costs?" What a great question. Clearly today there are still reasons why some systems should exist on discrete networks. But over time those reasons will continue to dissolve away.

In today's world, the decision to branch off into a new core discipline such as security should be accompanied by a pre-existing understanding of IP networks and a deep commitment to hire and train as though our entire world will reside on the network. Whether you're installing a video surveillance system or an access control system, a decision to participate in the growing security market will require a deep understanding of packet switching networks, integration and broadband internet functionality, security, and access.

Know The Market
Assume you have tackled the question of culture and network experience and have decided to consider security as your next core discipline. What next? The first suggestion will involve a research project to understand the various categories of security and decide which will make the most sense. You don't need to do burglary systems or monitoring to be involved in security. Electronic systems integrators will find that video surveillance and access control in the business and institutional markets provide the best fit. Your customers are already purchasing these systems from someone. Why not purchase them from you? These two security categories can produce acceptable profits if you will provide the same level of excellent service and performance that your customers enjoy from you as an AV professional.
The opportunity in security for today's system integrator will be found in the vast number of small security companies who started out installing burg systems and whose internal systems and understanding of integration haven't kept up with the advances in technology and sudden growth of the market.

To be honest, they have left a foul taste in the mouth of the consumer toward the security industry in general. For the most part they don't understand the meaning of quality and performance. They also don't understand complex construction, design-build processes, and they lack the financing and technical background to succeed. A true, experienced integrator can more easily adapt to security technologies because the rest of their business and reputation for performance are already well established. In other words, it's not very hard to stand out in the crowd. Customers willing to spend a good deal of money on security expect excellent results. As an integrator, who can consistently produce excellent results, you will become the favorite choice of discerning clients, regardless of whether your company is named ACME Security or ACME Sound.