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Tips for Working With a Systems Contractor

Professionals working together
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Working with contractors can be a source of trepidation for those both within and outside of the AV industry. While contractors are a vital component of many projects and experiences, results can be mixed. 

Contractors can be used in various capacities from taking on an entire project to addressing particular components that are underserved, in high demand, or require special skills or attention. The use of contractors provides an avenue for projects to get done that would otherwise take longer or not be completed if handled in a part-time or DIY manner. While the DIY approach appears to have the luxury of unbound resources and scheduling flexibility, the reality is that time and bandwidth constraints along with organizational needs limit the feasibility of that option on a regular basis. Taking the time to find the right contractor who fits both project and relationship needs can also offer a sense of the DIY caring not often found in one-off project or transactional uses. 

Related: Tackling DIY Projects With a Service Provider's Help

Clients are looking to their AV contractors for more than just project needs. They are looking for a valued partnership; a true understanding of their needs, personalized service, quality support, and being relationship-minded rather than transactional. While these require a higher degree of attentiveness and effort, they push contractors to be better and will yield increased business and greater results. Contractors committed to listening to their clients and pursuing continuous improvement will likely gain competitive advantages and future opportunities.

For those clients who prefer to be self-sufficient instead of relying on contractors in their day-to-day strategy, there will likely be times when their expertise will be challenged, their availability restricted, or the unique demands of a project will call for the need of outside help. In those cases, being able to work effectively with a contractor will prove to be a valuable asset. 

Although some technology managers are moving away from relying on outside resources, others continue to find ways to leverage the value that working with contractors can provide. In either case, it is next to impossible for a person, group, or organization to be an expert at everything and deliver it at scale. As a result, understanding how to work with contractors should be considered an important part of a long-term success plan. Here are some useful tips to help increase the success rate, satisfaction level, and probability of achieving a desirable outcome while working with a contractor:

Define clear expectations and ensure understanding of the scope of work. While all details may not be available during the initial project discussion, efforts should be made to provide as much information as possible to ensure a mutual understanding of the project requirements. Keeping in mind that additional details and clarifications will be required, an effort to establish a protocol to proactively and open-mindedly resolve situations when discrepancies arise will help provide confidence and respect in the relationship. One such manner can be an allocation of funds for unknowns or unforeseen needs. Another can be to establish a barter system where trade-offs are made when requirements are easier or more difficult than anticipated. Lastly, through honest project time tracking, it can be determined if there is “room” in the project to easily accommodate extra requests or not. In the end, an effort to establish and communicate expectations, define requirements, and resolve differences can be a recipe for success.

Establish a mutually beneficial arrangement and balanced relationship. When one party is feeling undervalued, underappreciated, inappropriately compensated, or disrespected, it can manifest in their efforts and commitments leading to poor results. When a client feels they are not getting the value, care, and consideration the deserve, they may start to see things through a different lens, not be as forgiving when issues arise, or become more difficult to satisfy. On the flip side, contractors who feel like they drew the short stick may lose the motivation to do more than what is required, look for opportunities to cut corners, or be less cooperative when it comes to accommodating change requests. Any successful business relationship needs to work for both parties. Compromises need to be met to ensure that each side gets what they need while understanding the other’s perspective. A good rule of thumb for a successful relationship is when each party puts forth 60 percent of the effort.

Practice frequent, effective communication. As with any personal interaction or business engagement, it is important for both parties to see eye to eye and be able to interact comfortably while exchanging information regularly. This may appear straightforward, but may not be as easy as it sounds for individuals with contrasting personality types. While some would find it helpful to overcommunicate and provide as much information or detail as possible, this approach will be lost on others who prefer bullet points and only the most salient information. On the contrary, only communicating with brevity, impatience, or inconsistency can result in misunderstanding and oversight of important details. Taking extra effort to balance styles ensures critical information is conveyed, and follow-up to confirm mutual understanding leads to more predictable and favorable outcomes. There are enough unavoidable or unforeseen challenges in a project; miscommunication or obscured information does not need to be one of them. By trying to make things easier for the other party, they will likely do the same in return. 

Own your actions and mistakes. It’s always better to be honest and admit to doing something wrong than to cover it up and hope it's not found. While it isn’t easy to be wrong or face the consequences of making a mistake, being able to show weakness or fallibility can be relatable and provide opportunity for respect. Additionally, an insistence on being right is off-putting and can make one seem egotistical and/or unapproachable, provoking others to look for faults or seek opportunities to exploit mistakes. Although it’s not good to make mistakes frequently, owning mistakes made builds trust, respect, and allows for consideration to be granted. Mistakes that are quickly identified can more easily be resolved, preventing what may start off as a small issue from turning into a significant problem.

Ensure all project responsibilities are defined and effectively covered. When roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined among all the players in a project, the success of the contractor and the project can be compromised. By ensuring all tasks are covered, misunderstandings are avoided and ownership of key requirements doesn’t slip through the cracks. An effective way to do this is by including a responsibility matrix as part of a drawing set detailing all the tasks and responsibilities. Not only is this important during the initial setup of a project to detail the scope to facilitate pricing, but it is critical during the execution of the project to avoid the risk of key tasks or responsibilities getting overlooked and projects going awry. Having responsibilities documented or defined can prevent change orders, scheduling delays, as well as unnecessary frustration and disputes.

Define what success looks like. Although everyone is striving for a successful outcome and client approval, what defines success can be different for each party involved. When there are particular requirements for system designs, equipment selection, installation, functionality, or user interface design, contractors need to be privy to this information from the start. Most service providers are comfortable with doing things their own way when details are left open to choice. When their way does not align with the client’s standards, significant discrepancies can result leading to unforeseen difficulties and limitations in performance. Although the contractor may deliver a quality, working system, success can elude them when it does not meet the client’s need. In the end, what defines a successful outcome for a contractor needs to align with the expectations of the client.

With the increased pace of business and the growing demands on everyone in the AV industry, it would be shortsighted to write off the value that contractors could provide. Although it is a reasonable request for clients to expect good work along with appreciation, respect, and value for their investment, they can also play a hand in helping to ensure their needs are met. All relationships are a two-way street and those who work toward compromise and common goals will typically be rewarded. One thing is always true: you can’t change others, but you can change yourself.

Steve Greenblatt, CTS, is president and founder of Control Concepts, a provider of specialized software and services for the audiovisual industry.