The past year has been challenging for countless businesses, but when looked at from a certain vantage point, there have been a few positive developments. For instance, the pandemic’s requirement for social distancing in workplaces has given us a reason to become proficient in services that extend the collaborative work space well beyond the conference room walls. And that’s made conversations about AV as a Service somewhat easier, said Charmaine Torruella, GMS account manager at Verrex.
“Clients are much more open to discussions that had been very hard for systems integrators to have for a while,” she said. “They understand it better now, saying, ‘Oh, I get it! Can you do this for us now?’ Having gone through this experience, they’re now open to other possibilities these services can bring.”
Adding to that understanding is the general public’s growing familiarity with as-a-service models because of the numerous subscription products we encounter in our daily lives, said Fred Loucks, CTS-D, director of technology and innovation at Level 3 Audiovisual. “Spotify, Netflix, all the SaaS platforms that we consume every day in our personal lives, as well as a part of business, it’s definitely driven an increase in comfort with them,” he said. “And that comfort comes from those platforms far more than it comes from our own industry.”
Loucks underlines a particular and not insubstantial challenge facing the AV industry: How can we explain, in simple, straightforward terms, what AV as a Service means, and then how do we best position ourselves to work within that scaffolding?
“In general, we’ve got a lot of work to do in getting a clear definition of what it means as an industry,” Loucks said. “For me, the definition of AV as a Service is the consumption of audiovisual, whether that be hardware, software services, etc., through a subscription model. So not leasing a system, for instance, but a long-term commitment.”
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Torruella agreed that the way these services are currently marketed leaves room for improvement, and she noted that it also leaves a lot of things open to interpretation. “It’s any solution that provides a virtual application to manage, monitor, or engage with,” she said. “Really, AV as a Service is whatever the client says it is.”
If a solid definition of AVaaS remains somewhat ambiguous, the reason can be pinned to two specific challenges. First, the AV installation business model has until recently been solidly project-based. Where an integrator might have occasionally worked with a client after a project was complete—to provide upgrades or scale the project up, maybe—the AVaaS model requires a much different approach. Presenting a project as an ongoing, long-term relationship is a whole new ballgame, according to Chris Miller, executive director of the PSNI Global Alliance.
“One of the fundamental shifts is that the conversation now starts with services, not technology—it’s all about services, and we’ll make the technology fit,” he said. “That’s a major shift in the sales/account manager world compared to what we’ve been doing. It’s a very different approach starting from the very first discussion.”
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While today’s projects may be evaluated by long-term value instead of a list of items to be purchased and installed asap, this is simply an extension of the approach the industry has taken all along. It’s creating a business relationship with a client, but shifting the terms of the relationship from a potential one-shot to something with a longer shelf life. That shift in emphasis does require a different way of thinking, however, and AV businesses will need to encourage and maintain longer commitments with clients.
“This is a fundamentally different way of offering audiovisual,” Loucks said. “Whoever the end user’s engaging with, that end user needs to make sure that’s a service-oriented organization, not a product- or job-oriented operation. They’re tying themselves to you—not just for the scope of this one install, but for the next several years. There’s an existential threat there for integrators who refuse to or are unable to figure out how to transition their business model away from that project-based work and to a recurring, relationship-based offering.”
“Most vendors don’t understand that the model for AV as a Service is a continuous one,” Torruella noted. “You’re not running away [after the project is done]. You’re implementing this, but there is a monthly recurring level of support. So the company that’s providing the service, there are probably some transitions they have to make to their approach.”
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One of those changes may seem obvious enough, Miller said, but it requires significant planning and ongoing training to get it right: determining who provides that continuous support and how.
“It doesn’t stop with the initial installation, and because it’s ongoing, that’s a different skillset,” he said. “Now you need someone to take on a role as a customer experience manager, someone who has more touch points. And now that you’ve got customer service experience, you could have someone in adoption services, someone assigned to a help desk, you have to be prepared to dispatch, you need some level of asset management. Who does what? All of that is very difficult. It’s a different model, and they’re starting to learn how to price it so that it’s competitive but that they can underwrite the costs of taking on this role.”
The other big factor that complicates the issue of defining AVaaS is that the services themselves are so varied. As Torruella explained, it’s the client’s requirements that really define the services provided.
“AV as a Service is not one of those things that will do everything. It’s case by case. The client’s needs and wants will determine the AV-as-a-Service solutions you provide them,” she said. “And it’s not just one thing. It has to be customized.”
Loucks agreed: “When you’re building an AV-as-a-Service offering for a particular customer, every approach is going to be a little bit bespoke.”
The benefits of such an approach, when paired with a long-term partnership, can lead to more business opportunities, Miller explained. “It’s not a predesigned suite of services that we sell. There’s a diverse set of service offerings, and we’re defining them as customers tell us what they need. The customization is really the beauty of what AV as a Service can be. Let’s talk about services and outcomes, people and processes, and then we’ll build a package that you’ve subscribed to, and that you’ll use to achieve your goals. And as you achieve your goals, you’ll want to do more of it. And as you do more of it, I make a living.”
This idea can be applied in a variety of ways, and Torruella sees particular benefits to value-added services such as end-user training.
“I would love to see AV learn how to take on the professional services aspect to build value and provide it to customers,” Torruella said. “Training is a very big value proposition to a customer, for instance. If they bring in a new technology, who trains them? Does the training get updated? Is there a help desk? Most customers would take advantage of that—it spares them time, and it spares them expense.”
There’s also opportunity in finding smarter ways of overseeing a system, Loucks said. “The goal is getting a centralized view of your entire system—the monitoring, alerting, reporting, data analytics, configuration management—all in one place for your ops teams or business leaders. That’s a big advantage in the AV-as-a-Service model,” he said. “For the next decade of AV, that’s got to be one of the biggest things that changes. We have to be able to see what’s going on in our systems. We can’t wait for our customers to report issues—it’s too expensive.”
The fundamental change in approach to business may seem like a difficult and off-putting idea to AV professionals who’ve spent a lifetime, or even just a few years, working with a technology-first mindset. And Loucks acknowledged that those strengths are surely still needed. But, reflecting on a difficult year in which job turmoil hasn’t passed over the AV sector, he said he hopes people will see the benefits of focusing on the next level of value they can provide to customers.
“We need to maintain that heart and soul,” Loucks said. “But we have to add skills and grow beyond that to provide a more rounded value proposition to our customers. AV as a Service comes down to how we extend the life of the audiovisual industry. How do we redefine what the audiovisual industry does, and what the AV experience is, so that we can build the next 100 years?”