Tough Customers, Part 1

by Danny Maland

One of the things that's great about working with others is that a crew or team will start to build a library of “war stories.” War stories are those narratives which reveal the true character of people involved with a crew, and do so by relating significant troubles, or legendary exploits, or stomp-down-hilarious missteps. War stories are tales that seem to be best told late at night, around a table at a restaurant that serves inexpensive food – or to impress wide-eyed newbies at the shop, no matter what time of day it is.

Many particularly enthralling war stories deal with facing the challenge of a difficult client. More than one team has bonded over the experience of entering, engaging, and emerging from the battleground of pleasing a client who was especially demanding, infuriating, or just-plain-crazy. These chronicles of the wild and wooly are often passed down from one generation of professionals to another as a form of informal education. “I'm tellin' ya, someday a customer is gonna ask you to do this, and if you don't watch out, you'll end up like Mike over there. See, it was back in '07...”

The tough customers who populate these stories come in a grab-bag of varieties. The species we'll be dealing with today is “The Single Issue Voter.” Single Issue Voters are the clients who obsess over a single aspect of a product or project, and do so at the expense of a holistic view of quality and/ or success. They also may be quite cognizant of other factors involved in a desirable outcome, but firmly believe that success with those factors flows almost entirely from success concerning another, singular factor.

One of the easiest ways to find Single Issue Voters is to get involved with a project that involves a client selecting loudspeakers. I think you'll find that most folks will get really caught up in comparing power ratings, while spending very little time looking at other characteristics. The belief is that a speaker's ability to handle more power translates directly into greater output and higher quality. Of course, we know that there's a kernel of truth there (lots of designs are similar, and so a big increase in power handling often tracks with a big increase in total output), but we also know that it's entirely possible to build a loudspeaker system that produces just as much output with 500 watts of continuous input as another system with a kilowatt of continuous input. An interesting variant of this mindset is the belief that efficiency is all that matters. This person will be thrilled that a loudspeaker can generate 105 dB SPL (Sound Pressure Level) at, say, 150 Hz, while ignoring that most of the passband that they really want from that box is 10 dB down from there.

One gentleman that I encountered was convinced that an install would be significantly better if we just switched all of the amplifiers over to vacuum tube models. I actually hold this gentleman in high regard, and I could agree that the distortion characteristics of the tube amps might be more pleasing than what we were getting out of the devices that had been originally chosen...but he just wasn't looking at the whole picture. For the live-sound work being done by that install, there was a need for 500+ watts of continuous power across the “workhorse” loudspeaker enclosures, as well as a need for compactness, durability, relatively cool operation, and minimal cost. There's no way to get all those factors to come together in any tube-based amplifier that I'm aware of.

At the moment, I believe that there are only two really effective ways of interacting with a Single Issue Voter. Either of these methods can be applied alone, or they can be combined. The first method is placation without manipulation, and the second method is education without embarrassment. Placation without manipulation is figuring out how to give the Single Issue Voter as much of what they want as is possible without actually endangering the whole project. After all, this person is the client, and their wants are an enormous part of the goals that have to be met. I think the avoidance of manipulation comes with being very honest and upfront about how the whole project has to come together. For example: “Well Sir, we recognize your desire to have line arrays used in the design, and while we just can't figure out how to make that work well for the overflow area, we think we've got a handle on a pretty neat design for the main event space.” What's happening is that the issue the customer cares about greatly is also being cared about by you. You genuinely put yourself on their side, and by doing so, earn the right (hopefully) to have a differing view of the total project. In the same vein, education without embarrassment also relies on truly being part of the same team as the Single Issue Voter. The idea is to acknowledge their experience and research, and then gently add on to it. One way to do it might look like this: “Yes ma'am, I think you're right that Mugsy's Microphones has a great product for your application. They really do a good job with making things compact, and with that being so important, I think you might also like to be introduced to these even more miniature units by Tommy's Transduction...”

I think that if you're genuine and gentle in trying to steer a Single Issue Voter onto a better course, your chances of success with the attempt go up. (There are no guarantees, of course.) As always, you need to act in the best interest of your client, and in cases like these, you have to have above-average diligence and patience as you convince the client that you are doing exactly that.

The AVNetwork staff are storytellers focused on the professional audiovisual and technology industry. Their mission is to keep readers up-to-date on the latest AV/IT industry and product news, emerging trends, and inspiring installations.