Tough Customers, Part 2

by Danny Maland

A good tug-of-war session can be serious fun. The fun is especially serious when the tug-of-war involves a human, a smallish dog, and a toy with a small bell on it. If everything's friendly, the dog may end up getting dragged around a bit, while humorous noises are being emitted by both the toy and the canine in question. (This is, of course, best done on carpet that is neither easily damaged, nor allows the dog a whole lot of traction. Hilarity is very likely to ensue.)

Of course, a tug-of-war is no fun at all when you have two unfriendly parties involved – especially when you're the object being yanked to and fro. Each of the two sides feels the tension generated from the other end, but you, being caught in the middle, feel all the tension from both sides. If the contenders are evenly matched, that tension might be applied to you for a very long time.

In the first part of this series, I offered some observations and opinions about “Single Issue Voters,” who are clients that get fixated on one little aspect of a project while losing sight of the whole. The people we're looking at today are “A House Divided.” For my purposes, A House Divided occurs when two or more stakeholders in a project (usually, but not always on the client side) have opposing needs. Meeting the demands of one side will injure or alienate the other side to some degree, and what's worse, both sides are likely to be people you want to please.

A classic example from my end of the business is the ongoing battle between sonic and visual considerations. You can't swing a dead cat that's been gaff taped to a mic stand without hitting a story about somebody getting a PA system deployed for the best sound, only to have somebody start to complain about how the whole thing looked. At that point, you start to be torn in two. Sure, you want to have an end product that's a hit on all levels – but if the core of the project is the audio, just how much of that should be sacrificed on the altar of pleasing visual aesthetics?

Another classic (and perhaps, even more pointed) example from the niche of sound for live music is on the “operational” end. A show gets going in an eating and/ or drinking establishment, and two camps begin to emerge. Once camp is the crowd there for the music, who want a “concert” experience. For them, the music should be loud enough to be in the foreground, the mix should be balanced such that everything can be heard clearly, and ideally, the sound for FOH (front of house) should be far enough ahead of the stage volume to be crisp and intelligible. The other camp is the crowd there for socialization, which wants the music to be able to be conversed over, with all other considerations being effectively secondary. Without a fairly large room, or a partitioned space, or being outdoors, it's pretty much impossible to fully meet the needs of both groups.

When stuck between two parties who art cross-purposes, what's an AV professional to do? Offering partial satisfaction to both parties might or might not just be flat-out impossible, and differences arising from philosophical stances or irreconcilable strategic goals aren't something you can reliably fix by the imparting of knowledge.

In my opinion, there's one course of action, and that is to tactfully – yet confidently – take a side. After that, encourage dialogue.

Some of you have just decided that I'm crazy. I don't think I am though, especially because I qualified the taking of sides with “tactfully” and “confidently.” Also, the encouragement of dialogue introduces a special wrinkle into the situation.

The tact side of the equation is mostly applied to the stakeholders you decide to give lesser priority to. The confidence is mostly applied to the camp that is going to get its desires met. The way you choose which side is which comes down to a simple question: “Which side is in agreement with the people writing the check for this endeavor?”

As much as I am a romantic, starry-eyed idealist, I also have just enough pragmatism in me to know that I want to be both compensated for a project and hired for the next one. The folks with the power to write checks, approve funds, hire and fire, and otherwise make authoritative decisions are the people I'm working for. Yes, I want everybody to be ecstatic, but this isn't a perfect world. Even if I wish they would change their minds about something, I have to consider myself as answering to the people who are empowered to make the proverbial “executive decisions.”

(Of course, there are some pretty big exceptions to this. When the folks with the gold want something that's unsafe or otherwise unethical, the gold ceases to be a consideration.)

After having determined who is being worked for, you can be confident in taking your side. You can be secure in saying that, “These people are the ones to chart the course, so we're going to follow them.” This effectively removes you from the tension of the tug-of-war, because you remove yourself from the middle ground by choosing a team. That confidence will also help you stick with that choice in the face of opposition. That confidence will also help you to be tactful. How?

Because you will know what position you're taking, and because of your security in that position, you will be able to answer criticism with honesty, straightforwardness, and without defensiveness. If we pull an example from the discussion of “concert vs. socialization” above, you might get something like this: “Sir, I agree that it's a little muddy, and hard to hear the keyboards. However, the management has decided that our first priority is to keep the volume level down, and so we're just letting the stage volume carry the room. Sometimes that means that parts get a little buried until there's a solo.”

After having engaged the other side in this way, where their concern is acknowledged and a frank explanation of why priorities are what they are has been offered, you will probably be in a position to take the final step. This final step is the “wrinkle” of encouraging dialogue. If it has worked correctly, your use of tact may have smoothed the ruffled feathers of the de-prioritized party enough that they can be pointed towards the people with executive authority. The hope is that a constructive conversation will develop between them and the side you've chosen, and in an ideal case, a compromise may be reached. That compromise will then be enacted by the people with the decision making authority – the people that you have already sided with. It's true that the decision makers may be hard nosed about the way they've decided to go, and that's just the way things can be. However, if that compromise or understanding is reached, then what you've pulled off is a sort of Zen-flavored “mediation without mediating.”

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