Where Did Our Margins Go?

Are we working harder for lower margins these days? You bet we are. What happened to the days of earning fair fees for our craft? Why have we let our AV industry become a commodity?

Let’s look at how the AV market has financially decayed our wallets in the last 20 years.

During the “good times,” consultants commanded fees based on the amount of time (hours) that went into a project. We were paid for our expertise and impartial position working with the client, developing drawings with the architect, designing systems, facilitating bids and managing the AV process through to completion. Consultants bill for their time, and the more time they put in on a project, the less they make. One rule of thumb when the project was complete, a “profitable” fee for a consultant was supposed to be approximately 15 percent of the AV systems cost. As the market declined, we saw that decrease to 10 percent. Today, it is even less.

AV Systems Integrators:
AVSI make their money on equipment and labor costs. During good times, equipment markups ranged 15 percent to 25 percent. Labor was priced right for the project and provided enough man hours to properly manage, fabricate, install and test the AV systems.

So where did our margins go?

Well, in the consultant market, we see a trend with owners reps trying to package acoustical, AV, IT, and security consulting packages into multi-discipline consultant RFP’s and “buying” these services as a commodity based on a fee per square foot. Ridiculous. How can a consulting firm understand the scope of project adequately enough to put a fee on professional services based on raw square footage? Some consultants play into these RFP’s and provide proposals with no basis or substantiation for the scope of services they will provide. Complex projects that should command adequate fees are being awarded at absurd dollar per square foot pricing. Fees that were upward of $1 per square foot are now half that, or less.

Some consultants have decided to de-scope their services and provide limited project involvement, less drawing issues and very little, if any construction administration support. We all know these consultants—they are the ones that after the bid is awarded say, “call me when it’s done,” and disappear from the project, possibly showing up for their last bit of billable fees for checkout. Shame on them.

In the AV system integrator market, low bidding by contractors has been the contributing factor in lowering margins. “Low ball” bidding has turned our craft into nearly a commodity. Equipment margins have dropped to 6 percent and labor costs barely cover what it takes to complete a project properly. We did this to ourselves. AV system integrators that want to play this game will low-bid themselves out of business.

So guess who loses? Our clients do. There is just no way that consultants or AV system integrators can provide the level of service required in this market of underpriced bare-bones fees. You get what you pay for. Quality workmanship and proper support require enough fees in the project for us to earn our livings. None of us can survive if we give away our products and services.

So, with the hope of salvaging our soon-to-be a commodity industry, let’s try this letter:

Dear Client,

Thank you for the opportunity to submit our proposal for this project. It is likely we are not the lowest bid, and in our opinion, that’s one of the reasons you should select us for this project.

I am sure the other firms are equally “qualified” to complete this project, but we would like you to know that our quality of work, caliber and staffing of our team, and the responsiveness and level of service we will provide will be more focused on your project then our competitors because we have adequate fees in our proposal to do the job right.

We also pay higher wages to attract better talent. We don’t sub contract inexperienced labor. We continually train our team, provide CTS certifications and have experienced project leaders that will be assigned to your project. We have put together a dedicated project team that is committed and mandated to provide you the highest quality of services throughout the course of this project. Our project team you met at our bid interview is comprised of the folks you will see on your project; we don’t “bait and switch” talent.

We will be responsive to your requests. We answer phone calls and emails promptly. Our team will be present at the weekly meetings and will ensure the project schedule is met.

Ultimately, we will not be more expensive. Our active participation throughout the course of this project, our drawings, and our attention to details will end up saving you time, money, and aggravation in the long run.

If you want to select the other bidder, that is certainly your choice. Please understand that with lower fees will likely come a lower quality of workmanship, less responsiveness, and less service.

You are undertaking this project as substantial capital improvement to your facility. AV projects are complex and your project requires the “A team,” not the lowest bidder.


Your AV Provider

Christopher Maione is a recognized leader and expert in the AV industry with over 28 years of audiovisual design and project management expertise. He has managed literally thousands of AV projects from some of the most elaborate boardrooms in the world to entire skyscrapers of complex AV facilities throughout. Christopher focuses his business on being part of the project team and representing the owner/end-user on large-scale AV/technology projects. As a mentor, he encourages colleagues to strive for excellence and consistently challenges the AV industry to improve its practices, and grow its services in an effort to set a higher standard and respond to the changing needs of clients. Well versed in all aspects of AV, IT, and acoustics, Maione is an Adjunct InfoComm Faculty Member and an accredited CTS RU provider and serves on a variety of key industry standard committees. In doing so, he continues to set industry benchmarks for quality.