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The A-List Or The Blacklist?

AV consultants maintain some form of both ? which one an integrator lands on isn't up to chance.

In the spirit of the skilled tradesman, AV systems integration specialists pride themselves on what they know. The ability to stitch an AV solution together using a deep well of knowledge and versatile skills has served them well. Increasingly, however, technical smarts alone aren't enough to cut it in the changing AV systems business. While such expertise is clearly essential, who you know and how well you can market your know-how to decision makers is starting to rival it in importance. Of all the players integrators need to sidle up to, AV consultants are becoming among the most prized.

As projects grow more complex and costly, leading more owners to demand competitive bids, consultants are assuming a central role in ushering more projects from conception to completion (see sidebar on page 62). For integrators looking to snag some of this growing bid business, the path to success is likely to go through a consultant. First, however, integrators have to be on a consultant's radar. Given hundreds of integrators and a much smaller core of consultants, the challenge of getting on a consultant's Rolodex can appear formidable.

Consultants, however, say it's really very simple. The key, they say, is to consistently do good work, circulate in the consultant community, and acquaint firms with your company, its track record, and areas of expertise. If you pass muster, offers to bid, and jobs — if you're patient and persistent enough — are almost certain to follow.

Demystifying “the list”

Most debunk the notion that consultants maintain an impenetrable “A” list of integrators. Even if informal “preferred” lists do exist — and most say they do —consultants dash the perception that cracking it is futile without knowing a secret handshake of sorts. In a business where top-flight integrator partners are always in demand, they say, the cream will rise to the top and consultants will eagerly skim it off.

Scott Walker, CTS-D, president of Waveguide Consulting Inc., Atlanta, says good consultants are always looking for skilled integrators. While many may have a core they routinely fall back on, the reality is that the integrator landscape is in a constant state of flux, he says. With scheduling conflicts, integrators coming and going, and the constant expansion of consultants' geographic reach, consultants are usually eager to forge new relationships.

“We don't believe in maintaining a list, as such, but we do value good, long-term relationships with integrators,” Walker says. “But the reality is that of the roughly 30 integrators we've used over the course of that last 100 or so projects, 10 are not in business anymore. Plus, the quality of a company can wax and wane over time, and their availability for jobs varies by how busy they may be. So we're always looking for information on companies that might work with us down the road.”

Like Walker, Brian Huff, supervisory consultant in the Philadelphia office of Acentech Inc., an AV system design and IT infrastructure consultancy, tends to gravitate toward integrators who've worked with him successfully in the past. But he, too, challenges any notion that consultants are reluctant to expand their integrator pool.

“Although I prefer to work with integrators I know, there's no ‘preferred' bidder's list, per se, in our company,” he says. “We're always looking for good integrators because consultant-friendly integrators are hard to find. So when you do find one you tend to want to stick with them.”

The operative words in Huff's assessment of how the two parties can ultimately link up may well be “consultant-friendly.” For integrators, it's shorthand for challenges their community has had in coming to grips with the reality that consultants are wielding more power. While consultants see it as perfectly natural to seek out integrators who are easy to work with, integrators may construe it as a call for integrators who will subordinate their interests to that of consultants. But there's evidence that a meeting of the minds is underway. Among integrators, there's a growing realization that consultants are here to stay.

When he first started working with consultants, Pete Dugas, president of Technical Services Audio Visual, an Athens, GA-based systems integrator, says some he dealt with could be heavy-handed. However, over time, Dugas says, relationships have improved, and he's come to appreciate what consultants bring to the table.

“In the early years, consultants I worked with would try to dictate to me what jobs they thought I was qualified to work on,” Dugas says. “Then I started being more aggressive in marketing my capabilities, and we now get invited to bid on many projects. Our approach has always been that consultants are a part of the AV ecosystem, rather than one of looking at them as an unnecessary part of the food chain.”

Meanwhile, consultants — many of whom got their start in the integrator community — realize they're only as good as the contractors hired to execute their designs.

“Consultants can't exist without contractors,” Huff says. “We have more in common than differences, and in the client's eyes, they don't see much difference between the two. When a project goes well or goes bad, it reflects on us both.”

Thus, the challenge for both parties is finding the right fit.

One size doesn't fit all

Not surprisingly, consultants favor integrators who appreciate the nuances of both the bid business and working on consultant-led projects. To be successful, they say, integrators must show they can follow a script —more or less — and be team players in projects that can involve multiple contractors. Headstrong integrators who've never met a project they didn't like to tinker with are unlikely candidates for a consultant's “go-to” list.

Randy Tritz, a partner and Chicago branch director for consultant Shen Milsom & Wilke, says he looks for companies that are not only technically competent, but skilled in navigating some of the inevitable politics of consultant-led work. That includes realizing that they have two clients — the owner and the consultant.

“Some don't take the time to understand the project or work with consultants,” he says. “They prefer to look at the specs the consultant's drawn up, and find a way to redesign it. They'll try to reopen doors and conversations that may be two or three years old, and they may look for ways to exalt themselves over the consultant in the course of a job.”

A good tip-off that an integrator may fit that description frequently comes during the bidding process. Those who fail to respond to the bid specifications as written tip their hand that they may not be a good fit. Consultants like Mark Valenti, president and CEO of The Sextant Group, Pittsburgh, say the more complete and thorough a proposal, the more competent an integrator is perceived.

“Some integrators think they can just do it their way and disregard the specs,” he says. “When we get a bid response we're looking for specific information in a specific format in a specific order. The good ones have it figured out; the others don't understand how important it is to follow directions.”

Ralph Cruz, president of Phoenix-based integrator TPI Inc., believes he's been able to build a good reputation in the consultant community by emphasizing the importance of the proposal process. From submitting full sets of drawings to writing software, TPI tries to exceed consultant expectations.

“Our premise is that if we do a good job in the proposal phase and show that we know how to do these projects, we stand a better chance of getting the bid,” he says. “The risk is that we spend a lot of time and money but don't get the job. But consultants value that approach.”

Opening doors

Integrators who fail to either perform well on a project or a proposal obviously hurt their chances of getting another opportunity. But before integrators get either chance, they have to get their foot in the door. Doing so requires integrators to be adept at walking the fine line between overzealous promotion and substantive marketing of competence and relevant experience. Huff says he bristles at integrator attempts to woo him exclusively with glad-handing and slick marketing materials. While some of that is to be expected, Huff says he primarily has to be able to assess an integrator's technical capabilities and project management style.

“I don't want brochures,” he says. “I want to know things like their engineering staff's background, some of the projects the company's worked on, and how they've handled them and the related documentation. Don't send salespeople after me because they often don't have a lot to offer me in terms of understanding capabilities. I want the organization's technical person contacting me.”

When vetting an integrator for a potential slot on a bid list, Huff says he likes to get a sense of the company's responsiveness. Early on in the process, he'll sometimes ask for cell phone numbers of higher-ups in the company. “Whether they give them to me can tell me whether or not I can get the attention of a senior officer if there's a problem at the job site. I want to be able to get in touch with someone who has the power to do something.”

Waveguide's Walker says he'll look at a new integrator's marketing materials to get a sense of “how they communicate who they are to the world.”

After that, Walker says, he sends out a formal request for qualifications (RFQ). He looks for evidence not only of broad technical competence, including staff certifications, but also for clues as to specific strengths and a sense of an integrator's commitment to working with consultants.

“One of the things I look for is an idea of what percentage of their business an integrator would like to get with us,” he says.

After the RFQ is reviewed and analyzed, Walker says it's ranked in terms of suitability and relevance to the company's projected work schedule. “The companies that have the top-ranked RFQs usually get the offers to bid,” he says.

Likewise, Tritz says he has integrators who make overtures follow up with detailed company information. Financials, staff qualifications, references, and marketing materials are commonly provided. Additionally, integrators are asked to update that information every 12 to 18 months. When a job comes up that fits an integrator's skills and experience, Tritz says his firm generally has someone in mind.

But consultants can be slow to fully embrace new integrators. Before recommending a new integrator to a client for either a no-bid or a large-scale bid job, some will hand them smaller-scale jobs where less is at stake. Walker likes to hand a new integrator a small bid job that's not likely to go to a low bidder. Huff says he usually insists that new integrators do “trunk slammer-type” jobs as a test of how they operate.

“Sometimes they get annoyed, but that's missing the point,” he says. “I'm giving them an opportunity to prove themselves on a small job. If that works out, we can move on.”

Before even that can happen, though, consultants will want to have performed due diligence on the integrator. That's especially critical when it comes to working with clients who are required to publicly solicit bids. Bids that come in from integrators the consultant isn't familiar with — even if they appear solid — are less likely to be considered.

“You don't want to be in a position of trying to build a relationship with a consultant two days after a bid hits the street,” Walker says.

Adds Huff, “If a project goes south the last thing I want to hear from the client is, ‘well, you told me to use these guys.'”

While consultants may employ a variety of tactics to size up integrators seeking a relationship, the grapevine is probably the one most commonly used and relied upon. In consultant circles, word gets around fast about the good and the not-so-good in the integrator community.

“Consultants are a tight-knit bunch, and we'll collaborate on information about integrators,” Walker says. “I'll often call consultants in a new area I'm working in and ask for names of who's done a good job.”

When it comes to forging relationships with consultants, integrators ultimately may have to remember one key point: Your reputation precedes you.

Tom Zind is a freelance writer and researcher based in Prairie Village, KS. He has written for a variety of business-to-business publications and can be reached at tomzee1@earthlink.net.

 


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