Gathering Information, Part 1

Your strength or weakness.

Your strength or weakness. This time, I would like to share some experiences I have had with gathering information at the start of a project—good and bad—and, ultimately, the solution I developed that, frankly, has not failed me yet.

At some point in the beginning of a project, you have to sit down with the client, be it with the owner, the building committee, the music director, the CIO, etc., and gather information so you can put into writing what you are going to provide for them, and how this will meet their needs.

When I was working as an integrator, this was the Proposal; as a consultant, the Program. For our discussion here, though, I will not focus on the difference: just about the need for this head-end document.

For me, even in the early stages of my business, I liked having some head-end text in my proposals, even drawings, charts and graphs I developed and used for larger projects. The text would describe some of the details of the system I was selling them, the drawings gave a sense of where things were going to be, and the charts and graphs broke down the proposed performance. (FYI, these were hand drawn with a ruler and pencil, and typed on a typewriter! For those relative newcomers to the industry, you did not miss out on that part….).

This was not common back then: Many used a cover letter (if that) and a line item shopping list of what was going in, with no drawings, no detailed explanation. To this day, I have seen single-page line-item “shopping lists” for smaller jobs; everything is wrong about that. Sure, for clients you’ve known for years, you can get “lazy” and still manage, but one issue, and where is your documentation during a conflict with the client? The question could be related to location, size, finish and, of course, performance.

The client says there is not enough bass on the dance floor: “You said it would &#&%.” Of course, if you had a chart estimating a certain SPL on the center of the dance floor and you then stood there with the client and demonstrated with a meter that you have accomplished exactly what you said you would, that is the difference between just OK and a professional.

Systems were simpler back then and, frankly, I did not have anything other than a general list I wrote up for each client before our meeting (five or 10 questions); no specific documentation as to gathering information to help me develop the Proposal. This worked for many years but, as the systems became larger and more complex, and the Proposals-Programs became lengthier and more detailed (adding video and control), I needed to do something else.

My first set of 32 “standard” preplanned questions was for a church project 14 years ago, while I was working for an integrator. I found that, rather than creating specific questions for each project, I would have a standardized set (those that were not applicable to a specific installation, the famous N/A, would just be skipped and/or marked as N/A), and because other projects required different details, I would add relevant questions.

The following year, I went from working for an integrator to working for a consulting firm. (I felt like I was a consultant at heart but never knew it!) One of the biggest changes was that, typically, the client is not the end user, it’s the architect: You develop a Program (not a Proposal) and you don’t need a fixed price because it’s an “estimate of probable cost.”

That’s a story for another day (integrator vs. consultant). Not long after I was hired, I was assigned a large church project. With my manager, I met with the architects to gather information. I brought my list of questions but never got to use them. For the most part, I was there to listen and learn. When we left, what I learned was that I would never want to do that again! There were many questions that were not asked by my manager; the meeting was actually steered by the architect. Everything was wrong about this method of meeting and gathering information. I just did not have what I needed to do my job back at the office.

This was a new church construction project with $1 million in AV, and the hole in the information that was delivered to me was so huge…well, you know…something about driving a truck through it. I could go on about this project, but will remain focused on the task at hand….

In my head at first, I came up with a plan about how to do this better. It was not too complicated: It required some documentation and following of a few steps: You already have the questionnaire that you have put together.

• Step 1: When scheduling a meeting with the client to discuss the project, let him know that your approach is to send a questionnaire in advance of the meeting.
• Step 2: Have him review and return the questionnaire, completed as best he can, before the meeting.
• Step 3: Review the completed questionnaire in advance of the meeting; make notes as necessary.
• Step 4: Bring copies of the questionnaire for everyone attending the meeting.
• Step 5: Review the questionnaire with all in attendance.
• Step 6: Upon returning to the office, write up a set of meeting minutes detailing the meeting. Include any item discussions that were not part of the questionnaire. Send a copy to each attendee.

I put together my first formal questionnaire for what I called Religious Venues, incorporating 72 questions. I showed it to a few coworkers and described my plan. They all laughed: “They will never fill it out, they will never send it back, etc.” Not very encouraging. Nonetheless, when the next project, a church in Tennessee, came around, I put my plan into action. I spoke with the music minister (the designated contact) and let him know that I was going to send a questionnaire that I wanted him to fill it out in advance of our meeting in about two weeks.

I told him that, for areas outside of his expertise, he should have the appropriate person complete that section (example, the sound mixer would answer different questions than the video mixer). Typically, each of the individuals pertinent to the project would attend the meeting.

Contrary to the naysayers in my office, they filled out the questionnaire and sent it ahead of the meeting. There were about seven participants, including the Pastor, with four having been involved with the questionnaire.

Upon reviewing the questionnaire prior to the meeting, and knowing the names of those who completed each section, I was able to develop crucial insight into each participant’s level of expertise. You don’t get a second chance at first impressions. Did I say how crucial it is to have this information?

The meeting lasted four hours and was nothing less than spectacular! Upon arrival and after introductions, we all sat down, and I said, “Let’s begin….” We had a starting point and went through the questionnaire line by line. Yes, we were lead astray by some of the individuals with less experience in the meeting (you know, asking about, say, the video in advance of the video section). I was able to either give an answer or say that section/question was coming up, and then got back to the question at hand.

I was steering the meeting: It had a beginning, middle and end, and I easily handled interruptions and distractions by returning to the point (the question). It was not just a great feeling but, between my planned approach and other items and issues that were discussed that were not in the questionnaire, I had everything I needed to proceed with the design.

Upon returning to the office, I wrote up the meeting minutes, sent them out and was on my way to designer’s paradise! Upon completion (in this case a Program) for the church, we scheduled a meeting to go over the system and I sent the Program a week in advance for their review. Coincidently, lighting was scheduled to attend the same meeting.
I watched the lighting designer spend 90 minutes having the Program changed over and over; it was unpleasant. Then it was my turn and it went like this: Terry (the lead for the church) stood up and, after slamming the lighting designer, said to the architect, “I don’t know if this is OK, but, I would not change a thing.” Imagine that, 15 pages of audio, video, control, etc., getting it right the first time.

Step back a second: How do you think the architect felt hiring us and having such a result? Pretty good, I imagine! Of course, this is not the result every time; sometimes there are some changes, but the point is made.

Part 2 of this discussion will go into more detail about the questionnaire, offer a few more examples of its use and lessons learned. Please send in your suggestions and comments to

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