Audio, Business

Industry POV: Getting System Participants To Work In Harmony

Transparency, open collaboration build loyalty and earn repeat business.

Technology specialists in a variety of industries have seen their roles change considerably over the years, but nowhere is the change more evident than in the field of background music (BGM). When analog-only, tape-based, onsite systems dominated the restaurant/retail space for commercial audio, maintaining and troubleshooting program-source quality was relatively straightforward. Unlike today’s BGM offerings, these older systems were largely self-contained and simpler in design; source material (i.e., music tracks) was prepared specifically for the BGM applications it was designed to serve.

Today, a large part of our industry is predicated on creating new software and hardware pieces to provide a better AV experience, make installations quicker and easier, or provide simpler operation for end users. In general, the goal is to deliver a greater return on investment (ROI) for everyone. And although better, faster and easier to operate are valued features for any piece of AV gear, the quality of the content being run through the system is equally important. Perhaps one of the most significant developments has been the use of digital-audio playback files; they have greatly expanded the user’s library of available content, while also accelerating the speed at which new content can be made available.

I’m reminded of an application in which a large, shopping-mall-based clothing retailer had invested in new BGM and foreground music (FGM) systems for more than a dozen of its locations. The retailer had plans for additional upgrades in the months to follow, assuming the first systems met company expectations. The installation went as anticipated, and system commissioning confirmed that the retailer had made the right choice for its upgrades—the systems provided the control and performance the retailer sought. After a few days, however, the client began to question the quality of the loudspeakers; quickly, this led the retailer to question the entire system. Uneven playback levels, occasional distortion and overall poor sound quality were noted. This situation prompted a meeting with our team (as the manufacturer) as well as with members of the retailer’s architecture and experience-design teams, along with regional management.

After setting up an exact duplicate of one of the client’s systems and offering reassurances that the purchase decision was well founded, we were able to move the review process to the content as the possible culprit. It quickly became evident that the third-party content supplier, chosen by the retailer, had limited BGM/FGM integration experience; as a result, the supplier was simply creating playlists. The value and necessity of audio dynamics and compression, potential bandwidth challenges, varying format considerations, and sample and bit-rate concerns related to downloading digital-audio material were all overlooked. Ultimately, those oversights had resulted in the entire system being questioned. It was a good learning opportunity for the retailer, its chosen integration team and the third-party content supplier.

The shopping experience is more than just transactional.

Although technological advances have given customers myriad hardware and software options, they’ve also changed the role of the integrator/system designer. Greater numbers of technology options have led to greater specialization; this, in turn, has led to details falling through the cracks. Today’s integrators must not only have a high level of expertise but also be willing to share that knowledge with their customers, thereby achieving total transparency.

Revisiting our example of the shopping-mall-based clothing retailer, the content provider should have been aware of considerations beyond developing a better understanding of audio-production

practices. For example, the company should have been aware of the ramifications of using a telephone modem to update playlists overnight; likewise, it should have advised our shared customer of potential challenges. Although the method used was certainly the cheaper option, it presented bandwidth limitations that could have been responsible for some of the download challenges the retailer faced. Moreover, the content provider could have encouraged the client to employ more robust, balanced I/O and interconnects to reduce some of the noise creeping into the system.

Ultimately, having a better understanding of BGM/FGM experience integration would have enabled the content provider to convey a clearer overview of features, benefits and issues. That would have helped the retailer avoid the pitfalls encountered, as would have convincing the retailer that spending a little more money upfront is ultimately worth it.

For those expanding their business into commercial-audio work, it’s important to keep in mind that a large part of the value you bring to your clients is found in your ability to educate them. Simply selling and installing gear is no longer enough for long-term business success across all levels of the commercial-audio sales channel. Customer training and education are the best ways to achieve transparency, and, ultimately, to secure repeat business and build customer loyalty.

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