This month, I am going to follow up on my July piece about manufacturers’ dealer price lists as they relate to consultants…but not in a way you would expect! I am going in a different direction as a result of a conversation I had with a fellow consultant (let’s call him “Todd”), during a road trip we took for a project.
For a while now, I have highlighted many experiences that I, and others, have had related to customer service. As I was describing last month’s piece to Todd during our ride, I mentioned that manufacturers should do a better job of taking care of us (consultants), that we are their customers and customer service is important.
I was immediately challenged by Todd, who said that “No, we are not their customers and, in fact, referencing customer service was all wrong…even the hint of customer service to a manufacturer will send them in the wrong direction from what you are talking about.” Wow! I had made a huge mistake. Todd was right. Consultants are not customers of manufacturers. I was so used to saying that and should not have!
Fortunately, I was able to correct my words before publication, but there was a problem. After rewriting the last paragraph and then thinking more about it, I asked, “What word can I use to describe the relationship consultants have with manufacturers? If not ‘customers,’ what are we?” We are not integrators, retailers or consumers (all customers of manufacturers). What is a good descriptive word that describes our relationship with manufacturers?
After an hour, neither of us could come up with the right term. That night, after careful consideration, I used the word “important” to relate what we are to manufacturers: Consultants are important, but that still does not solve the issue of our relationship to manufacturers and, in fact, what makes a consultant a consultant. I want a descriptive term that I can use other than that we are important.
Coupled with this issue was another discussion about what we do. Todd talked about an Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology (ICAT) meeting he attended years ago, where there was a discussion about membership in the council. The issue as he recalled it was that, if a consultant worked for an integrator, he was not a “true” consultant as defined by the council and should not be allowed to be a member. Interesting thought: Take my company for example. We provide high-level design engineering services to consultants and integrators on an as-needed basis (We do not discriminate). I feel that, if an integrator needs help and realizes that he cannot provide the expertise to fulfill the client’s needs and is reaching out, that is a good thing, right? So, where else would he go…to a competitor?
Should there be a separation, like of Church and State (oops, religion and politics): consultants who work for integrators and consultants who work for architects/owners? Is it OK to do both? First of all, who hasn’t? Even Todd confided that, over the last 20 years or so, he had, on occasion, worked for an integrator on a project to provide design engineering services. Would that mean he could not be an ICAT member?
I decided to research this a little further, calling Max Kopsho, the current Chair of the ICAT Council for InfoComm. He knew what I was talking about, but said that Todd misunderstood the issue: It is not if you work for an integrator as a subcontractor, but if you are an employee of the integrator, or an architectural firm, for that matter.
The issue is that, if you are embedded in a firm that provides design, installation or other services, how can you be “independent” if they pay your salary? Makes sense to me. No matter how you “dance” around it, it is a conflict of interest, and you are not an “independent consultant!” So what is the real definition?
This is bigger than ICAT; this is industry wide. Let’s think about it. We are a maturing industry. Industries like plumbing, even electricians, dwarf us when it comes to actual time in business. How about the medical field? How many years does that go back…thousands? Think how we know who those industry members are and how clearly they are defined. We can learn a lot from the medical industry.
For example, depending on the health issue you have, you can easily find the right practitioner just by his or her title, such as a podiatrist or cardiologist (pick any specialty). How easy is that?
Let’s start with an analogy in our industry. Consultants typically provide services to three customers: architects, integrators and owners. The issue is that, when one of these wants to hire a consultant, they cannot tell what a given consultant’s areas of expertise are. So, I say let’s clarify that.
- Let’s look at consultants who provide services to an architect, and let’s call them Design Consultants because they have specialized skills developed over years, working with documents and schedules used by architects.
- Consultants who work for integrators can be Engineering Consultants, providing different services than they typically would provide for an architect…again a specialized set of skills conforming to the integrator’s schedule and documentation.
- The same thing for consultants working for a building owner/manager. Their needs related to documents and scheduling will be different than those required for an architect and integrator. Let’s call them a Commercial Consultant.
I have done all three, so I am thinking I will revise my website and advertising to indicate that I provide Design Consulting for architects, Engineering Consulting for integrators and Commercial Consulting for building owners. I will then offer detailed information about each of these markets, defining the services I can provide. Thus, when potential clients are looking for a consultant, they know I have expertise in the specific area they are looking for.
Here is an analogy: If you ask a doctor if he does heart surgery and he says, “Of course, come on in”…and someone else asks the same doctor about helping with his broken foot, does the doctor say, “Sure, I can do that, too”…? See where I am going? That is not what the medical field has matured into; historically, it was a “free-for-all” out of necessity, but no longer.
For each specialty, the doctor is certified. We could, and in my opinion should, be identifiable in the same way. What do we (consultants) do when a building owner calls and asks if we can provide specialized services for them? When I get a call for something I do not provide, I say I can refer you to a specialist. Or they can subcontract under me (if I am providing my services) and I will manage their services (for a small fee), providing a single point of accountability.
We have some similarities with doctors, such as certifications by our peers, highly detailed work that involves research, extremely complicated sets of details, etc. I am not saying that enhancing our titles (with some type of definition that describes our specialties, whether you do one, two or all three), will change everything, but it’s a start.
Imagine looking up Audiovisual Design Consultant on Wikipedia, and up pops a definition that describes what you do, and it also links to the other two similar specialties. I like it: accountability and being forthright about what you do. Saying you are an AV Consultant is vague, right?
This is all about the customer: From standards (yes, I know…I will be completing my five-part series soon) to titles, professionals deliver a more consistent result than non-professionals. What this is all about is helping our customers think of us as professionals.
I am sure that, years ago, two competing doctors in a town got into the same price wars we are in. Let’s say that, in Dodge City, Marshall Dillon gets in a fight and needs some dental work. He goes to Doc Brown who says he can fix that for $2.00. Being a cautious Marshall (how he has stayed alive for so long), however, he goes down the road to see Doc Holliday (whose office is in the back of the saloon), who says, “I can do that for $1.50!” Don’t laugh! How is that different from what goes on in our work world? Did you ever ask why? It’s because we think of doctors and other specialists as professionals. Don’t we deserve the same? It’s time for our industry to “grow up.” Maybe then, clients won’t say, “I can get it at Best Buy for $99.95!”
FYI, talking of professionalism, Max Kopsho talks about the APEx program within InfoComm, and its benefits (See more, below). Are you “on board” with this or do you feel we’re not ready yet? Please send any comments, examples or stories you would like to share to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would like to address three things. First, I want to clarify the non-issue Doug referred to as far as membership in the Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology (ICAT) Council. I think it is best to explain what an independent consultant is by examining the affirmation we request members to make. The following is taken directly from the current ICAT membership application:
“Affirmation of independent consulting. My firm derives no revenue from the manufacture, sale or installation of any product, if such association could jeopardize, tend to jeopardize or give the impression of jeopardizing the ability to render an independent, unbiased decision regarding product specifications or related matters. Further, the firm has no ongoing exclusive affiliation with any group that provides services or installs audiovisual, sound or video systems where that affiliation could reflect an inability to make unbiased decisions or recommendations regarding the services of that group.”
Second is quality of work and the new Audiovisual Provider of Excellence (APEx) program. One of the best ways to ensure quality is to find a firm that is comprised of knowledge, skill and experience. This can be done by seeking a company that has the APEx designation. This recognition is awarded to organizations that are able to show that their firms conform to strict standards, receive high marks on customer satisfaction surveys, have certified staff, attend InfoComm University courses and keep their staff certified in other relevant industry areas.
And third, if I can take this opportunity to say that we are aggressively seeking members who will take an active role in our new outreach and training initiatives. We try not to limit our membership based on where these potential members work. I am not sure about the past understandings of requirements for membership in the council, but today, all we ask is that our members be independent consultants.