Risk Management: What Churches Should Be Looking For With Systems Integrators (Part 2)

by | Audio, AVL Projects, Production

In part 1 of this series, we detailed the technical risks that churches should be aware of when considering AV integrators for hire. But that’s only one aspect – this time we look at risks of a more non-technical nature that are important to understand as well.

Managing Expectations

Meeting and exceeding a client’s expectations should be the primary goal for every new system project. To do so, the integrator must first fully understand those expectations.

In most cases, the overriding expectations are communicated through a list of “functional or operational” goals. The customer wants the system to be able to do this or that. There’s usually nothing “technical” about these goals and expectations.

The contractor’s lead systems designer should turn this list of goals into a scope-of-work (SOW) document, using the customer’s vocabulary whenever possible. The integrator’s design team should be very good at describing ideas, solutions, and systems in plain, non-technical terms.

Once the integrator has a good understanding of the functional goals and expectations, the company can prepare scope documents, configuration (Figure 1) and cost spreadsheets, charts, models and/or renderings to communicate and confirm the client’s understanding of the system design, functionality, operations, and a rough order of magnitude (ROM) cost.

Figure 1: Two EASE T60 data tables, which can help in working through what/if scenarios such as acoustic treatment for a room. The table at top was comprised prior to proposed acoustic treatment. Notice the low-mid bump between 200 Hz and 1 kHz. The table below shows predicted results with proposed acoustic treatments – notice that the low-mid bump in the top table has been minimized.

Limiting the use of technical jargon will increase the customer’s understanding of the project, while rendered 3D drawings help provide a better feel for what a room will look like and how it will function. Mock-ups, equipment demos, and tours of similar systems and/or facilities further help in demonstrating how the final product will perform for them in their applications and environment.

Cost Flexibility

AV project costs can be somewhat flexible. During the first scope development meeting, the owner should expect the designer to ask (presuming they haven’t already) what their budget is for the installed systems. This can be a delicate question, but one that must be asked and answered in some form. If the customer isn’t willing or able to share that information, the designer should offer good-better-best budgetary allowance options based on their experience designing similar systems.

Good designers can design complete systems, at various price points, which provide most if not all the client’s expected functionality. This is possible because various manufacturers sell the same basic functionality at a wide range of price points, so keep in mind – in the pro AV market, you usually get what you pay for. Churches will almost always pay more for added/advanced features and overall component quality, reliability, efficient customer service, and brand-name recognition.

The labor rates, shipping costs, and taxes will vary somewhat based on many local and regional factors, but the differences in equipment cost can range dramatically. For example, a good wireless microphone system might cost $500-$1,000 per channel, while the best wireless systems can run many times more.

Obviously, the more complex the system(s), the more time it takes to design, document, install and commission the project. While labor rates may be different from one company to the next, labor is usually the single most expensive line item for an integrator (due to overhead items like taxes, medical insurance, 401k, etc.). If you need to save significant money, keep the systems as simple and well defined as possible.

Of course, there are limits to how hard you can squeeze a budget. But if the integrator is operating in a fiduciary manner, an initial good-better-best budgetary ROM might vary +/- 30 to 40 percent, or more, from the mean of the “better” options.

Never tell an integration company that cost is no object. Trust us when we say, “You have no idea how much damage they can do to your bank account.” A $100,000-dollar system can quickly turn into a $200,000-dollar project by upgrading just one piece of equipment from good to best; such as the mixing console.

Here are two critically-important tips: First, the upper mid-range of the pro AV market is the sweet spot. Here you land in the “better” budgetary slot, but generally, get the best bang for your buck. Second, once you’ve determined your budgetary slot, make sure the designer stays in that lane throughout the design. It’s never desirable to connect a few high-end pieces of equipment to a low-end signal path. It will probably work, but it’s a big waste of money. Think weakest-link-in-the-chain theory.

Brand Flexibility

Well-established integrators are able to offer, buy direct, and support a wide range of brands. Beware of contractors that only offer a narrow range of hardware options.

There are many reasons to be cautious here, such as bad credit ratings or poor service records. Most manufacturers screen their potential vendors carefully, some much more carefully than others. Additional factors that should be addressed include:

— Requesting weekly status reports. These can be as simple as sending a weekly email to the client stating, for example, “Everything is on track” or noting problems such as, “The painters are a week behind schedule. If this continues much longer it will impact our ability to do our work, which may impact the project completion schedule.”

— Industry trade and training affiliations. Sustaining membership and participation in industry organizations such as AVIXA, NSCA, AES, NAB, SMPTE, and SynAudCon are another good indicator that the integration firm is seriously committed to the industry in general and has made a commitment to professionally educate and certify its employees.

— Scheduling and coordination with other trades. When working on new construction projects, AV system integration is considered a “late” trade. It’s common for the AV installation schedule to be highly compressed because other “earlier” trades are running behind schedule, while the owner still demands a specific completion or “first use” date. While we all wish this was not an all-too-common scenario, well-established integrators figure out ways to adjust and adapt because they recognize there is little they can do to prevent construction delays caused by others.

Generally, the best way to minimize scheduling and coordination conflicts is for owners to issue a contract to their chosen integrator as early as possible in the project schedule. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s not. There are many preliminary designs and/or submittal steps the integrator must complete, plus there are also many review and coordination actions that can and should be ongoing, months before any equipment is ordered or wire pulled.

Experienced integrators will have worked under these conditions for many years and know how to best manage and mitigate the obvious challenges that arise. For example, integrators should carefully monitor the progress of the job site, and schedule equipment orders and manpower to be ready just ahead (one to four weeks depending on scale and complexity) of the date(s) the job site is actually ready for them to do productive, onsite work.

A classic example of bad planning and coordination looks like this: Too often the AV contractor isn’t engaged until after the electrical contractor’s power budget, and underground and rough-in conduit and raceway work are well past the point of no return. When mistakes are found, the time and cost of a workaround solution is often prohibitive. The bottom line is that time and money are wasted and/or the end product is substantially compromised.

— Supply chain disruptions. There were numerous supply chain disruptions in 2011 caused by problems ranging from raw material shortages to flooding in the Eastern U.S., to the tsunami and reactor problems in Japan. In such cases, integrators must quickly recognize, evaluate, and confirm the impact of such “global” issues with their vendors. Now there are supply issues again, resulting from labor shortages and other ripple effects resulting from the height of the pandemic.

Then they must be able to maneuver and/or substitute all impacted products so their projects are operational on time, or with minimal delays while meeting all substantial completion deadlines. Be sure to ask any integration partner you’re considering working with how they’ve handled such scenarios.

— Inventory control. Integrators must monitor and properly maintain their base-line stocking inventory on items such as bulk cable, rated rigging hardware, connectors, and common accessories. Therefore, ask potential integration partners how they manage their stocking inventory. If the names Home Depot or Lowe’s come into their response, say “thank you very much” and move on.

— In-house fabrication shops. Does the integrator have in-house paint, wood and/or machine shops for custom work? These are helpful in many ways related to cost and time savings.
Can the integrator fabricate custom rack and wall panels to spec? Can they provide laser engraving on their panels? Can they build custom equipment racks? Can they match custom colors and finishes if needed? Be sure to find out.

In part 3 of this series, we’ll conclude with an in-depth discussion of intangible risks involved in this process.

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