A View from the End User Side of the Fence

The good folks at rAVe [PUBS] reached out to me and have kindly asked me to contribute on a more frequent basis around here. As it happens, I had something that I was working on that I would like to start with that’s a little broader than what I have written previously.

I mentioned something a while back when talking about the relationship between integrators (and let’s face it, manufacturers, by extension) and end users. I told my team this one simple thing: “When it comes to integrators… they all suck! In the end, success comes down to how well you manage the suck!” (Please hold pitchforks until the end.) Now this is intended to be somewhat lighthearted, but it does get to a reality that we end users face. We speak different languages and we have different levels of understanding that are constantly in the way of getting our needs met. It’s not that dealers/integrators or manufacturers “suck” at their job; it’s that they still often don’t understand what we need or where we are coming from. That’s the disconnect that will frequently result in a big “suck” when the project is complete. In order to have successful experiences, it’s critical that we have solid relationships so that we can communicate more effectively and get past those disconnects.

If you talk to end users and poll them on their satisfaction with AV integrators, you’ll find that the happier they are with their integrator of choice, the better the communication they have with said integrator. This is obviously sales 101, but it’s true. When I first got a job as an end user, I figured it would be easy to convert my experience as an integrator, but I was totally wrong. There is a whole process of changing your viewpoint that is necessary to be successful as an end user.

Over the next few columns, I’m going to attempt to breakdown the AV world from the end user side to help integrators understand how they can better meet our needs.

As a required caveat… this is one person’s opinion. I am sure there will be those that disagree with me, and I wholeheartedly embrace disagreements. I would love a lively discussion in the comments as to how you see things differently. Please also understand that I am generalizing in many cases, there are absolutely folks that I have worked with that “get it.” Also, for the most part, I am talking about conference rooms. They are the lion’s share of what I care about. We have hundreds, even thousands of rooms in a large enterprise. However, the big fancy convoluted integrated spaces number far, far less. So for now, let’s just focus on how this applies to that rather commoditized element of the baseline conference room.

Let’s get started.

In a previous article, I spoke about the need to ensure that when we design solutions for a modern technology space, we need to think about much more than the folks who will be using it. I identified four major stakeholders that are key to a successful deployment. All these entities have skin in the game and as such, over time, they will all have deliverables that are required from these spaces.

As a refresher, those stakeholders are:

  • The users — the folks that will actually use the spaces
  • The support teams — those that will help fix/resolve problems with the spaces or technology
  • Management/finance/real estate — those that typically have to approve the financial investment into technology and who want data about the investment, including usage, efficiency, etc.
  • The AV integrator — those who design/build/service the space

Taking these folks into account, and thinking more broadly about the overall global AV estate/plant/landscape/footprint (choose your adjective), I want to get into what we can loosely define as “the three pillars of a robust enterprise AV environment.”

Years ago, I took a training class from Franklin Covey planners. In that class, I picked up some great info and good habits that I still use today. However, I always remember a moment at the start of the class when the instructor was giving the intro and making a case for why their planners were important. He listed three things they do for you and then asked the question: “When it comes to a three-legged stool, which leg is the most important?” I’m sure I made some smart-alec remark to my coworkers who were with me at the time, but the question has stayed with me over the years. Obviously, all the legs are equally important. Things fall down fast (literally) if any of the three legs are missing or if one is significantly weaker than the others. So, if we want a good solid stable chair, we have to pay attention to all three legs legs as the foundation. And as we all know, a solid foundation is the key to successfulling building just about anything.

I have worked at a few companies and talked to lots of people at other companies and the following three pillars seem to really ring true. In no particular order they are as follows…

  1. The AV bill of materials (BOM): What gear/equipment is approved to use and how it should all work.
  2. The IT service management (ITSM) architecture: The grand plan to capture and track data around the space.
  3. The sensor/data footprint: How are we going to capture usage/operational data to know how the space is being used?

As these are pretty in-depth subjects, I am going to dive into each of them in their own articles over the coming few weeks. But let’s quickly go over why I think these are so critical.

The AV BOM

This is of course the bread and butter for the AV integrator. This is where you sell/install stuff. This is 100% in your wheelhouse. The problem though is that this is the first place where the disconnect issues arise.

“When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

We all know that phrase, and it’s 100% on the money here. As an AV professional, you want to give the client the absolute best solution. More displays, a control system, wireless content sharing, lots of mics and speakers and DSP etc. More is better! And honestly, this is also how the integrator makes money. Sell more stuff, integrate more stuff, get a better solution, make more money. I am not suggesting that most, or any, folks intentionally try to oversell, but, well, if you’re a hammer, it gets pretty easy to justify using as many nails as possible. (I recently walked into a room which, according to the SHURE MXA 910 calculator, required a single mic, but had four installed in the ceiling. That’s three mics and 27 channels of DSP, all unneeded, all wasted money.)

There’s some truth to the of “good enough” being acceptable, at least technologically. Anything that adds layers of complexity, adds failure points, makes service more complicated or keeps room offline longer in case of issues is actually a net negative, even if that room/solution technically has more features. What this tells us is that we need to understand the drivers for the client so that we are both on the same page.

Integrators want to get the best outcome for the most effective room possible. End users want a room that that is the simplest FOR OUR USERS and has the least possible downtime — with the lowest BOM cost possible. (Remember, this is a game of scale; we have loads of rooms.)

As a result, we need to develop a BOM that meets these needs and still gives us the best result within that framework.

ITSM Architecture

AV gear looks very different from things like printers and PCs. However, to management and finance, the’re the same — corporate assets with book value and depreciation schedules that must be accounted for. And just like we need to know how many folks had an issue with laptop xyz so that we can determine if we need to move to a different manufacturer… it’s same thing with the AV assets.

This part is the one that is both newer to AV integrators and at the same time totally and utterly out of their control.  ITSM stands for IT Service Management. It is the set of guidelines and terms we use to describe how things are done in the IT world. Reporting, dashboards, analytics, Metrics, KPIs… all of these are contained in whatever software platform that we use to manage it all.

Even though this seemingly has little to do with the AV integrator, the more you understand its purpose, the better you can help your end users meet their needs.

This is also the area where even today most folks have big issues that they’re trying to wrap their heads around. This is not just a “small company trying to keep up with hyper growth issues.” Even one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world is still trying to sort it out.

Get it right now, however, and future planning and financial justifications are far easier to manage.

The Sensor/Data Footprint

For me personally, this is the most exciting part of this world we inhabit. It’s the newest with the biggest growth potential that we’ve seen for years. And it’s the one where we have the absolute best opportunity for an integrator/consultant/manufacturer to develop relationships that are “stickier” than ever before.

In this brave new IOT world, we are learning to live in a world of context. We have “stuff” telling us what’s going on and making sense of that world, from Google Maps automatically rerouting me based on real time traffic updates to the camera on my front porch telling me if a car pulls into my driveway that knows to ignore all the cars that drive past.

Our rooms and spaces are a huge investment. And we’re able to know more and more about how they are being used. A few years ago, all we had was a motion sensor that turned the lights off when nobody was there. Then that expanded to be able to tell that a conference room that was booked, but no one was in the room, so the reservation should be automatically released. Sounds neat to most folks, but to the inhabitants of an enterprise that has something like 95%+ occupancy of conference rooms… this is absolute wizardry!

Now we are able to not just determine if the room is occupied, but also by how many people. Did they arrive late? Did they finish early? Which technology did they utilize? And so much more is on the horizon.

There is a lot to discuss, but this is really the “killer app” for the AV world. You want to make my day? Sit down and just listen to all the information we need to know (and would like to know) about our spaces and their usage. Get the metrics we would like to pull together and all the stuff that goes with that, then start filling in the blanks so that we can start seeing which problems we can solve together. We will need to get creative, we will need to write custom code and we will need to work with manufacturers, so it won’t be easy — but get in front of the curve on this with your customers and it will be near impossible for somebody else to drink your milkshake.

In the coming articles, I’ll take a deep dive into each of these subjects. As always, please let me know if you have any thoughts.