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Consultancy: Demonstrating value

13 October 2017

Hurrairah bin Sohail speaks with AV consultants from around the Asia Pacific region about how they handle their relationships with clients and contractors when working on projects.

The role of an AV consultant for a project is essential and yet at the same time hard to narrow down. Peter Hunt, group CEO of Hewshott International, details the role: “In all cases, the fundamental role of an AV consultant is to listen to the requirements and skilfully navigate through the dialogue to try and understand what a client wants to do, not what they think their technology requirements are.”

Zane Au, principal at Shen Milsom & Wilke, says: “More and more, the AV consultant is seen as not just the AV systems designer, but also the project manager as well as a ‘multimedia business consultant’, a term that can be interpreted in many different ways.”

Ironically, the understanding of the role of an AV consultant is least understood by those who engage their services.

Hunt says: “The role of an AV consultant is generally less well understood by end-users, unless they are mature adopters of AV. The professional services industry, such as architecture and project management are allies and recognise the role of consultants generally. Whilst the AV consultant role is in the mix, sometimes it doesn’t get far enough up the agenda to be sought after as a critical service. A lot is happening, particularly with the overlap in IT, to bring the focus back on quality AV consulting but the danger is this is wrapped into IT with AV being seen as another ‘appliance’ on a network.”

Ian D. Harris, president and principal consultant at ihD, adds: “Some clients use consultants as a matter of policy, whilst others really don’t understand that they’d be saving money as well as getting a much better built system with all the documentation [if they engaged a consultant]. These end-users look for free design via the ‘quote- build’ process, but often pay dearly in the end.”

Kelvin Ashby-King, principal consultant and managing director at T2 Consulting, says: “End- user education is certainly still required, but this is more for them to understand the difference between design-build and consultant driven design. Both are valid methodologies and we are now seeing a lot of clients start down the path of design-build and then calling a consultant in to evaluate the proposals as they do not have the internal resources to evaluate and understand what is being offered due to the high level of technology being deployed.”

The low level of understanding among the very people paying for AV consultancy is a serious problem. Hunt explains: “There are two primary challenges to the future of consulting in AV. The fi rst is that the perception of the level of complexity around AV is reduced to the point where it’s felt a specialist isn’t required, so that AV can be done by other consultants, IT and electrical being the primary contenders.

“The other is the perception that the vendors will provide consultancy ‘for free’ as part of a design and build contract. Of course, nothing is ever for free. Whilst IT and electrical might grab the AV as an addendum to their scope, at a low cost and not do the consulting justice, the vendor led solution has the design costs wrapped into the margin they make on hardware, services and especially variations. Either way, this does not serve the client base well.”

Hunt offers up a solution: “It is difficult to overcome these challenges if the allied professional consultants do not see AV as a complex requirement, and engagement is late or even absent. Part of the process is to sustain a high level of education and PR of the general consulting market so lead consultants such as architects and the clients’ project managers are automatically identifying the need for an AV consultant, just as they do for other engineering services.”

Au adds: “There are certainly challenges that AV consultants face in the market all the time. Fee pressure, integrator workmanship, workload fluctuation and so on. Suffice to say, a consultant needs to be much more than just a systems designer and engineer, or just an architectural coordinator. These days the AV consultant needs to be an expert on not just AV matters, but also on issues for related trades.”

Ashby-King says: “The main challenges for us currently is that we are often brought in too late in the process; the designs are complete and then there is much compromise in the integration of the AV into the existing design. The second issue is that we are often not given enough time to coordinate, and in a market such as India and Middle East the better the project is coordinated at the design stage the better the site installation works are.”

Even when clients are aware of the need for engaging an AV consultant, consultants state that the actual on-boarding process can be improved. The phase of the project when a consultant becomes involved is crucial.

Harris says: “The best time is during the architectural (as opposed to interior) design, so that we can provide input to the design team on structural loadings for ballrooms and theatres, since the hanging-support systems can carry many tonnes, as well as securing the control rooms and cable ducts; these things are very often problematical due to late awarding and start on projects.”

Hunt says: “AV must be seen as a primary stakeholder in any project. The amount of unwarranted bad press AV gets is usually around insufficient client consultation and planning, and the subsequent compromise AV has to make because critical decisions have been taken without relevant and knowledgeable input. Everything then becomes a workaround, which never bodes well.”

On the surface, AV consultants and system integrators should be happy bedfellows and the relationship between the two is very symbiotic. However, in practice the situation may be quite different.

Ashby-King says: “This varies a lot between different system integrators. We work with many different system integrators on a regular basis and in most instances, if due respect is shown in both directions and both parties are looking for a win- win situation, all goes well. We believe we are partnering with the client, build team and system integrators to create a successful project and we have developed internal and external systems to support this through methodical documentation and prearranged procedures and processes that we make part of the bid documents.”

Au says: “The relationship varies a lot across different countries and regions. There are markets (usually mature ones) where the owner expects the consultant and the system integrator to collaborate and co-develop the design and construction details in order to speed up the design and procurement process, improve system buildability and perfect the workmanship. In this case, it is a very symbiotic relationship.

“On the other hand, there are also countries where the client wants the system integrator to strictly follow the construction drawings prepared by the consultant. Usually these are also projects in which the system integrator is not given the right conditions (time, environment, budget etc.) to complete the installation properly, and sometimes the consultant-integrator relationship does get confrontational. It is very natural that consultants and integrators see things a little differently. In fact, it is probably good. With views (mutually-respecting ones) from different angles, the project will be less susceptible to blind spots and potential pitfalls.”

Hunt says: “Although this does vary from country to country, and between certain integrators and certain consultants, it’s fair to say that the relationship is best described as ‘wary’. Competent consultants are well respected, just as competent integrators are too. It is also worth remembering that an integrator tenders for consultant led work for two main reasons. The first is they have to if they want to win a large project which usually has maintenance attached (this is where the money really is), and the second is that to gain a major customer which might lead onto more (non-consultant led) work, they have to first be the customer’s vendor.”

Hunt continues: “Tender work pushes margins down way below the level that an integrator can make dealing direct, so vendors will try to develop a direct relationship with the client during a project and improve their margins through looking for changes for which a charge can be made and thus improve the profitability. Since the consultant stands in the way of that relationship, and is the gatekeeper to the client’s purse, as well as being potentially embarrassed if something has been overlooked or forgotten, it’s natural for the consultant to try and protect themselves.”

Harris believes that the friction that can occur between consultants and system integrators is decreasing and will continue to do so. He says: “Things are improving because of how the industry is developing. InfoComm has been doing great work in this regard, with their CTS/ CTS-D/CTS-I qualification scheme, as well as the Apex company-accreditation process, as it is creating an international standard and metric for our industry, helping consultants and contractors alike, to understand and aim for common goals. By requiring CTS-qualified personnel as a part of the tender process, the awarded contractors tend to be more aligned already. It is this kind of alignment that helps to create successful projects, all the way from a single meeting room, through to mega AV projects, such as our China World Trade Centre in Beijing.”

Hunt says: “It’s about respecting each other’s space. Consultants need to earn the respect of the industry and demonstrate competence to their peers.”

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