The Anatomy of an AV Integration Project

Like most audio/video (AV) integrators, we have been quite busy this summer. My company is taking on more projects than ever before, and I explained to my Engineering team that this is analogous to eating a big Thanksgiving dinner: the more food you eat in a given meal, the more likely your stomach will be in pain as you process all of that food.

Let’s flesh out this analogy: the more we eat (Sales), the more likely our stomach (Engineering and CAD) will hurt, and it is difficult to speed up that process . The only thing we can do to increase our overall metabolism (or so called ‘bandwidth’) is to try and exercise more often; exercise = training. And just like exercising, integration engineers need to make/find the time for training, to keep the process moving at a good pace.

If your Sales department is the mouth of the process, and Engineering/CAD is the stomach, then the next step is the process is Purchasing, which would be the small intestine. Some products have long lead times, others may be more readily available, and will move more quickly through the intestines, like liquids. The point is, the purchasing and receiving process usually takes a while, and largely depends on the Engineering to have things ready to go. If the stomach stops working, then nothing gets to the intestines.

According the Wikipedia, “[the] large intestine, also known as the large bowel or colon, is the last part of the gastrointestinal tract and of the digestive system in vertebrates. Water is absorbed here and the remaining waste material is stored as feces before being removed by defecation”. In our AV project analogy, the large intestine represents the rack building and programming of the DSP (digital signal processor) and/or control systems. The rectum represents the testing that happens before the installation begins.

At this point in the analogy, I need to be very careful to not offend anyone. To put it simply, the field installation teams are by far the most important part of the process, because without them, the rest of the process would get backed up. The project managers and installers don’t determine what projects we take on (eat), and yet they are the ones that inevitably have to deal with the … well, you get me. When they are finished, the integration process is essentially done. If Sales goes after junk-food-type projects, or if the Engineering and Purchasing departments make mistakes, you can expect some flatulence. Although it may be too late to fix the current project, the rest of the body will learn to take on jobs that are more healthy, and cause less pain.

So, are we finished here? Not yet! Assuming the system has been fully tested, the client needs to be trained, and the as-built drawings and manuals need to be delivered. Skipping this part of the process would be analogous to not using any toilet paper. You need to clean up! Some audiovisual integration companies are very faster than others in completing this step, others may take longer because they are more thorough. But no matter how long it takes, don’t skip this step! If you do, your clients will likely think that you stink. :)

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AVaaS = Audio/Video as a Service

By now, most readers have heard the term SaaS, or Software as a Service, a new trend in the business of software.  Instead of investing large sums every time you upgrade, you pay as you go, by the month. Some common examples include Dropbox or Amazon Web Services (AWS). Some readers may have heard of XaaS, which stands for everything as a service.  So what about AVaaS? Audio/Video or Audiovisual as a Service, delivering software (DSP, videoconferencing, collaboration, and control code), professional services, monitoring, for a monthly fee. That’s right, I said a monthly fee for AV.

I am not the first blogger to write about AV as a Service.  My online colleague Nermina Miller attacked the subject way back in July 2015 when she worked for Infocomm, in her article Redefining AV as a Service.  More recently, rAVepubs blog squad writer Mark Coxon defined three areas to start selling AV as a Service: video conferencing, engineering, and digital signage.  Gary Kayye suggested audiovisual integrators start selling digital signage content years ago.  Some followed his advice, and the money, while others stuck with the traditional model, sell the equipment and installation, and then watched their flat panel margins shrink as the displays got thinner and thinner.

rAVepubs also recently interviewed the CEO of ZOOM, who has quietly snuck into the AV industry under the guise of videoconferencing Software as a Service.  But ZOOM is more than just SaaS, ZOOM has a professional services department, providing engineering and installation services.  If you are worried about ZOOM taking your business clients, Gary Kayye of rAVepubs asked the CEO directly about their policy:

If an AV integrator has an existing client relationship, all they need to do is register that client and ZOOM will not go or talk directly to the client without the integrator’s assistance. But, if ZOOM establishes the relationship directly, they will potentially sell the ZOOM system directly….But customers will purchase hardware by themselves […]

But customers will purchase hardware by themselves?  You heard right, the leading collaboration software company will sell them the AV system, but minus the hardware. The clients purchase the hardware directly from CDW,  or Amazon, and ZOOM does the installation, commissioning, training, and then charges a monthly fee for the ZOOM software.  Boom, ZOOM! That is how AVaaS is done, people.  Readers, take notes.

AVaaS is the OPPOSITE of what most AV companies call “Service”.  Say the word “service” to most integrators, and they will think “some old client called, they must have broke something, or they are otherwise unhappy, now someone has to drive over there and see what needs to be repaired, replaced, or just rebooted”

I try to explain AV as a Service using the cell phone model.  The average American cell phone user often spends a few hundred dollars on their phone, plus a monthly fee for service. Ok, I know, they mean cell service, aka coverage, but it’s the same model.

You need cell service or wifi to use your mobile devices, right?  You need the calling or chatting software, plus the other apps, to run on your phone, or it is worthless, right?  Some of those apps are free, some are a one time fee, others you might pay monthly.  Some SaaS sales models will offer the first month free, then a monthly fee, or a discount if you pay annually.  This is how you need to structure you AVaaS business.

OLD WAY: Integrator sells client conference room hardware, installation, and one time programming fee for the DSP and Control System.  Annual service plan is optional.

NEW WAY: Integrator sells the client the hardware once, or leases it to them. For the hardware to work, the client pays the integrator a monthly fee, which includes all service calls and software upgrades.  The client pay a monthly fee per room, just like you pay a monthly fee for your cell phone.  In return, they get free reports because you are now monitoring their AV systems for bulb life, energy usage, and downtime.

Savvy programmers will figure out a way to lock the AV systems if the client misses payment, just imagine the touchscreen and wall-mounted flat panel display saying…

PLEASE ENTER YOUR CREDIT CARD INFORMATION TO ENABLE AV SYSTEM

But most importantly, please remember that AV as a Service, is just that, a service! We are now in a service industry, not a sales industry. Customers can buy AV gear with a click of a mouse; what we offer our clients is our professional services. Keep that in mind the next time you get a “service call”. Instead of being annoyed, be glad your services are still needed. -pk

Like this post?  You also may enjoy “We Used To Be Heroes” by Paul Konikowski, CTS-D

How To Fly For Free*

*Ok, not EXACTLY free, but close, here’s how:

Oftentimes, Southwest Airlines (and other airlines) will sell more seats than the plane actually has. They do this assuming that a small percentage of the travelers will change or miss their flights. You may have experienced this while waiting for your flights, they will sometimes ask for volunteers to give up their seats and take a later flight, in exchange for airfare vouchers, and sometimes, hotel rooms. Most people need/want to get on the plane at that point, and don’t volunteer.

Just like trading, you can put the odds in your favor, here’s how:

1. I like to use SOUTHWEST, because they don’t assign seats, and they don’t have “change fees”, so its not uncommon for people to change their flights last minute. Other airlines have assigned seats and use “standby” tickets so they may not oversell like Southwest does, and this plan may not work.

2. Start with booking a flight, but try to choose a day when you have some flexibility. Instead of looking for the cheapest flight of the day, focus on getting an earlier flight. That way, if you give up your seat, its no big deal. Plus, the cheapest flight may be the least likely to be full. You will need to pay for at least one flight to get the free ones, but if you follow these steps, you will have to pay less for future flights, because you will use vouchers. Avoid booking the first flight of the day as they are rarely delayed (and a delay means less people will miss the flight, increasing your odds. Repeat, a delayed flight is good.)

3. Before you go to the airport, have two plans in your head, one where you get there on time, and one where you get there hours later. Wear comfy shoes, bring snacks and books to read, etc. You will need to have some stamina and patience, so be prepared.

4. Check your bag(s) as normal (2 free on Southwest) being careful to keep your phone charger and laptop charger, headphones, snacks, toothbrush, and maybe some extra clothes in your carry on. Be ready to camp out in the airport. Your checked bags may beat you there.

5. When you get to the gate, immediately make friends with the gate attendant. Walk up to the desk slowly with a big smile on your face, don’t interrupt them, ask how they are doing, and introduce yourself by first name. Make it clear you are not complaining about anything. Flirt a little and see if they are the flirty type too.

6. Nonchalantly ask if the flight is full. If they say “yes” or “probably”, tell them that you have _voluntarily_ given up your seat in the past in exchange for a voucher. Then, ask them if they are looking for volunteers to give up their seats on your flight.

7. At this point, you just became their best friend. Even if they are not overbooked, they will take down your name and tell you to stay in the gate area and listen for your name to be announced over the PA. Because most people don’t walk up and volunteer, you will probably be at the top of the volunteer list, increasing your odds.

8. If they don’t need your seat, you simply get on the flight you booked. I always pay extra for “early bird checkin” (guaranteed Group A) because when you volunteer, they will often refund/pay you with a $25 to delay your boarding. If it doesn’t work on the first flight, be sure to try steps 5-7 on all layovers. If it works you will get a voucher for the full one way trip (all legs).

9. If they do need your seat, they will announce your name and then give you a ticket for the next flight, which may have a different layover. They will also issue you a voucher for the price of your one-way flight plus $300. Sometimes, when they are desperate and have no volunteers, they may offer $500 or $600 plus the cost of your flight. They don’t refund the fees, and you pay fees on the next flight, but its still a huge savings.

10. Once you have given up your seat, you have some time to kill. Buy yourself a nice meal, walk the airport end to end, read, work, sleep, stretch often. I sometimes bring my guitar or uke to pass the time.

If you do this consistently every time you fly, you will find that you will save significant money on airfare. The flights are not exactly free, there are still fees, but it usually totals about $20-30. You have to use the vouchers within one year, but you can apply them to more than one flight, even share them with others!

Example: Thanksgiving 2015, I booked a round trip flight to the East Coast for about $500. I gave up my seat during the layover in Las Vegas for a voucher worth about $500. I used that voucher from Thanksgiving 2015 to pay for a flight for a wedding June 2016, and gave the remaining $170 in voucher to my friend who took care of my cat while I was away. I again volunteered up my seat on the flight home from the June wedding, and earned another $500 voucher which I used to pay for my recent Holiday trip, Christmas Eve through my birthday.  And then once again, on the way back in January, earned another $528 voucher.  So I basically bought one round trip and got three free, plus shared the excess with friends.  And I can keep going and going; it’s not exactly free, but close.