Pro AV Logo Originally published as a Consultant's Connection
column in Pro AV Magazine
  September 2005

Recognizing Consultants

Addressing consultants' needs and avoiding competitive practices can help manufacturers increase market share and improve industry relations.

By Tim Cape, CTS-D

The pro AV business isn’t just about signal flow, it’s also about product flow. The manufacturers build products that go into end-user’s installations, and almost always must flow through reps, distributors, consultants, and integrators to get there. Traditionally, pro AV manufacturers market to consultants and integrators, and consultants and integrators then market to end-users. While end-users are the source of income for all AV providers — consultants, integrators, and manufacturers alike — manufacturers mostly deal with and market to the conduit (consultants and integrators) rather than the destination (end-users).

But this has changed over the years, and now there’s more direct contact between pro AV manufacturers and end-users. Some embrace end-users because they have divisions that sell products directly to end-users (such as projector manufacturers). Others embrace it because their potential markets or existing installed bases with endusers are so large that they’re compelled to build direct relationships with end-users for technical support, if not with sales and marketing.

Although this business chain is well established, there are some challenges involved. To be successful, manufacturers need to understand the market they’re selling to, including the context in which their products are used, and how they’re selected or rejected. But those that try to work outside the established lines of work responsibilities may be asking for trouble.

Who are you selling to?

Manufacturers want their products to be purchased. And for integrators to buy products from manufacturers, integrators need end-users to buy products from them. This is a fairly clear line of product flow, perhaps with a distributor involved in some cases. Although this is where most pro AV manufacturers start thinking about the market they serve, they sometimes fail to understand the place of consultants in this line because they don’t directly enter into the product profit chain.

Obviously for design-build projects, manufacturers want integrators to choose their product, and the integrator can either choose or reject it. It may be better, unique, or less expensive than another option, or it may offer a higher profit margin based on MSRP. However, integrators may also choose a particular product because it was specified by a consultant — either as a “sole-source” item or as the basis for design, even if alternatives are allowed.

It’s this last reason that many manufacturers have overlooked. Certainly some of the most successful pro AV manufacturers have known this for a long time and have dedicated initiatives and staff to interact with and inform independent consultants separately from integrators. But it can be difficult to quantify. Surveys and studies have tried to quantify consultants’ impact on the pro AV market, but results have varied since surveys don’t often parse out pure “box sales” from equipment sold with installation services. But for integrated pro AV, the best estimates indicate that about one-fourth of the equipment in the pro AV installation market is specified by independent consultants. Manufacturers that don’t recognize this may be missing up to one quarter of their potential market by default.

Yet, like in other businesses, manufacturers must focus on doing their job to make money. As a result, some manufacturers don’t get out much. For example, when codec manufacturers started trying to make “installation” codecs in addition to their set-top lines, little effort was made to find out what consultants and integrators really needed and why, and that input was rarely taken into account. It took a long time for the manufacturers to understand the contexts associated with pro AV integration, and some still aren’t up to speed. It’s important for manufacturers to understand where and how their products are sold and installed, and those that make the effort to reach out will be more likely to succeed. Offering educational opportunities for the engineering and sales staff to learn and see how the overall AV industry really works outside the manufacturing plant can be helpful to the product line as well as the bottom line.

Outside the lines

It must be frustrating when manufacturers realize that the integrators they’ve authorized to sell and install their products in the past may not be qualified to sell their current and future products. This has driven some shake-ups in recent years between manufacturers who have made the leap into networking and DSP technologies and the integrators who sell and install these products, which is a good and necessary thing.

However, in response to this, some manufacturers have offered consulting and integration services that directly compete with their channel partners. Whether driven by the fact that their products weren’t being properly installed or just plain market share envy, they chose to work outside the traditional roles in the chain.

Yet, as much of the pro AV industry moves from a hardware industry to a software industry, the links between manufacturers and end-users need to become tighter. The difficult part is that some manufacturers are alienating consultants and resellers in the interim in bypassing their traditional conduits to end-users.

What should manufacturers do?

For the manufacturers already serving consultants (and integrators): congratulations. You have our support and hopefully your own profitability to show for it. But for those who haven’t yet embraced the consultant community, it’s time to branch out. Here are a few guidelines:

• Provide a liaison, specifically for AV consultants, who understands and can provide what consultants need from manufacturers: information, product functionality, and support.

• Find a way to track the number of your products that are installed as the result of a con- sultant specification. Some manufacturers offer a bonus to integrators for proposing their products on known bid projects when they register with the manufacturer. This provides a highly motivated source of data about how much of the company’s product is showing up in consultant bid documents. It may also help justify a dedicated consultant liaison, who by definition only calls on people who don’t actually buy its products.

• Listen to and act on input from consultants and integrators about the need to include design- and installation-related product features.

• Understand the difference between the needs of consultants and integrators. Consultants need detailed pricing information and access to good technical support. You should also understand that consultants are interested in products coming out in the next three years, not just in the next three months.

• Provide warranties based on installation schedules, rather than date of sale to the integrator. If the warranty must be tied to the date shipped to the integrator, provide minimum 18-month warranties, and preferably at least two-year warranties. This should almost always cover the lag time between receipt by the integrator and turnover to the end-user, plus the typical one-year system warranty period.

• Understand that educating end-users about the benefits of your products can increase demand, but avoid offering services that compete with your consultant and integrator friends.

Many manufacturers have come a long way in recognizing the consultant community. Of course, to be specified, a product must be desirable, usable, and reliable. But when those parameters appear relatively equal between two manufacturers, addressing these issues will often make the difference between being in or out of the spec.



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