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In today's rapidly changing technological environment, successful interaction with a consultant is critical to an installation's overall success.There


Feb 1, 2000 12:00 PM,
Gordon Moore

In today’s rapidly changing technological environment, successfulinteraction with a consultant is critical to an installation’s overallsuccess.

There are several ways an end user can get an A-V system. Some ways work,some do not. I am fairly certain that we can all agree that asking the guywithin the company who has a garage band to design, purchase and install ateleconferencing system generally leads to disappointment. More successfulare those systems designed and installed by a trained contractor withexperience in the field – the classic design-and-build project. Yet anotherapproach, which is commonly used in large jobs and new construction, is toengage a consultant with experience in the design and management of complexbuilding systems.

The qualified consultant is engaged for a number of reasons. Hired to actin the customers’ best interests, the consultant is charged with developingthe team that will provide the customer with the expected function andquality based on the budget requirements. “Team” is the key word here.Approach a job from a viewpoint that the firm has been hired to become apart of a team. A consultant brings to the table a broad range ofexperience in audio, video, control, construction issues, standards andproject administration. Consultants are also becoming important in theprocess because of the change in control systems from hardware-basedcontrols (the knobs on the front panel) to software control issues. Keep inmind that control issues now constitute 30% to 50% of the job. How well thecontractor responding to a bid works with the consultant can oftendetermine the success or failure of the job.

During the process of developing and awarding a design and bid, there aremultiple steps. These can vary from job to job and consultant toconsultant. Typically, there is the pre-bid phase, the bid submittalprocess itself, which has a number of steps, post-bid submittals,installation, test and signoff.

The pre-bid phase

The consultant’s services should be and often are sought early on by thearchitect or general contractor well before any contracts are actuallystruck. Once an agreement to employ the services of the consultant has beenmade, the consultant will begin the design process with extensiveinterviews and design meetings with the customer, architect and generalcontractor. For large and demanding jobs, this process may take months oreven years. As Joseph Bocchiaro III of Constantin Walsh-Lowe in New Jerseysaid, “A rich historical perspective that the contractor isn’t aware of isdeveloped.”

You could relate this phase to the discovery process in law; the consultantmust discover what the customer really wants, which is often an elusivetarget. This process also reveals information that can have profoundeffects on the final design, which may, from the contractor point of view,make no sense at all. In short, the consultant knows the whole story. TimCape of Waveguide Consulting, Decatur, GA, describes it as a two-trackprocess. The first track is where the consultant and the architectdetermine such things as site placement, acoustics, room layout, lighting,power, HVAC, floor box locations, aesthetics and the conduit’s location.The second track that directly affects the systems contractor is theelectronics system design, and it is a subset of the first. Decisions madeearly in the first track will inevitably affect the overall systems design.

The bid process

Although this process varies widely from one firm and one project toanother, there will generally be a pre-bid meeting. This meeting may or maynot be mandatory. Nevertheless, be there. This is the beginning of theinformation exchange, and a missed statement here can affect your successfrom that point until the end of the job. If the building is ready, theremay be a walk-through. Take extensive notes. Ask good questions thatrequire comprehensive answers. it is, at this point, important to be anactive participant, but do not use this as a time to challenge the designor present alternatives. Simply ask questions relevant to the design aswritten. There will be opportunities for alternatives later. During the bidprocess, it is most critical to begin developing an understanding betweenconsultant and systems contractor. Responsiveness is important; failure torespond properly on a close bid can cost you the job.

Be absolutely certain that you read the bid documents and understand them.If the document is not read thoroughly from cover to cover, importantdeadlines, component issues, functional capability, the scope of the bidand, ultimately, the final profit from the job may all be missed. Among theconsultants I interviewed for this article, the most common problem wasfailure to read the bid specification documents. Read first, ask questionslater. It is also a good time to start internal meetings with the projectmanager who will run this job if your firm wins.

Hopefully, in the days preceding the bid deadline, there will be time forrequests for information (RFI). Read the bid documents carefully again.There may be a deadline date for submitting questions or RFIs, and you needto adhere to that deadline. If a date is not shown, ask. Whatevercommunications you have with the consultant, put them in writing; allcommunications should be submitted in writing.

Additionally, keep a clean paper trail. If you submit a question, do so inthe form of an RFI. File the response. Such modern computer programs asLotus Notes will allow you to create extensive cross-referenced databasesallowing you to track the entire project. Steve Thorburn of ThorburnAssociates, Castro Valley, CA, said “Organized communications are critical,and e-mail is a wonderful thing.” You can also do it on paper. The methodis not as important as the result; document all calls, requests andresponses. If you call with a question, log the call, write down theanswer, and send a copy to the consultant as confirmation. That way, youboth know that you remembered the conversation the same as the client andeach other. It is a small bit of extra work but it can save thousands ofdollars in errors.

What if you think you have a better idea for the job? How should the changebe proposed? First and foremost, respond to the bid exactly as written. Ifyou do not, you will get thrown out. Period. Other solutions should bepresented as addendum to the bid documents as alternatives. Detail thechanges you propose, the expected impact on the functionality of the job,and the anticipated financial impact. Do not be offended if the alternativeis dismissed. Bill Nattress of Shen, Milsom and Wilke’s, Chicago, said,”There can be unknown factors that you will be entirely unaware of that mayaffect equipment selection.” For example, a chip manufacturer may refuse toallow a particular product in their conference room because it is builtwith a competitor chipset, or a particular modem is specified because everyone of the client’s other 225 conference facilities uses that modem, and hewants to maintain standards. Remember that the consultant has a longerhistory with the customer; he will sometimes be aware of issues that hesimply cannot tell you. Assume that if he says no, he has a good reason.

Post-bid submittal

Once the bid has been awarded, the systems contractor enters the post-bidsubmittal phase. This can be critical. Again, read the documents, payingparticular attention to the scope of the contract. The scope defines whatthe contractor is expected to provide and the functional end result.Typically, the contractor is required to submit more detailed shop drawingsthat show such design elements as wiring types, termination instructionsand rack configurations. These drawings are the basis for the finalas-built documentation. This is a good place to recommend a change, butkeep the design as original until the consultant approves the change. Whenpossible, arrange for electronic exchange of drawings. This may not be anoption, but it is always worth inquiry.

Remember the project manager? Now, before his first meeting with theconsultant, is the perfect time to make certain the manager is thoroughlyfamiliar with the job. Have the project manager sit down with the sales orengineering staff who quoted the job and share information to assure theconsultant that everyone is talking.

Product availablilty is another issue to address immediately. In themanufacturing world, some products will need to be ordered immediatelybecause of lead times. If the product has significant lead times, place theorders and notify the consultant. Removing the mystery about what is beingdone is half the game. Again, the document trail here is important.

Scheduling begins here also. Coordinating the drywall crews, the guys whohang the ceilings, the plumbers and electricians is important, but whateverarrangements you make, do so with the consultant as part of the loop.Visits to the site are important. Even if you are not going to be on-sitefor a good period of time, an occasional presence will reassure thecustomer that you are involved in the job and that your interest anddiligence is ongoing. If the job is some distance from headquarters,arrange a special visit (factor it into your bid) at some point before youare needed so that you can personally evaluate the status of the job. Watchyour scheduling closely and stay in constant contact with the consultant.He will be better prepared to tell you status on scheduling issues than thecustomer or the even the general contractor. Also investigate such thingsas site access, parking permits and passes.

When building and testing racks, document all tests and submit reports tothe consultant. Make certain the test meet the bid requirements. Documentprocedures and equipment used as well as results. Document all controltests as well.

The installation phase

Before entering the actual installation phase, call a meeting of the entireinstallation crew. Brief them on the project, and make absolutely certainthat everyone knows the proper path of communication and command. Having afirst-year apprentice wire-puller expressing unsolicited opinions to thecustomer about the feasibility of this or that can undermine the confidencethe customer has in the entire process. Any concerns about the job bypeople on site should be expressed, but that concern must go throughchannels. If an installer sees a problem, he should notify the supervisor.The supervisor then tells the project manager, and the project managercontacts the consultant. In a modern company, everyone has a hand in safetyand quality control. Every consultant interviewed expresses an appreciationfor useful suggestions; they are always looking for better ways to dothings. By following the proper channels, changes can made effectively.Remember that rich history established by the consultant with the customer?It affects all decisions. Yes, that projector may be better in one locationas opposed to another, but there may be a darn good reason that it cannotgo there.

Once on site, keep to the schedule. If possible, take care of as much inadvance as possible. For example, pre-pulling wire helps catch errors inconduit runs before walls and ceiling go in place. If the wire cannot bepulled, tag the conduit that should be yours so electrical does not usesomething you need later. If you do this, make certain that the consultantis aware of the situation. He will make sure the electrical crew knows whatthose tags mean. Communicate (and document those communications) anythingthat may affect the schedule.

Finishing up

Because communications were maintained throughout the job, the smallproblems that have cropped up – as they always do – have been resolved, andyou are finally ready for testing. In this phase, the consultant will comein with the customer for the systems tests. Have the tests scripted out inadvance with the consultant. There will be both hardware and softwaretests. Make certain that you have 30% to 50% of the time set aside forsoftware. Have enough technicians, installers and equipment on hand totroubleshoot as you go. A small connection problem, a ground loop you didnot spot or hear before or a simple mic placement issue can often behandled immediately. Try to keep the punch list as small as possible at theend of the day. Document every item and check it off as it is resolved.Also, be certain any changes are noted in the training and as-builtdocumentation.

The consultant is hired to form a team, to manage that team effectively, toassure that the job meets the specification, and to make sure thatcustomers are satisfied. The team approach, through open communication, iseasy to develop with the consultant by following a few simple rules. First,read the documents. Second, document all communications. Third, makecertain everyone involved in the job is briefed on the chain ofcommunications and encouraged to use that chain properly. Finally, give himfeedback. Let the consultant know how the design is going, what worked,what was difficult and what seems effective. Consultants are as eager tolearn new methods and approaches as you are.

Finally, education is important for all members of your team. Make use ofthe training programs available through ICIA’s Academy, NSCA and themanufacturers. If you have certified installers (CTS or NICET), and theywill be part of the installation team, note this also on the bid documents.Every consultant values this.

A working relationship with a consultant is as important as ever,especially because of software control issues. As new methods of controland setup develop, the burden on the contractor to keep up becomes greater.The qualified consultant can level out the steep parts of the learningcurve. By working together as a team, the consultant and contractor canwalk away from the job even better qualified for the next one.

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