Are Integrators Listening to Clients Properly?

*Originally published on*

It’s important for integrators to listen carefully to the preferences of the client, which requires asking the right questions and designing without bias.

I’m full of opinions. When meeting new clients as an AV integrator I would arrive loaded with them. It was easy for me to walk into a space – whether a conference room, a fine arts theater, or a church auditorium – and instantly know what should be done in that room. I knew exactly what speaker system I’d use, what type of lighting system, video production, and so on.

Sixty seconds in that space and the full system would be designed in my head without the client saying a word.

And that’s really tempting to do. The harder challenge for me was to stop pre-designing and instead ask more proper questions and listen to what the client truly needed. I worked on that for years until this happened: A client wrote a testimonial for my company expressing how, “Paul didn’t design our system based on his desires or agenda, but based on the needs and goals we expressed in our early conversations”. I will remember that forever.

We should all remember that there is no such thing as the best system. The best system for the client is the one that most effectively answers to their needs in the way they will use it.

Asking the Right Questions

It’s not just about asking questions, we also have to take care to frame our questions properly, as it can be all too easy to steer the client with leading questions. We should be closer to psychologists than police interrogators.

Asking if they might want speaker coverage in a certain area for larger events will almost always lead to an, “Oh, yes, I could see that being very helpful”. Asking if they could use a larger video display will never return with a negative answer. Returning a week later with a proposal that is twice their financial expectations doesn’t win any clients – all for the sake of putting our favorite toys into their project.

Rather than asking how many inputs they need, we ask them what a typical presentation consists of. What are the norms? What are the outliers? Are these systems run by professional technicians or volunteers? Are they run by IT technicians in a corporate environment or by the executives who are hosting the board meetings?

Designing Without Bias While Leaving Expertise Intact

I remember my first large project which had been designed by an outside consultant. I couldn’t understand some of the odd equipment choices, many of which were unnecessarily driving up infrastructure costs. Only later did I discover the incentivized reasons those round pegs had been forced into square holes. I told myself that my designs would remain clear of any biases like these.

As my company grew I admit this became harder and harder to do. Incentives are not inherently evil, and can be very beneficial for all parties so long as the client is properly served. This is not limited to new equipment, as I’ve seen entire projects designed around a couple of pieces of equipment in the warehouse that someone wanted gone.

At this point you may be saying, “Boy Paul, aren’t you letting the tail wag the dog here? My client doesn’t know what end of a microphone to plug the cable into. I always have to take the lead in my consultations”.

Don’t get me wrong. As the hired and trusted professional, we are the ones with all the information. It is our job to present dreamy ideas and powerful visions that they don’t know are possible. The client may not realize that they need stronger video presentation, or perhaps a smaller, more focused speaker system.

In short, they are trusting you to know what is possible with our ever-changing AV technology. The difference should be that we are always feeding these ideas based on their needs rather than our agenda.

The bottom line is that we should be staying out of the way. We should be an invisible force to bring the clients’ dreams into reality. We can do that by checking our biases at the door, asking the right kinds of questions, offering fantastic solutions based on their answers, and using our strong expertise and design personality.