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Open letter to Systems Contractors and Manufacturers

Our Role...

It seems that there is confusion amongst some systems contractors and product manufacturers about the role played by the consultant in sound and A/V system design. As the consultant we work for the owner of the facility, not the contractor and not the manufacturer. Our job is to provide a system design that utilizes the most cost effective products and components that will meet the requirements of the owner. The intent is to spend the client's capital budget in the most effective way possible. For any application there are likely several products available that will do the same job, and these products may have a wide range in cost. Where the least expensive product will provide the performance and functions required, and has been tested by ourselves for its performance and demonstrated to have at least an industry average of reliability, then the least expensive product will be specified or allowed in a project. Where we know in advance that a contractor will request equivalent products as an alternate, they will be included in the original specification. Where products have limited distribution, we will allow alternate products by other manufacturers IF the alternate products also provide the critical features we need in the system design. This will often result in alternate products being much more expensive than the products we have used to develop the system design.

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Alternate Products

We are often asked to approve alternate products that have much higher performance and many more features than we require of the product in the application. We will always tell the contractor that the alternate product may meet or exceed the specification, but that their bid will carry a higher price, and they may have to accept the risk that they will not win by taking this approach. In these instances, the owner would in fact be getting a much superior product, or a product that offers many additional features, but if the application would not justify the additional expense associated with those features or performance, it is not a wise expenditure of the client's money. This would be analogous to installing a $3500 set of custom wheels and tires on a car intended to be part of a rental or corporate fleet. It might be cool, but it does not materially improve or enhance the value returned to the fleet owner. For the fleet vehicle owner, the custom wheels and tires do not have the cachet that the vendor of the wheels and tires would like to believe they have.

It's a Business

It is important that the contractors and manufacturers understand the business part of the contracting business. As consultants, we will cherry pick from product lines of all manufacturers to find products that are the most cost effective. Where we design a system to suit a budget (95% of the projects we do), then the contractor and manufacturer can assume that we have based the equipment selection on the lowest cost options in the specifications. We will always entertain requests for alternates where that alternate will save the client money, or offer more performance for the same money. An alternate that offers un-needed performance for more money is not a sensible business proposition. The contractor can assume that an alternate product that costs more money will have a slimmer chance of winning, because that would mean giving up performance or features in some other portion of the system. If a contractor does not have access to a product line that is included in the specification, there are two options available:

  1. The first option is to review the specification and the drawings to understand how we are using the product, and what characteristics or features of the product are critical to the application. Where it is not clear, a phone call to ourselves will clarify the criteria we have used to select that product. The contractor (and manufacturer) can then work together to propose an alternate product that will provide the same or superior performance. For a loudspeaker, this may require that the contractor (or manufacturer) model the room to demonstrate that they have actually evaluated the product's performance for the application, and have not picked an item out of the price list as an alternate. It would be sensible to ask us if we have already done that before investing the time in a computer model. For electronic products, the request for an alternate must include a block diagram showing the proposed implementation, and any variances between the original system layout and the proposed layout. The specifications for the proposed alternate must be included with the request, unless the contractor or manufacturer has verified that we already have information on the product. We may require a sample unit for testing and evaluation as part of the submission. As part of a submission for an alternate we would expect to see that a contractor has an existing relationship with the manufacturer, as this is important in determining the reliability of the product. We would also expect to see some evidence that the contractor has an understanding of how the product is to be applied and used, and is not planning to use the project as a launching ramp for their learning curve.

  2. The second option is to buy the specified product from another vendor. If the choice is a $1,000 auto mixer as specified, or an alternate product at $2,200, then it would make good business sense to buy the $1,000 mixer, even at retail, mark it up 20%, and the contractor would still be $1,000 ahead in their bid price. If the lower cost product works for the application, then we have no reason to exclude it in favour of more expensive products with un-needed features. This is a business, and it is important that the contractor not put too much emphasis on brand loyalty (and the need to sell an entire system with the same brand name on all the pieces) as this will result in lost jobs and profit.

Low Fat Design

Many contractors we have worked with successfully have discovered that there is little fat to cut in our system designs. There is no way to save money without giving up a measure of performance or a feature that was required by the client. Many have tried, but failed to shave the system cost without affecting performance. Keep in mind that we do not just make up the system requirements, we have spent a great deal of time discussing the user's needs, their budget, and their expectations before we begin the design. Once we start the design we look at several options for every application. We model the loudspeaker coverage using the loudspeaker products we specify or offer as alternates. If there are several suitable products, then we will endeavour to include them in the spec. If the product we are specifying has unique characteristics that make it the only suitable product, then we will need to see some substantial evidence to demonstrate that a proposed alternate will work as required.

Working with Manufacturers

We have developed good working relationships with many manufacturers, and their reps. Some manufacturers are more responsive to our comments or suggestions than others. Some manufacturers are more responsive to the marketplace, and are more innovative than others. We choose products based on the three parameters of features, performance and price. The products that optimize all three are the most often specified. Where specialized features are required, such as ultra-high brightness video projectors; amplifiers with computer control; or a loudspeaker with specific bandwidth, power handling, and coverage requirements; then the system will be designed around the products with those features, and the rest of the system design and budget will be adapted to accommodate those specialty products.

We are interested in the real-world, measurable performance of products. We evaluate the performance against the requirements and the environment it will operate in. An amplifier with a distortion rating of 0.0005% THD is not of any particular value in a facility where the background noise in the room, and the distortion of both the source and loudspeaker will mask that amplifier distortion. A very expensive loudspeaker that will handle 600 watts and produce 135dB at full power is of minimal value if we only need it handle 100 watts, and produce 90dB. We specify products that will meet the performance requirements of our client, and will maximize the value that the client receives for their capital expenditure.

Working with Contractors

We have developed good working relationships with many sound and A/V contractors all over the country. Many of these contractors consistently win projects because they have the lowest priced bids, and they have also demonstrated an understanding of the systems we have designed. They have made the effort to pursue products that are cost effective and competitive. They have also made the effort to let us know that these products are available in these markets so that they can be specified. When they don't have access to the products specified, they have offered well thought out and documented alternates (or have purchased the products from other vendors). This is what it takes to win a contract.

If you are a contractor and you're not winning projects because you aren't the lowest bid, and the products you sell aren't competitive, then you need to evaluate your market position in the contracting market.

Staying Competitive

The contractors that have the highest success rate in winning tenders are the contractors that have chosen to align themselves with the most cost effective products. It is not our responsibility as the consultant to tell the contractor what products they should sell, but the contractor interested in winning tenders should be paying attention to the products that the winning contractors are using. As consultants we are not particularly sympathetic to complaints from either contractors or manufacturers that the products they sell are not priced competitively. If you are not competitive in the marketplace, then you need to take a look at the marketplace. We aren't going to be recommending that our client spend extra money to keep anyone in business. Our responsibility is to our client, not to the marketplace.

The Basics are Still Important

Sadly, many of the complaints we hear from contractors about products we specify, or systems we design, are based on an incomplete understanding of how to apply the products or what the purpose of the system is. Many of the problems that have been encountered by contractors arise from incorrect application of the products, or the inability to optimize gain structure of the systems to minimize the noise. Many of the submissions of alternate products or system designs demonstrate a lack of understanding of basic sound system design and installation issues. If a contractor or manufacturer is planning on submitting alternates they must make sure that the i's are dotted and t's are crossed, because we take the responsibility to our client seriously, and we won't be approving any alternates that can't be demonstrated to offer equal or better performance. If an alternate submission looks like a price sheet / product number take-off, there's a good likelihood that it won't be taken seriously. There's no faster way to make us lose respect for a contractor than to put half-baked ideas in writing. And there's no better way for a contractor to lose credibility in the customer's eyes than to offer a more "cost effective" design that actually costs more than the low bid to spec.

So who do we work for?

So the bottom line is we work for our client, the owner of the facility. We don't work for the contractors, and we don't work for the manufacturers. Our job is to provide the most cost effective system designs to meet the needs of the owner, our client. We take that responsibility seriously.

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Mc Squared System Design Group, Inc Mc Squared System Design Group, Inc
323 - 901 West 3rd Street
North Vancouver, BC V7P 3P9
Phone 604 - 986 - 8181