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Figure 1: Managing expectations is an idiomatic phrase. There are no physical attributes that can be applied in graphic form. However, I know you readers expect to see something other than just text, so I jumped onto the NightCafe AI graphics engine app [2] and created this image. My prompt was, “create an image that implies the concept of managing expectations using balance scales. The style should be art deco, and reproduced as a multi-colored .jpg image, in a 16:9 aspect ratio.” I added the text as an overlay using WordArt.

Managing Expectations: Critically Important In Any Business Endeavor (Part 1)

Audio, video and acoustic (AVA) integration is a significantly more difficult and exacting business than most people realize, and managing expectations is key to success.

My first conscious awareness that managing the expectations of others was critically important to my various business endeavors, and handling stress and life in general, came about 28 years ago. Since then, this idea has turned into one of my favorite mantras.

I’ve shared the idea with many friends and coworkers, and now get a brief sense of satisfaction when I hear them subconsciously applying this concept in their everyday conversations with others.

My career in pro AV and acoustics reaches back nearly 50 years. A brief bio for context: pro musician, studio engineer, studio manager, technical writer and editor, owner of small sound contracting business, systems designer, acoustician, programmer, installer, sales engineer, audio/video/acoustical consultant, director of engineering, general manager, and last but not least, husband, father, mentor, and veteran. Except for the husband, father, and mentor rolls, I’ve been paid to do all of them.

Wow, as I was writing the first draft of this article, I had a “managing expectations moment.” See the paragraph directly above, where it says, “A brief bio for context”? At first it said, “A brief bio” – the “for context” modifier is a very subtle bit of added information that is meant to reduce your expectation about this being a puff piece about me. Nothing could be further from my goal. But I digress…

Beyond the obvious principles and applications covered below, this commentary is written with Project Owners or Project Managers in mind. A Project Owner (PO) is someone who takes “ownership” of any specific project. I covered this concept in detail with “Project Ownership: The Buck Stops Here.” [1]

Why Expections Need Managing

When someone asks a question, gives input, assigns tasks, schedules an activity, sends or receives a correspondence, or signs a contract, they have “expectations” – clear and/or subliminal – that your reaction will come in the form of an appropriate, thoughtful, accurate, and timely response.

All your responses should be measured (Figure 1, above) and presented in a way that “manages” (read: puts limits on) the expected results of the person you’re communicating with. This may be quite easy if a yes-or-no answer is appropriate. But, so much of the integration business is dynamic and multifaceted, often requiring responses that are simultaneously complex, nuanced, detailed, and reliant on unknown information or resources. This is where the art of expectation management is most helpful.

It occurs to me that I’m so predisposed to manage expectations (ME) that I’m doing it while writing this piece. Perhaps you’ve noticed all the modifiers I’ve used so far. Those are used to manage your understanding (a by-product of an expectation) while reading this article. Ideally, they soften the various imperative sentences.

Examples: Use could or should instead of must; may or might instead of a promise; some, many or most instead of all, etc. Other examples involve conditional phrases such as: “Let’s talk and see if this idea makes sense for your application.” Or, “beyond the 6-8 weeks of design and engineering work, it will probably take about 2-4 weeks for procurement, and another 10-12 weeks for us to be substantially complete with the installation.” Don’t expect or assume your customer knows anything about these various processes or the time they take.

Audio, video and acoustic (AVA) integration is a significantly more difficult and exacting business than most people realize. I don’t mean it’s overly difficult physically, but it can be extremely challenging on many levels. The slightest technical or structural mistake can result in a non-functioning system or a more catastrophic failure; including serious injury or loss of life.

As my friend, former mentee, and veteran integration pro Mike Martin puts it, “Ultimately managing expectations is not about lowering standards, but more about aligning them with reality.” He goes on to say, “ME seems more important on smaller [bid jobs] and design build projects. Communicating what’s ‘not’ included, while documenting details in scope docs, can avoid uncomfortable conversations later on.”

If you and your team manage expectations throughout every step of a project, you’ll have an opportunity to express an honest and pragmatic attitude and tone to your scope of work. This is much better than making unrealistic promises at every turn in order to appease an unknowing or unreasonable customer, general contractor, architect, vendor, boss, or spouse.

Outlining The ME Concept

A. Customers: Most customers are focused on price, quality, timeliness, aesthetics, ergonomics, reliability, and service. Further, every project has a personality. It’s imperative that you carefully manage each of these, including:

Price – Is the project based on a fixed bid price, a negotiated price with some flexibility, or time and materials? The more transparency you provide with each of these the better the customer will understand what’s going on. If you’re meeting face to face with an owner, don’t be afraid to share things like this: “The price we charge for the equipment is our first column cost, plus a markup of x percent. That’s the margin we need to apply to stay in business and meet all your current needs and expectations for this project.” For various reasons, volume discounts are generally not passed on to the end user.

If necessary, share your labor sell rates too. Do all this verbally, not in writing, and not with anyone other than the owner, or the person who will be signing contracts and checks.

Quality – In the world of commercial integration, you generally get what you pay for. The upper mid-range of the various hardware offerings is the sweet spot. Explain this to your customer. Over the years I’ve told customers I can design a generally-similar sound system for $25,000, $100,000, or $250,000.

What typically changes at each level is the quality of the components, quantity of devices, power handling, branding, configurability, controllability, availability, the ability to customize, and the warranty and serviceability. Before you start any serious design work, this type of conversation needs to happen.

Timeliness – Most customers don’t understand all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into a fully-professional AVA install. Help your client understand that once the contract is signed there are often many days and weeks of design, product specifications, project engineering and documentation, procurement, shop build-up, programming, and logistical details to work through. If necessary, share as much detail as needed with the customer. Help them understand the entire scope and effort your company will be providing.

Aesthetics – For some, aesthetics are equal to, or more important than the functionality of the systems they are purchasing. For each piece of hardware that will be visible to the public, size, shape, and color must be discussed, understood, and delivered as expected. Sometimes this is easy to accomplish, other times it can cause significant time and money to arrive at appropriate solutions. Get all these details worked out and signed off as early as possible – definitely before any gear gets ordered.

Ergonomics – Much like aesthetics, the ergonomic needs and wants of your customer are important to manage. Several years ago, when affordable digital mixing consoles were starting to hit their stride, I had a church client who insisted on having a 96-input Digidesign (now Avid) Venue console with at least 56 input faders on layer 1. They didn’t want their volunteer sound techs having to work through multiple fader-bank layers. This was an available feature, but cost an additional $20,000. Because we discussed this option in much detail, there were no surprises when the roughly 7-foot wide console was installed and the invoice was submitted.

Reliability – Much of our modern AV equipment is quite sophisticated. One common fear that many clients have is the reliability and serviceability of all this unfamiliar, digital technology. For your customers and your company’s sake, do your best to recommend quality and reliability over price. No one wants to deal with ongoing service issues; especially if the manufacturer is known to have a poor service record.

Service – Think about your own experiences when you need service on your plumbing, car, or physical body. It’s rarely something you look forward to. When existing or new customers call with a problem, treat them the way you wish and expect others will treat you. Pay attention, express concern, spend as much time on the phone as necessary so you can gather detailed info on what the problem(s) is, what the symptoms are, and what troubleshooting has already been done.

All this will greatly help the service tech that is sent out to further evaluate, and hopefully repair the problem(s). If you’re really good, or lucky, you may be able to fix the problem while you’re on the phone.
Unless you have a service contract that incorporates billable time for remote-access service calls, there should be no charge to the customer for the initial phone call. Just “bank” this time for good will, future work, and referrals.

Personality – Every project has a personality; a tone, atmosphere, or vibe if you will. As best you can, try and find out what that vibe is. Is the project on a fast track, running at a standard pace, or years out? Is your point of contact stressing out over everything? Is there anyone involved that actually knows what they’re doing, and what’s going on? Is your customer the direct contact, or are there multiple layers of middle management and consultants between you and the owner?

Try to spend as much time and effort with the decision maker(s), and as little as possible with good-intentioned but unknowing or inexperienced staff or volunteers.

B. Vendors: As integrators, you’re middle-men: end users on one side, manufacturers on the other. For most integrators, your interaction with the various AVA manufacturers is through their direct sales team, or their regional independent rep firms.

More often than not, there are about six topics that integrators need to manage with vendors: Pricing, availability, training, sales forecasting, repairs, and meetings. Integrators always need to have current dealer pricing on hand. They also want to get a heads up if any product is on backorder, or being discontinued.

Integrators want and need their various reps to navigate and/or run interference within the corporate structure of the manufacturer they represent. This includes everything from special pricing; to custom colors and configurations; to product training; along with parts and repairs. The best reps easily juggle all this and more.

Manufacturers want to know what’s in your pipeline so they can do their best to meet your expectations related to product availability. If you over estimate your future needs, you may cause the manufacturer to react in unrealistic or unnecessary ways. If you under estimate your needs, the item(s) you need quickly may not be available when you want them. It’s a tricky balance.

When I worked as a design/build integrator, our business model directed that big or expensive items were never kept in inventory. All projects were customized for the needs of each unique customer, and we never knew what would be needed. We generally took the risk that we could get the specific items needed in a reasonable amount of time. Sitting on stagnant inventory, regardless of “special-offer” pricing, is an even bigger risk.

Sales reps have a job to do. However, the number of face-to-face meetings requested often become too much of a distraction from your daily job requirements. My typical response to a rep who requested a meeting, or time for a demo was: What do we need to meet about? Do you have something new or unique to show me that can’t wait until we see each other at a trade show? Given the copy-cat nature of the industry, is your new product really that unique? The best reps knew our business model well, when to call, and what we generally cared about most.

For new manufacturers or reps, I would tell them what we typically use from their product mix; what types of information is critical to us; help them understand why we cherry pick the industry – rarely buying everything from just one or two manufacturers; what features are important to us; and explain what brands we’re currently using to fill our needs for equipment that’s similar to theirs.

Ask them how and why their offerings are equal or superior to our top three to five go-to vendors in each category. Notice that price is not the highest priority. With this approach, the barrier to entry is being set fairly high. But for a very few extremely high-end pieces of gear, there are generally more than one or two vendor options.

C. Staff: If you’re a manager at any level, managing the expectations of your staff is critical. I see this like being the manager of a baseball or football team. You have a group of people that have different talents, skills, job descriptions, ages, and pay grades. The best managers are able to relate to each individual on multiple levels. At a minimum, it’s important to clearly and consistently communicate your expectations of them.

Effectively managing staff schedules and logistics: Try your best to keep the same field crew, engineering, and programming team together throughout a project. Specialists will probably need to bounce. They, and most others, will understand this.

But, for those who actually get their hands dirty, build teams of complimentary talents and personalities. Assign a lead or foreman, provide them with all the resources they’ll need to efficiently do their work, then let them go and do the work. Don’t micromanage. Make sure they have all the engineering and office support they need – as quickly as needed. Let them know they are appreciated. Be their advocate whenever possible.

One more recommendation. Find a topic that you have in common with each member of your team and staff. This can be anything that you two have in common. Examples: movies, books, music, sports, politics, religion, food, health, family, or other hobbies or interests. This is a bonding technique that gives each of you something else to talk about if you need to fill time on a long drive, or rely on when work stresses become intense.

D. Employer: Yes, this is a thing. Obviously, your employer has expectations of you. However, when appropriate, you should also do your best to manage those expectations. If the owner of your company wants you to take on a pet project, make sure you carefully study the scope of work, and what makes this project special to your boss.

If the customer and your owner have been brainstorming the project, but you think there are better solutions, diplomatically say something. Very few customers and business owners want or need to learn and deal with the day-to-day AVA trends and technologies. That’s the sort of detail he/she pays you and your crew to figure out. Do everything possible to make your owner look good to the customer, while also making the customer want to tell your owner what good results they received.

E. Peers: Occasionally, one of your peers may ask for help or advice. If this peer works with you, give them all the support you can, but let them know there’s only so much time you can spend helping them. Do not get sucked into doing their job for them.

If the peer works for a competitor, I believe you should support them too – within limits – to the best of your ability. If possible, talk after hours so the time spent does not distract from your regular work. Talk in generalities when possible. Don’t give away any unique business secrets or project details. Be a discrete professional. This is also a good time to evaluate them as a potential, future employee. At the very least, this is one reward you get in return for helping them.

F. Service Staff: Service calls always start with at least a little added stress. Because they may not have the intimate knowledge of the various projects your Project Owner or Project Manager has, your service tech(s) may be flying blind when they arrive at a venue for the first time.

When a new or existing customer calls in for help, and you’re the first contact they have, you should make sure to gather, and share with the tech, all the details needed to locate and troubleshoot any technical issues that may arise. Also, help them understand any special tools or software they may need; the personality of the client; the logistics of the facility, such as parking and security procedures; be sure they have and understand the software apps and passwords that may be required; and a copy of the latest and greatest as-built drawings.

G. Family: This is a big one, especially if you’re married, and/or have children to support. At the very least, every day your family needs to know where you’ll be working and when you’ll be home.

Will you be working at the office or on a jobsite? What’s the name of the project? Do you need to travel out of town? If so, for how long? Where will you be staying? What is the address and room number at your hotel? Are you going to a jobsite, a trade show, or a training seminar? Who else from your company is going? The more you keep your spouse, significant other, and kids in the loop, the better it will be for everyone.

H. Yourself: This is a tricky one. Only you know your strengths and weaknesses, your schedule and bandwidth, and your mental and physical health. You need to be honest with yourself about your capacity to juggle all the demands you may have to face each day.

As Kristin Hendrix of Leadership Vitae [3] puts it in her blog article, How to Manage Competing Personal and Professional Expectations, “We matter too, and are not just here to meet everyone else’s expectations. We have (and want) the ability, if not the right, to decide what we expect in our actions and behaviors” [with others].

I’ve lived in this matrix for years, been at my breaking point more than once, and have one extremely reductive piece of advice: When you see that “last straw” heading your way, stop everything possible that you’re thinking about and considering, wait three full days, then reevaluate your situation.

It’s simply amazing what a three-day buffer can do to help you cope with any of life’s most difficult challenges. It will give you time to think, breath, process, talk with others, and wisely digest how you’re going to juggle all the balls you have in the air. Often, it won’t take three days, but this time will allow you to reorder your priorities, bring clarity to whatever needs to happen next, and if necessary, adjust everyone’s expectations a little.

If this subject resonates with you, keep an eye out for part 2, coming up soon. There I will outline several scenarios I’ve encountered and describe how those situations were managed.

The author thanks Michael Martin, VP of integration, Sound Image – A Clair Global Company, and Jeff Hawley, director of marketing, Allen & Heath USA/American Music & Sound, for assisting with notes, comments, and corrections that made this work presentable.

References
[1] Project Ownership: The Buck Stops Here
[2] NightCafe Studio
[3] Leadership Vitae

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