A few years ago while working as an A1 for a local production company, I took a call from a young married couple who held an annual jam band festival on their property. In previous years the rig had been a potluck of cobbled-together “prosumer” gear, but they were seeking to bring in professional production to deal with bigger acts and a larger draw.
For an expected attendance of 6,000, they requested sideby-side dual stages (plus the accompanying dual roof systems and lighting rigs), as well as large LED screens, and of course, the requisite audio package.
I had a deep sense of foreboding. Being familiar with the region, my sense was pretty well-tuned about what sort of turnout could be expected, and I knew 6,000 was a pipe dream. I needed to tell them that their eyes were bigger than their budget. This can be tricky, because as production professionals, we must be sincere and receptive to the wishes of our clients and to try to meet their needs in a responsible manner.
But notice the use of “needs” rather than “wants” in that previous sentence. In my view, an overkill production spec that the client will never pay off is just as impossible as a bare-minimum spec to meet requirements.
So I sat down with them to discuss the situation, stating, “Let me start by saying that we will rent you whatever you want. If this package is what you really want, we’ll provide it. However, you’ve hired us not only to provide the equipment, but also because of our knowledge of these types of events. This is what I do for a living, and I need you to understand that I have serious concerns about the costs of a production this large. I know you don’t like hearing this, but I’d rather you be a little upset now than very upset later when you owe a lot of money to a lot of people.”
Although I happened to be the one doing the talking, this wasn’t just my view – it was our company philosophy. Our first question with this and every other project: “What products and services are appropriate for the given application?”
The couple and I worked through every aspect of their production budget. We went out to the parking lot and paced off the requested stage dimensions. Actually seeing it helped them realize it was far larger than necessary.
We completely cut the video package and also moved to a single-stage configuration and a slimmed-down lighting rig. I spec’d small-format arrays that would provide more than adequate audio coverage while reducing weight and power requirements. All of this allowed us to minimize necessary roof capacity and generator size, and it all added up to a price quote that was reduced by an order of magnitude.
If you’ve ever handled smaller/independent events, you can probably guess the outcome: 174 tickets were sold. After the show, the husband approached me and said, “You know, I’m going to have to sell my motorcycle to pay you guys, but if you hadn’t talked me down, I’d have to sell my house. So thank you for not just giving me what I asked for.”
While I later left the company to pursue freelance work, I continue to apply the same approach. As an independent engineer, I don’t have a warehouse full of gear to rent to my clients; my job is to offer solutions and expertise, not equipment.
I talk at length with them about their needs and how to best meet them. If I truly feel that another engineer or company will be a better fit, I tell them. By referring the gig to others who in turn do a great job, I preserve and strengthen my relationship with the client. This isn’t the case if I’m poorly equipped and do a lousy job.
A referral also doesn’t necessarily mean giving up the gig. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m committed to your event so I’d like to bring in this other entity as well to make sure we get it right.” Communication is vital, because all of the gear in the world doesn’t matter if our clients don’t trust us to provide what’s most appropriate.
There’s an old customer service adage that conveys this all quite well: “Remember that customers don’t want 1/4-inch drill bits. They want 1/4-inch holes.”