Know Your Contractor

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Churches throughout the country are incorporating advanced Audio/Video systems into their facilities at an incredible rate, typically involving increasingly complex technology. This dynamic has created a relationship between the church and the A/V contractor. A/V industry leaders have recognized nuances specific to working with churches and regularly publish articles in trade magazines to guide contractors in this area. Having observed the interactions of numerous churches with such contractors and consultants, I offer the following perspective to church leadership to help pave the road to successful projects and enduring relationships.

Choose Carefully
Consultants, designers and integrators must be carefully chosen using measurable, professional criteria. “We buy most of our equipment from them”, or “a friend on the Board recommended them”, or “they are the relative of a church leader…” are typical of the reasons for contractor selection that usually result in substandard projects. Look instead for a qualified integrator with substantial positive experience designing similar systems in similar environments. Check references. Validate licensing and insurance status. Choose your contractor wisely.

Maintain A Professional Relationship
If the church elects to choose a professional, treat their services as professional. Modern church audio, video, lighting and control systems are far more complex than hooking up your home stereo or big screen TV. Many of these professionals have undergone extensive training and certification in audio design, multi-format video distribution, rigging, safety, etc. Their job is to synthesize this knowledge into a successful system that will serve the needs of the church. In dealing with your contractor, remember that communication has always been a key factor in any project. Clearly and definitively discuss desires, concerns and problems as far in advance as possible.

The Church is a Community and Makes Decisions as One
A challenging aspect of decisions made in a technologically complex process is the assurance that all involved have been adequately educated and briefed on the issues at hand. The contractor must strive to understand the objectives, culture, vision of success and politics of the church.

The church community on the other hand, must gain an understanding of just how the contractor will achieve the desired results. At times this understanding is gained through faith and trust in that contractor. However, sufficient time may not have passed to allow for these values to be established, or they may have been established with only a small part of the decision making committee.

The contractor may elect to focus attention on who is perceived as the community leader, but may experience ineffective results if this person has trouble conveying some of the technical aspects of decisions made. I believe that both parties carry some responsibility in guiding the project to a successful outcome. For the church, it is wise to elect and empower an individual you can trust for leadership in making decisions on technology issues, and position this person as the contractor’s key contact. For the contractor, prepare a message that will convey the technology-based issues in terms that are understandable by the church directors and elders. The goal is to get everyone on the same decision-making page.

Manage Existing Relationships
Professional relationships are vitally important. With the rapid advancements in A/V technology, it is more and more common for churches to take a gigantic leap from a simple audio system to a sophisticated A/V media system.

During the early discussion stage, church leadership may hear from another church about an out of state consultant or designer who they should contact. A better approach is for the church to consider whether the current engineering firm can achieve the church’s desires. Clear and honest discussions should be conducted up front with existing engineers and technicians to determine what their future involvement will be.

If the decision is made to go with a different or out-of-state firm, the church needs to consider what will happen if there are problems after the system is installed. What if there are project problems after the out-of-state contractor has gone home and personnel must be brought in? Will the local engineer be responsible? Realize that the installation is only the first step in what will likely be a long relationship. The availability and quality of on-site service should be a key factor in selecting the contractor.

Validate, But Don’t Second Guess
Churches will often send system design documents to other consultants or engineers for review. This is a perfectly acceptable practice to validate a design and help assure it meets the desired church program. Knowing a system will work the way it is anticipated and in the space available is very important. However, it is unprofessional for a peer review engineer to interject their approach to the project. If a peer review engineer is contracted to check or validate a design, then that is all they should do. There are as many valid approaches to designing systems as there are designers. If the church has contracted with a reputable designer, respect the engineer’s ability to fulfill the agreed-upon design task. Second guessing the designer’s work will fracture any new or long standing relationship.

Respect Everyone’s Time
Time: there never seems to be enough of it for anyone. Projects are typically established on budgets, scope of work and time required to complete that work. If the contractor is expected to attend multiple, unanticipated building meetings, make sure the attendance is really beneficial, and be prepared to pay for their time. Remember that these professionals have already put in a long day, and evening meetings take them away from their families and other clients as well.

There may be issues that arise when a church staff expects the integrator’s engineers to be on call during Sunday services. If a church expects engineers to be available during non-business hours, take steps to ensure they are responding to real emergencies with as much notification as possible. Remember, technical personnel may be handling ministry responsibilities within their own churches. A troublesome microphone is probably not critical enough to expect on-call service on a Sunday. It would be far more prudent to plan some redundancy, or backup, to handle unexpected situations that might arise during Sunday services.

Volunteer Help
Often churches will seek to cut the costs of a project by convincing the integrator to use church volunteers to help with that project. Frequently the volunteers are hobbyists, or very well intentioned people who have varying knowledge of A/V systems.

You must consider: will the use of volunteers actually reduce costs, while maintaining system quality and integrity? Many times integrators will incorporate charge-backs if they need to re-work volunteer efforts. My wife and I once spent a very long night re-wiring a church’s audio distribution system in time for Sunday services after volunteers wired everything backwards. We missed my wife’s 30th birthday party and we invoiced the church for all the extra effort. Additional management requirements and related costs to the integrator for supervision of the volunteer workers must be considered.

Another critical element is training in the use and routine maintenance of the system. In most cases, the A/V system will be operated by non-technical users (pastors, volunteers). Proper training must be included as a component of any such integration project. Additionally, it is important for the church staff to recognize issues that can be handled by their on-site technicians, and also decide which issues require the services of the contractor. All too often, a simple problem is made much worse (and expensive to correct!) by unqualified personnel tinkering with it.

Maintain A Safe Environment
Any outside contractor is extremely concerned about safety on the jobsite for the workers and related legal and financial exposure. While many church facilities frequently cut corners on safety (ostensibly to save money), the contractor cannot afford the injuries and loss of personnel or potential liability. On one occasion, I remember picking up a microphone cable in one hand and a video cable in the other at a local church and lighting up like a Christmas tree! Much to my shock (pun intended), I found that church staff had disconnected all AC power grounds in the electrical distribution system in an attempt to eliminate an audio buzz. All too often there are real life horror stories of fires, volunteers falling out of ceilings, pyrotechnic accidents and so many more. The importance of maintaining a safe environment cannot be emphasized enough in a public venue.

Finally, stewardship has become an incredibly huge issue. Everywhere today there is an effort to cut costs. Profit has become a bad word and value is getting lost because of it. In “church speak” it is often framed in assertions such as “We must be good stewards of the congregation’s funds”, or “We must be doing the work of the Kingdom”. Arguing the Biblical implications of this is outside the scope of this article, but seeking good value is an admirable goal. At the same time it is important to remember that the integrator, often a small business, has stewardship responsibilities too. The integrator’s own church, company staff, supplies and time are just the beginning. Why should the integrator be expected to participate in the client’s stewardship? A reasonable profit must be made to stay in business. Some integrators, unable to maintain expected profits in the face of church demands, may resort to lower quality, less expensive products or hire less experienced technicians. The result is a system that does not perform as anticipated, and is usually far more expensive in the long run. Better for them to pay a fair price for work well done, and ensure the viability of their contractor/partner for years to come.