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Choosing the Right Technology Partner
By: Shawn Teague

After lots of prayer and discussion (and sometimes, arguing), your leadership has decided to make some changes to the audio/video/lighting (AVL) systems in the church. The next step may be the most critical part of the entire process: picking a technology partner to move forward with. You will likely wind up working with someone who falls into one of these three categories: Design Consultant, System Integrator, or Dealer.

A Design Consultant is a team that listens to the needs/wants of the church and designs a system to meet those needs within the specified budget. The consultant can't sell you any equipment but does charge you a (sometimes substantial) fee for the design. When complete, your design typically goes out to bid. This means that a very specific document goes out to AVL companies and they each submit a bid outlining how much the services and equipment will cost and whether they can/will provide installation. While inviting people to compete on price alone, this option doesn't take into account any other crucial factors like the reputation of the vendor or past experiences with similar systems. It reminds me of the quote from the movie Armageddon: "You know we're sitting on four million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder. Makes you feel good, doesn't it?"

A System Integrator is similar to a Consultant in that they listen to the needs/wants of the church and designs a system to meet those needs within the specified budget. The difference is that the Integrator can actually sell you the equipment, install it, and train you to use it after the fact, in addition to providing tech support. An advantage of working with an Integrator is that you have a single point of contact throughout the entire process. The team that is doing the training at the end of everything is the same team that sat across the table from you when you first outlined what you wanted in a new system and why.

A Dealer is essentially the opposite of a Consultant. They will not provide you any design services but they will sell you any equipment you ask for. This looks like it's saving you money because you're not paying for a design, but may cost you more in the long run because you're just putting parts together, hoping they all work. And who will install everything? Depending on the size and complexity of the design, some large systems will get a full team of installers that are onsite for weeks at a time.

It's important to make sure you are seeking good council. If you're making upgrades to the sound system, be sure to include the sound techs in the conversation, not just the administrator, pastor, and budget committee. No one knows the problems with the current system better than the group that is responsible for making it work every weekend.

Also, find a technology partner that will be there for you when questions arise. This is a key benefit to working with a full System Integrator. Since they have been with you from the very beginning they will have a more complete understanding of how the system was designed, what the intended use was supposed to be, and how to support you and the gear moving forward. A Consultant won't warranty the work because they didn't do the installation. An installation company won't warranty the operation or functionality because they didn't design the system. A church member who did the design and installation will likely not answer the phone if he's moved on to another church in a few years.

As with any complex system, choosing the correct partner is critical. Since an AVL system will typically be operated by inexperienced volunteers and has to function as seamlessly as possible for years to come, it brings its own set of complications. Working with the right technology partner, particularly one experienced in church AVL, is crucial to ensure that the process goes smoothly and that you are supported for the long-term. Choose wisely.

Shawn Teague is a broadcast engineer with Fowler Productions Inc., www.fowlerinc.com.

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