Choosing the Right Systems Integrator
Chuck Wilson
A systems contractor can manage all aspects of your technology project.
Selecting the right integrator is a vital step in the success of your project.
By Chuck Wilson

As in any profession or industry, there are good people and good companies, likewise some that are neither. The Systems Integration business is no different. Here are some tips for selecting the right systems contractor, integrator or consultant. Selecting the right integrator is a vital step in the success of your next project.

What is a Systems Contractor?

A systems contractor can manage all aspects of your technology project. In new facilities or on renovation projects, this includes working with architects, engineers and designers, hiring any necessary subcontractors, obtaining building permits, and scheduling inspections.

Many technology providers refer to themselves as “design/build” contractors. This implies that they have internal resources to take a project from concept to completion — and take total responsibility for the project. Whereas some contractors provide only a specific portion of the technology package or bid to another company’s design, the design-build contractors will generally provide and manage a complete turnkey solution for the entire facility. Sole source responsibility is the primary reason for selecting the design-build approach.

Managed services and retrofit work is another aspect of the integrator’s business. After five to 10 years, it’s common to replace audio, video, lighting or other technical systems in existing facilities. Technology has rapidly advanced, which has driven the desire for upgrades, new features, add-ons, etc. These systems contractors also provide the products and services needed to enhance or replace your current system.

Companies who label themselves as “systems integrators” tend to be best known for their capability and technical skills in working with multiple applications and system types, many of which will interoperate with one another. The integration of multiple system types rather than a specialty of one specific system type will generally define the systems integration company. In most circumstances, when you develop an RFP (request for proposal) for a project or search for a technology provider, the word “contractor” and “integrator” can be used interchangeably. 

What are Independent Technology Consultants?

Alternatively as a first step, many facilities hire an independent technology consultant that has no particular affiliation to a product line or relationship with the contracting company. They provide unbiased opinions and expertise on the system design, work with the architects and engineers, develop bid packages, and help evaluate the proposals received from the contractors. They can be especially valuable during the design stages, as they are typically well versed in the overall costs of technical projects.

How to Find a Systems Contractor or Consultant

The best method for finding the right technology provider is to ask around. Try to visit other facilities in your area or speak with the architectural firm your company used for building projects. Typically, this is the best way to find out who has the best reputation, provides the best service and understands the needs of a specific market, such as the corporate environment. Another great resource is the members-on-the-map feature of the NSCA website.

Questions to Ask

Here are some basic questions and a checklist that can help improve your chances of making a good choice:

  • 1. How long has the contractor been in business? Can they be bonded?
  • 2. Is the contractor licensed and registered within the state(s) you are located?
  • 3. Is the company authorized by the manufacturer(s) on the products they have proposed or are specified?
  • 4. Ask what professional associations or affiliations they belong to. This will typically bind them to a code of ethics monitored by professional organizations.
  • 5. Ask about their project management team and what formal training the managers have received. Project management is as crucial as the technical skills.
  • 6. Ask for copies of the contractor’s insurance coverage and make sure the coverage is current. Contractors should have personal liability, worker’s compensation, and property damage coverage.
  • 7. How many projects like yours (similar in size and scope) has the contractor done? Ask for a list.
  • 8. What kind of certifications or credentials do their employees (doing the actual work) hold? Are specific licenses required for this work in your state? Does the company have those for their people? Be suspicious if they say none.
  • 9. Ask for a list of references. Get names, addresses and phone numbers of at least three. Speak with the references and go to see the jobs.
  • 10. Ask specifically if the contractor will be hiring any sub-contractors for installation work, such as running wires or installing conduit. If so, meet them and check their insurance and licenses. The primary contractor must pay them on time, or they could put a lien on your facility. Protect yourself by asking the contractor on a regular basis if they have paid every sub-contractor and supplier. At the end of the project ask for a lien release or lien waiver.

Ensure a Quality Project

Ask the company you are interviewing if you can meet with the project manager they plan to use on your job. Trained and experienced managers are probably even more important than the equipment you purchase. They can explain the company’s documentation procedures and payment schedules, sign off procedures, subcontractor agreements, and the other work processes that can be expected.

This process alone will shed light on the decision-making process. With the complexity of the technology and with hundreds of specifications and details on the products to absorb, it starts to all run together and sound the same. It can be overwhelming to say the least. Your comfort level with a particular company and what separates the right company from the others is often in the way they provide project management. If price, products and reputation all seem to be about the same, use project management methods as a determining factor to select the right company. 

Should I Hire In-House Staff?

This has long been an issue in some organizations. While this sounds very tempting from a financial standpoint, the end results don’t often prove worthwhile. What we often forget is the value of an authorized, factory-trained industry certified professional that will take responsibility for end-to-end results and performance. Simple things like wiring mistakes can void a manufacturer’s warranty and in the end, may cost more to have a factory person dispatched. One simple rule is to not do anything you know should be done by an authorized dealer, VAR or reseller of that product. In the end, it’s just not worth it. It is always best to have an authorized reseller of the professional series products do the installation and commissioning of any new system. At a minimum, have a qualified and certified electronics systems or A/V technician supervise every part of the installation.

In addition to this, think safety first. In many cases, your employees simply aren’t covered by your workers compensation insurance to be performing a systems installation. For example, an IT systems programmer shouldn’t be installing a display device from a ladder or scaffold. A number of claims go unpaid each year as a result of trying to save money by doing the work internally when not properly authorized or classified. 

nsca.org

Chuck Wilson is the CEO and Executive Director of the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA). NSCA is the leading not-for-profit association representing the commercial electronic systems industry. At the helm of NSCA, much of his time is spent assisting systems integrators with the challenges of today’s business environment. 



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