There are no hard-and-fast rules in the systems integration industry – mainly because no two businesses are exactly the same. But there are still certain consistencies that integration companies face: one being the cyclical nature of the business. From the hundreds of conversations we’ve had with integration owners, the one we hear about a lot is the challenge of “busy season.”
For a lot of integrators, busy season comes in the summer – usually starting around Memorial Day and heading into the fall due to the construction that takes place during this time, including projects in the education market. Schools do almost all major renovations during the summer months; if the education market is a substantial part of your business, then you’re certainly going to see a business swing from spring through Labor Day.
No matter how many times an integrator goes through this season, there is almost never enough you can do to prepare for it. Every year, the uptick in quotes, engineering requirements, and installation lead to stressed-out sales professionals, estimators, engineers, and installers. Many companies have to find seasonal resources, which means hiring to support the wave (but also knowing that this wave will end). It may come down to finding and hiring temporary personnel to work in a highly specialized industry – which, let’s face it, is no easy task.
Some companies have formed specialized labor forces as a response to this challenge. These companies have certainly met a need, but they also have their own inherent set of challenges. Beyond labor, they have different ways of doing things; for quick-turnaround projects, they may or may not be available on demand. Nevertheless, they’re a good option for many companies.
But this all begs a question: “What to do?” And the answer is never easy.
Best Practices for Busy Season
Spending the majority of working hours talking to integrators, NSCA has the benefit of seeing things from many perspectives. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to handling the challenge of busy season, but we’ve seen smart approaches from different integrators that, if put together, would serve as a better model for handling the cyclical nature of the business.
Here are a few of the best practices NSCA identified:
Planning and Visibility
Busy season sneaks up on a lot of integrators, but it isn’t always without warning. Some of the best integrators spend time during the off-cycle months getting ahead of projects coming down the pike. One CEO told us that he has the sales team meet customers months ahead of their typical busy season to find out what projects they already know about. From that, they compile a pipeline and manage it closely to plan for resources that will be needed in the coming months.
Sometimes the biggest issue with busy season is that we don’t do a good enough job of communicating with customers. Everyone has deadlines, but what are we promising as compared to what we know we can deliver? Winning the business and then “figuring it all out later” is sometimes an all-too-well-received approach in this business, but if we proactively let our clients know what to expect – and when (even if longer than normal) – they will stick with us. This is especially true with existing customers that would rather work with us on an extended timeline. We can’t just push back deadlines, but the old adage of “under-commit and over-deliver” still has merit.
Project and Labor Management
Everyone can up their project management game. Many smaller integrators don’t even have formal “project management” in place. Whether it’s upping the investment in training the project management team by using resources like NSCA’s project management track within our Certificate as an Integration Professional (C-SIP) program, or making sure we’re closely monitoring job progress and deadlines, this is a big key to success during busy season.
In speaking to several integration managers, they all believe that a greater focus on project management leads to timelier project completion – and sometimes even a reduction in staffing needs as more projects can be completed in less time.
We mentioned earlier the utilization of a strategic partner for estimation, programming, labor, or other needs, and pointed out a few of the downsides. But there are also many upsides to these relationships. The ability to access help only when you need it is great. It is really tough to hire temporary help.
Even for union labor, most electricians don’t have the specific skills to do a lot of specialized install work. Many outsource firms have special skillsets that include control systems, specialized cabling, and overall AV/low-voltage wiring best practices. With the right partner or two, scale can be quickly achieved without any massive investment; however, leaders of outsource labor companies have mentioned that, the more notice they receive, the better. Get your pipeline in order and a strategic partnership can be that much better.
Here’s to a successful and prosperous busy season!