Monday, March 31, 2008

Top 10 Tips for Working with Technology Vendors

Sound and multimedia technologies have become fairly common needs in most churches. However, many Pastors do not have a great deal of expertise in these areas and must rely on other sources for consultation, purchase information, installation, and training regarding sound and multimedia projects.

The good news is that you don't have to personally be an expert in order to make good decisions that will result in a nice setup for the church. There are many companies that have great expertise in these areas that would love to have you as a customer. Here are the "Top 10 Tips" that may save you money and headaches in working with A/V and IT sales, installation, and service companies.

  1. Get help from someone you trust
    Don't take on a new A/V project on your own - especially if you don't have much knowledge of the technologies involved. Chances are you have a member in the church or know of someone else that has more knowledge in these areas than you do. Find someone you trust to help you make good decisions and explain the technical aspects of the project. If you have the connections to do it, find two or three people and establish a work group to help with the project. If an outside vendor has to work with more than one contact they will be less likely to take advantage of you.

  2. Visit other churches
    It is always a great idea to visit other churches and talk to their A/V people. Find out what they like about their setup and what they wish they had done differently. Find out what they wish they had and what they never use. While it is great to visit other Apostolic churches, it is also good to check out other churches in your community as they may be good referral sources with respect to local companies to consider hiring.

  3. Use companies who have experience with churches
    It is best to work with companies that have experience working with other churches. They have probably learned about the unique technological needs of churches from past customers. Hopefully they will also be somewhat understanding regarding the need explain things in a non-technical manner, the budgetary constraints many churches have, not selling you equipment that you do not need, and so forth.

    Some Apostolic churches like to hire other Apostolics out of a desire to support their businesses or for other reasons. This may work out in many cases. On the other hand, difficulties sometimes arise from these arrangements. You should not hire or enlist anyone in which you don't have control over the project. Don't hire anyone to whom you don't feel comfortable saying "no". Don't work with anyone with whom it would be awkward to deal with if problems arise in the project.

  4. Ask for references and check them
    It is very important to ask for references from the companies you are considering. You should follow-up by checking about five to ten of the references. Make sure that at least a fair number of the other references are from other churches, preferably ones that had similar needs and budgets. When you check the references make sure you speak with someone who is actually knowledgeable about the project and regarding how the services and equipment for the company is working for them.

  5. Obtain multiple consultations and estimates
    Most companies will provide free consultations and estimates. Make sure that the companies you talk to know that you are also getting estimates from other companies. This will keep them honest and will help to keep the prices competitive. It is best to have other trusted people you have chosen to help you available for the consultations. It is best to get three or more estimates, but even two is better than one.

    It will be important to be prepared for the consultation. Make a list of what you know you want to be able to do. Be able to show the the consultant locations where you think the screens, speakers, equipment, etc. will need to be located. But, be prepared to consider suggestions and recommendations from the consultant as they may have great ideas that will benefit you. Also, be prepared to provide the consultant with details about the projected time-frame that you have considered for the project.

  6. Ask about warranties, service agreements, training, etc.
    It is critical that you ask about about warranties for the equipment you will purchase. Find out specifically who will honor and service the warranties - e.g. the manufacturer or the vendor. You may also be given the option to buy extended warranties, which you should consider cautiously. Sometimes extended warranties on equipment are a good deal and a value-added perk of a particular company. Other times they are mere money making schemes.

    You will also want to ask about related service needs and whether they are considered as a part of the price quotes. The company should include at least 30 days of free service calls to ensure that everything has been installed correctly and is working properly. Some companies will do this for a much longer period of time, however, as a value-added service to their customers. You will need to know for sure how quickly they can respond to service needs, the cost associated with any service calls, and so forth.

    It will also be helpful to ask about training provided for use of the equipment. Will they show you everything you need to know? Will this be a formal training session or just an installer giving you a few informal tips? Are their additional costs associated with training? At minimum, your staff will need to know the primary functions of the equipment. You will want to be somewhat self-sufficient with fixing common problems, making needed adjustments, and so forth.

  7. Request itemized estimates
    It is best to specifically ask for itemization of the estimates you receive from the consultants and/or sales people. Each piece of equipment should be itemized separately. The installation costs should be itemized and should be separate from the cost of the associated equipment. Some vendors may not provide this level of itemization unless you ask them for it. The reason this is important is because it will keep the vendor honest and the prices reasonable. It will be especially helpful when comparing the estimates between multiple companies.

  8. Get everything in writing
    Make sure you get everything in writing! The estimates should be in writing and should include a date indicating how long the estimate will be honored. Get all warranties, service contracts, training agreements, and related agreements in writing as well. The most important thing to get in writing is a contract for any installation work to be done that includes a time frame, payment arrangements, and other important details.

  9. Utilize ways to save
    If you are fortunate enough to have a church member or other volunteer who is an IT or A/V professional you could potentially save a lot of money. Even if they are volunteering their services, however, it would be prudent to inquire about their experiences pertaining to the project. If done in the proper manner this should not be a problem.

    Depending on the company you will be working with, they may allow you to save money by performing some aspects of the work that you are able to do without them. For example, running wiring/cables is something that you may be able to do with volunteer staff from the church. Or, if you have a computer specialist in the church he may be able to take care of the computer hardware and/or software related aspects of the project. The assistance of carpenters, electricians, and other skilled craftsman can be invaluable to your project.

    Another way to potentially save money is to purchase some or all of the equipment yourself. Some companies will only install equipment that they sell. Others are willing to work with you if you can purchase equipment at a better price elsewhere. Make sure you know exactly what you are buying and that you buy the correct items that will be needed. Always check return policies before placing an order. Find out about warranties and who will honor them - e.g. the reseller or the manufacturer.

    If you will be performing part of the work in-house or purchasing some of the equipment yourself, make sure there is a clear understanding with the installation company that it will not void any warranties or service agreements. In many cases it may not be worth saving a few hundred dollars only to encounter problems later.

  10. Make sure you understand
    Finally, make sure you understand what you are buying and why. Make sure there are no hidden costs and no items that will need to be purchased later. If you are not sure about something, ask for further explanation. If you are unsure what a particular piece of equipment is or why you need it do not be afraid to ask about it. If you don't understand why a particular portion of the installation costs so much ask for a breakdown. Following the above steps in obtaining more than one estimate, requesting itemization, and so forth will help you to gain a better grasp on things. But, it does not hurt to ask if you are unsure.

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