Q&A with co-founder Maureen Carlson: ideas from the trenches
When I started working with Chris, our founder at System Surveyor, he told me that running a systems integration business is just plain hard. In fact, he has reiterated it many times over the years and I don’t doubt it. The thing is, people and companies need system integrators and there is a lot of opportunity to be had. While some industries will experience more extreme highs and lows with the economy, the physical security industry is one of the most stable and consistent. By the way, the issue for growth isn’t demand, as it’s abundantly clear that there is plenty: the industry is expected to grow to $80 billion by 2030.
Sure, it’s a difficult business but there is an enormous opportunity. What do you do? Some companies have figured out how to run the business effectively, but we see many opportunities to take steps to make it easier, healthier and more profitable. That’s what we’ll touch on today. There’s no one magic wand but it is possible. Intrigued? Read on.
Our content team sat down with Maureen Carlson, co-founder and VP of Growth at System Surveyor to get her perspective.
In this Q&A she shares her three observations on the recipe for success in system integration.
Maureen joined Chris Hugman, the company’s founder and a veteran System Integration Executive as a co-founder of System Surveyor. By connecting Chris’s experience in the domain with her experience in software, they have led the company to be one of the leading B2B software solution providers in the industry. She serves as the VP of Growth overseeing go-to-market strategy, sales, marketing and the development of a community – and with that role has worked with hundreds of system integrator owners and business leaders.
Why is running a system integration business so challenging?
A few of us were actually discussing this in a rental car traveling back from a customer visit. Running and operating a systems integration business is not for the faint of heart! But why is it so challenging?
A few reasons that come to mind:
- There are many, many moving parts. A subtle miss at the front end of clearly understanding customers’ needs has a domino effect from sales to engineering to operations delivery.
- Physical security and related technology products and innovations are evolving quickly and it’s hard for people to keep up. No one can be an expert at everything.
- Aligning a team to serve customers across regions as you scale takes a well-oiled machine and great process.
On top of these challenges, there is a talent shortage making hiring and leveraging current expertise extremely important. Also, arguably the average integrator in the physical security market is behind on the digital process and transformation to run a healthy business compared with other industries. There is a fair amount of manual process in use that presents opportunity for digitization.
The good news is that where there is opportunity for improvement, there are significant gains to be made. In fact, the midsize system integrator is in the “cat-bird position” as they typically have greater agility to adopt new processes and software to automate and leverage their talent wisely to get scale. I love the underdog!
After more than eight years observing and helping integrators, we’ve identified some of the differences that stand out for system integrators to be profitable and successful. The “best of the best” keep it simple and start with putting their customers first and deeply understanding their needs. That is table-stakes for making life easier.
There are three areas that differentiate: 1) Culture, 2) Clarity 3) Process & Technology.
Where does culture fit in?
First, what we’ve observed is the top performers in the industry tend to possess a great culture and a clear north star. This is about more than just being a trusted advisor. It’s a culture where the entire organization understands expectations to serve customers and each other consistently.
It’s no surprise that we see this stand out as the #1 differentiator. What we’re essentially asking is does the team walk the talk? Perhaps even more, do their customers know what they stand for and the value that they bring as a cohesive culture?
You’re running a business, so there is money to be charged for delivering effectively. But you’ve got to get that “delivering effectively” piece in place first.
Remember: Your customers want your team to deliver and are willing to pay to work with a well-run business!
And what do you mean by clarity?
Great question. First, clarity about culture is key as we’ve just discussed. But there are many other forms of clarity. The one that we notice that has opportunity for improvement is clarity to understand customer needs and requirements. How can you get in their head? How can you build trust?
At the very first point of interaction (often the pre-call and the site survey) with a customer, it is important to understand what they want and to align a solution and offerings around those goals. Then, clarity of communications is vital for the whole delivery and ops team for design, installation, ongoing lifecycle management and documentation. Clients want clarity on every front, so your team needs to bring it.
The question to ask is whether the current process of engaging with customers is providing a good opportunity to get clear and capture the right information consistently. This may be a bit self-serving but I think many in the industry would agree that getting a site survey, otherwise known as a site walk, right the first time (every time) is clarity and kindness to everyone involved. It is not just kindness, it is the difference between a profitable project or not.
I’ve noticed over the years that the end user physical security leader at a company or a campus also talks about their “customer”. Their stakeholders are not necessarily traditional “paying” customers but they are the decision makers and provide the budget. When we help the end user serve their internal customer or stakeholder better at each point of the life cycle, we become a valuable guide and partner. Hint: Help your customer get clarity with their customer. (Okay, that was a mouthful. 🙂)
Red flag: If people are keeping information in their heads or in spreadsheets (and not storing it somewhere everyone can see), this is a red flag that you, your customer, and your team do not have clarity.
You also mentioned process & technology. What do you mean by that?
Process, Process, Process
Was I cheating by putting this in one category? Maybe, but they are so related in terms of process and technology, I had to put them together.
First, let’s discuss “process”. If you’ve ever read the book “E-Myth, The Entrepreneurs Myth”, it is a great fable about starting a business with the mistake of remaining the “technician”. It’s a helpful book to serve as a touchstone of whether the business is running you, or are you running the business…. It turns out that your clients want to know that you have a systematic process and that the business can thrive on its own – not only when Bob is there and in charge. Remember, they depend on you to serve their own customers.
Ideally, your processes are documented, automated and consistent so that every employee and your customers know what they will get and when. In fact, some customers now want to see SOC 2 Compliance, ISO 9000 certification, CISSP and other proof that your processes are audited and sound. This may depend on your customer base but either way, it will help you raise your game with profound benefits.
Perception of how well a physical security system is documented and supported is a major differentiator of a system integrator. Those who are profitable with recurring revenue streams stand out in this regard (and get more referral business).
Automation & Technology
Next up is “technology”. We’re a software company, so suffice it to say we are biased here. Having said that, running today’s system integration business without quality software and automation is going to make it more difficult and likely less profitable. According to the 2022 SS&I Business Software Deep Dive, system integrators that invest in software technology improve profitability by 16%.
The top system integration performers know that investing in quality software for Site Surveys and System Design, CRM, ERP and Support are table-stakes to run the business. It’s tempting to build custom software for the job but this has largely become a thing of the past. Building custom software is a slippery slope and one that can be an albatross longer term. (Talk about making life harder!) Increasingly, best-in-class, purpose-built business operations software is available to implement and integrate to optimize a business.
Capture Data Early & Often
I am completely on board with the vision of our CEO, Chris. As he well puts it, the company that creates data as early as possible at the first point in the customer journey, is going to be much more efficient and healthy. With a digital floor plan, drag-and-drop icons and photo capture, you’re immediately advancing the opportunity for automation and less human error. For those who do this, the business is already ahead of the game and in a position for much more of the benefits of automation throughout sales to the life-cycle of the customer. Wise words from deep experience.
Red flag: If your company and team are still using paper floor plans, you’re missing a big opportunity for improving the ease to serve customers more effectively.
What are practical approaches to improving culture, clarity, and processes/technology?
Identify whether your processes are consistent. A common process that screams for consistency at the vital first interaction is the site survey. If everyone is doing this differently (using notepads, Google slides, pictures on cell phones, spreadsheets, or PowerPoint), just imagine the impression that you’re making right from the get-go.
Remember: A great culture is consistently showing what “great” looks like.Consistently great site surveys go a long way toward this goal.
Adopt Easy-to-Use Software that Makes Everyone Look like a Rockstar
Third is adding software tools that level the playing field, bringing less experienced employees up to speed quickly. Plenty of people have been in the business for decades, but relying on existing expertise isn’t a scalable long-term strategy.
It’s unrealistic to expect that level of expertise from everyone. So, engaging with software and tools for intelligent and “wizard-like” design will help. Get the right tools into the hands of your talent and have them engage customers while using it. Konica Minolta Security Services use software to do this in a consistent way, training its sales staff to gather site requirements and collaborate on security system designs while on the site survey with their customer. Read more about their best practices in this case study.
Set Better Client Expectations
This one is my favorite and it’s the lowest-hanging fruit. Customers don’t know what’s possible beyond what they’ve experienced before. Most everyone expects a site survey will be a quick walk through, 15 minutes, paper floor plans and pictures on cell phones. The client has no idea that there is a better way. They are just thinking about bidding the work to a few companies. But, there is a better way to set expectations and your customer is hungry for this (whether they know it or not). Even though it may seem scary at first, teach your team to ask for some quality time at a site survey with the promise that the client will get a timely, decision-ready proposal that will better meet their needs than what they typically get. You already have their attention!
Preparing ahead with a digital floor plan to document the requirements IN FRONT OF THEM will increase confidence and reset their experience from the get-go.
The system integrators that get an accurate, decision-ready proposal to a prospect faster than their competitor will win almost every time. And we mean truly accurate, ready to sign. So, it is incumbent on your team to gather excellent information during a site visit or site survey. That starts with their engagement so invest time here with substantial benefits.
Red flag: Maybe you think walking a site in 15 minutes with a paper floor plan is easier on your client, but it leaves a bad taste when they get an inaccurate proposal several days late.
For more on this topic, check out 5 Ways to Improve Time to Proposal and Competitive Sales Wins.
Do you have any concluding thoughts?
It’s not always easy to make things simple, but these four items can help make your business more enjoyable and more profitable. How do I know? Because as a software vendor we have an aggregate look at your customer base. I’ve personally worked with hundreds of VPs, Directors of Sales, General Managers and Owners and have captured the perspectives that they have shared.
These are things that I’ve gleaned over the years. There is plenty of business to capitalize on but the treadmill of unprofitable projects is wasteful and frustrating! Commit to these values and approaches — and put the right digital tools in place — and watch things fall into place. Take the time to implement software wisely, ask for best practices from your vendors and tap their community of users for guidance.
Run Your System Integrator Business Better with System Surveyor
System Surveyor is more than a drawing tool: it’s a collaborative site survey and design platform that works in the field and at the office redefining what’s possible in the physical security, AV and other technology markets. Our dynamic system design software helps you capture better client data earlier, visualize and collaborate on solutions, to win and profitably deliver on more contracts.
If you’re ready to evolve from the status quo, we’re here for you. Try our platform for free and see how System Surveyor can address the challenges you’re facing.