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Words of wisdom: Hints and tips on addressing working challenges

Chris Austin is technical sales manager of Autograph Sales & Installations. AS&I is the sales arm of the Autograph Group, whose work in audio for theatre spans over four decades and is responsible for many of the techniques that are now global industry standards
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Chris Austin - Autograph Sales

This technical sales manager shares some of the ideas, tools and techniques that he uses to address his day-to-day working challenges.

Sound affects…

The audience is there to see the performance and to let the actors take them into their world. They haven’t come to listen to a PA, they want to hear the words coming out the mouth of the performer. Different sound designers have different approaches, but I place sonic imaging and naturalness at the top of my priority list when designing.

"Using online collaborative tools only works if the customer buys into it"

Working all hours

Working in busy performance venues means working around their schedules and interrupting them as little as possible, ideally not at all. Our installers all have backgrounds in theatre work, many still do production and touring between installs, so are well accustomed to the unusual hours that many projects dictate. A portion of our work is on new builds or major refurbishments, which means you are then working on a construction site – this takes away any unusual working hours but brings its own challenges. It requires hands-on project management, as the key is being flexible. When you can’t work in one area, knowing what else you can move people on to so as not to waste time is key.

Keeping everyone informed

There are dozens of project management and collaboration tools out there now, but if the project scale is modest you can’t beat old-fashioned face-to-face talking. We have used online collaborative tools on very large projects in operating venues, but this approach only works if the customer buys into it. We naturally keep the client involved as we go along; we want to ensure what we are putting in meets their expectations and that we benefit from their in-depth knowledge of their own building and its secrets.

If we are working directly with the client, they place the trust in us that we are getting things done as efficiently as possible and we make sure to flag up very early if things look like they are straying from the agreed plan.

Training adds critical value

On any system we install, training is always included. This isn’t a half-day whip-round and a lever arch file of drawings, it’s the start of a relationship. As we provide customers with more opportunities through the upgraded technology we install, they find more creative ways to use it, but it’s a gradual process. It’s vital we continue to go back and work with them to achieve their goals, and make a point of empowering them to make their own changes. No password-protected design files here.

With so much of what we do now being software defined (open architecture DSP systems or audio networking, for example) rather than hardware defined, the documentation we provide can become rapidly outdated. For these types of projects, we now run ‘living documentation’ which is updated by both the customer and us, usually through Dropbox. This not only means they have access to the most up-to-date docs all the time, it means we can support them remotely by being aware of changes they have made too.

Leadership starts with self-discipline

Balancing my workload is the most difficult aspect of my job. I’ve always been guilty of taking on too much, but in a small team the volume of work (both project work, and the business functions) often outweighs the amount of hands.

I keep on top of it by having a very thorough to-do list, so I can record tasks as soon as they enter my head but make a plan for doing them later. I come into the office an hour or so early and take the time to plan out my day. It stops the tendency to get carried away in the first thing that crosses your desk, otherwise before you know it the day is over and you haven’t ticked anything off your list.

"On any system we install, training is the start of a relationship"

Email is the killer, there is just far too much of it. Keeping on top of it could be a full-time job in its own right. I try not to keep it open, only checking it a few times a day so I can stay focused on the tasks I have chosen for the day.

Finally, I have one secret weapon to increase the signal-to-noise ratio of my inbox: a mail rule to put any email with the word ‘unsubscribe’ in it straight into the bin. [Hang on – what about the Installation newsletter? – Editor]

www.autographsales.co.uk

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