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Welcome back architects, and builders who want to become even better architects (if you are scratching your head right now, you need to read part one of this series Free is a 4 Letter Word.  Don’t worry, we will wait, go ahead and read it).  Now that I have your interest, there is something very important that we must first discuss before you try to start charging for your design work – we must first come to a conclusion as to what a “system design” actually is.

The term “design” is used very liberally in the AV world, and in my experience, most AV Integrators tend to stretch the definition from what it is intended to be.  My definition is:

 A set of documents and drawings that not only describe the type of system that will be installed and product that is to be used, but also a description and documentation of how that equipment will work together as a complete system.

I like to look at a system design as being something that includes all the related documentation and drawings that an entry level technician would need to complete the project if you were unable to answer any questions and only able to provide your system design.  I know that this may sound ridiculous, but that is the major point of a system design.  Your system design should accomplish two goals:

  1. Engineer the system to ensure that it will work properly and deliver the results that have been sold to the client.
  2. Provide a “roadmap” detailing how to assemble the system that you have specified.

I wish there was a black and white answer of exactly what is needed for a proper system design, but unfortunately each project has its own unique challenges and therefore some projects may require additional documentation or drawings.  That being said, you need to set a standard set of documentation and drawings that is included with every system design package that your company is selling.  Tailor it to the type of projects that you typically work on, and if necessary, have multiple design packages that your company offers based on project size or project type.

It really does not matter what you include in your system design package(s).  It only really matters that you create standards of what you’ll include before you can sell it to your clients. How many clients would agree to a proposal that offered a LCD TV 20-90 inches? I think you would be required to provide some more specific details of the product being sold.  Now I would be lying if I said that because I definitely have my opinion as to what must be included as part of a system design. However, the first aspect to focus on, if you want to be able to charge for your designs, is to define what the client will receive for the amount that you are charging for your design service.

As an integrator, when I made the decision to get paid for all the design work that we were doing for free, my initial focus was simple; after the initial client meeting, the client would leave with a budget range (which they helped determine), and an understanding that in order for us to move forward and generate a detailed proposal, they would need to pay us a design fee.  I will admit when I first started this, it was not about getting paid for every hour that was spent on design, but rather getting the client to commit to us and understand that they needed to pay for our time.

When we first started I charged $500 for a basic system design that gave the client a detailed product list along with the notation that full system engineering and documentation and drawings would be included as part of the overall system price.  At this point these were not what I would consider fully custom systems, more along the lines of systems that we had previously installed in past projects that we could import into the new project.  We had created a bunch of template projects that had different types of systems that we could simply import into the current project and then make small tweaks to conform to the current project.

The $500 design fee did not last long, only about six months.  At that point, we had our sales pitch down, had sample designs to show clients, and most importantly felt confident in what we were providing.  We dropped the fixed price and moved to a percentage-based model for design fees.

This is part two of a six part series on selling design & engineering services detailing the major aspects involved in actually charging for your design & engineering services.

About the Author

his post was written by DAVE KIRN

Dave is the President & Founder of D-Tools Certified Partner, k2 Dealer Services, a specialty consulting firm for the AV industry based in St. Louis, MO.  Dave has been in the AV industry for 18+ years and owned a successful AV integration company for 8 years prior to starting k2 in 2007.