Well, if you follow some basic rules, set out below, it’s not as bad as you might think, but be wary of recommendations from friends and colleagues who may generalise all IT topics as the same thing.
Just because supplier A did a good job on say your friend’s customer management software, it does not mean they will be best placed to deliver your engineering software application. Similarly, everyone is talking about moving their IT systems to “the cloud”. On premise is tarred as being sooooooo last century, but moving to the cloud is not right for every organisation or project.
The specific needs and circumstances must be considered in every case and shock, horror the vendor whose job it is to sell products or services is not always impartial. Nor, are their friends at your local IT managed service support provider or reseller who get commission on referral sales. Please don’t think that I am in any way shaking a tarry brush at all such organisations. I’m not. I know many in this space and by and large they do good work. However, they generally work to a fixed model that suits them and cookie cutter approaches tend not to fit all organisations equally well. So, as the purchaser you need to be aware.
One thing I always bang on about is knowing what you need before you engage with suppliers. Note I said need, not want. If you have children you’re probably familiar with trying to bang that one home, but it applies here as well.
Why? If your requirements are vague to any extent then the supplier will build in extra time in their quote. They don’t know the business so it will take them longer to fathom out the underlying need. What if on this investigation, it turns out the project is far more complicated than they expected or budgeted for? Delays, increased costs, … There will always be unexpected hurdles, but you can avoid the majority by preparing before you engage.
At the point of sale, the salesperson does not know all the details that will be needed to implement the solution. Remember there is padding in their quote for this reason. If you demonstrate you know your true needs, their job becomes easier and the amount of £padding decreases.
If you have someone with an analytical mind in your firm get them involved in breaking down the top-level e.g. “we want to digitally transform our business” (see, I used another popular buzz phrase there). If you don’t have such a person, or they are busy with other projects, consider bringing in an external neutral advisor to help.
Identify the workflows and processes you use. Ask lots of questions and be open minded about change. What would our customers use? How would it benefit them? Are you developing an innovative change or something completely new? Are you sure? What’s out there that can be adapted?
Engage with relevant people throughout your organisation. They are the eyes and ears for the way things actually work, not how you think it works. Ignore them at your peril. Learn from them, take on board what they say and adapt accordingly to fit in with what you want to achieve.
Is it feasible? Within my budget? Hopefully yes, but that won’t always be the case. If not, how much benefit can be had from a sub-set? It is possible, and in some cases better, to implement solutions step-by-step. It reduces risk, and allows you to measure change as you go. Try it out, adapt, learn and look at transforming further elements later.
Get a reasonable grip on these and then engage with potential suppliers. Have a budget in mind. You may receive wildly varying quotes. The most expensive, BigCo uses it, product is not necessarily best suited to your small or medium sized business and the popular SmallCo system may not cater for the way you work and could hamper you. Now, once upon a time there were three bears, …
I’m always amazed when individuals in companies refuse to take calls or meet with sales reps. Yes, I understand you have limited time, me too, but they are not the enemy. They have valuable information that will help you refine your proposition and in some cases, make a U-turn for the better.
“All fine and well, but which suppliers do I go for?” When I started, in the early 1990’s, doing what you might call technical vendor management it involved a lot of reading of trade journals, exhibitions, conferences and various other searching. With the advent of the World Wide Web, those routes have gradually diminished and the default starting point is now Google, or your favourite search engine.
However, finding the right results from a search engine can be difficult in the noisy webscape. Those that shout loudest and have the resources to spend on search-engine optimisation and marketing can drown out the technology and suppliers most suited to your application. As you know being more thoughtful about the specifics of your search will help the results, but still the number of useful results returned can be limited.
There are other services that can help. For example, Company Connecting has a researched database with details of many small expert companies which would not show up in standard searches. Use your judgement and augment your own skills with experienced business/technical bridge people as appropriate to shortcut the process.
As you progress with a supplier the salesperson will often bring along a technical advisor or analyst to meetings. This is your best friend. Ask them direct questions on aspects you are not clear about and don’t be put off by Mr/Ms Sales trying to gloss over what they say or stop you from having independent time with them. Get your internal analytical person to have a chat with them. No solution or service is 100% perfect or a match. You want the best fit and you need to dig under the gloss to find it.
The vendor’s analyst will tend to give answers to your questions without the marketing superlatives. If they don’t know an answer to a question, or raise more questions don’t treat that as a negative. It doesn’t mean they don’t know their stuff. Sometimes it is said IT people are not the best at explaining things. Most that I know want to be correct and often need time to think through a problem before they feel comfortable in giving a response. What would you prefer: any old answer now, or the right answer later?
Confidence is no guarantee of quality, suitability or that the supplier can deliver the right system, at the right time, at the right price. Always look beneath the surface and read between the lines. IT solutions can be complicated to implement and integrate. What to a lay person may seem like little details can escalate into big problems if you are not careful.
It is your business, your project and you are in control. If you have a nagging doubt over something, don’t ignore it or be fobbed off with technobabble. This is probably not your area of expertise, so take your time and bring in an independent advisor if necessary. It will save you £££££s in the long run.
I’ve worked with start-ups to large multi-national companies and these basic stepping stones broadly apply in all cases. Choose a supplier that is a good fit for your project and you will get great results. You’ll develop a healthy ongoing relationship with them, but for your next project you should still re-evaluate other vendors for best fit to the specifics of that project.
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