Real answers from service providers

Periodically I get the question, “What service provider should I go with?” Or, as a reader recently put it, “I hope you write a column about how to evaluate telcos using the resources out there on the Net, but I’ll have signed a multi-year contract by then.”

Let’s make it now then. While the information is typically not posted conveniently on the Net, a structured selection process can generate a ton of useful information that will help you make informed decisions, at no extra charge. Here are some tips for obtaining the right information about your service providers:

– Create an RFP that includes your voice, data, wireless, Internet, remote-access and hosting needs. You might not elect to outsource all of the above or to procure all those services from the same provider, but including them in the RFP helps find out what services are available from the providers. Ask them to explain their offerings to you – and don’t hesitate to play one off against the other.

– Ask for reference customers. (Also ask for names and numbers of customers who elected not to go with the service provider you’re seeking, though those might be harder to get.) Call the references and interview them about their experiences with carriers other than the folks who provided them as a reference. In other words, ask AT&T Corp. customers who switched from Sprint Corp. to provide details on what went wrong with their Sprint relationship.

– Plan a dog-and-pony show for each serious contender. Invite them to your offices to answer questions from you and your team. Specify that the sales executives must be accompanied by representatives from engineering and customer service so you get the real answers.

– War-game in advance. Before the dog-and-pony shows begin, invest the time to hold a brainstorming session with your team to find out what scenarios are likely to pose challenges to you (for example, a catastrophic outage of three T-1s leading into your company’s headquarters). When the providers arrive, ask: “How would your company handle that scenario?” Then listen to the answers, but ask the telco to provide names and contact information for customers for whom they’ve handled similar problems. If they can’t, your antennae should go up.

– Verify financial stability. Borrow some people from your company’s CFO’s office and ask them to prepare an up-to-date financial analysis of the telcos you’re considering. Look at debt, profitability, cash flow, recent mergers and acquisitions, and market performance. Make sure the financial types brief you and your team in advance of the provider dog-and-pony shows. Ask the financial folks to be present at the shows, and encourage them to ask questions.

The upshot is that getting up-to-date information from customers, competitors and other departments within your company is the best way to find out the “dirty little secrets” a service provider doesn’t want you to know.

Till Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, an independent technology research firm. She can be reached at