The process of choosing, working and retaining a good solution provider is integral to the success of a small or mid-sized business (SMB), possibly far more than it is for a large company with several ongoing alliances.
After all, in case of an SMB, if the partnership fails miserably, the simultaneous collapse of the technology project may cause the firm irreparable harm down the road.
So the first and most obvious requirement for effective partnering is finding a good set of suitors.
There are many ways to locate possible candidates.
The Web is one of the best places to start, as are vendor sites, or even asking your other trusted IT providers.
And often people go with that old standby: word of mouth.
Friends can provide good recommendations, though if they are not in a similar business as you, their advice can’t be considered quite as valuable. Going with a reference from someone you trust, be it a friend, colleague, or just someone with a good track record, is often the best idea.
Once you have a list of solution providers to choose from, you must somehow whittle that number down. There are several steps to the process, but here are five essential ones.
Tip 1: Talk to their customers
If you’re buying expertise, you need to know that someone else has bought it from the same source, and lived to tell about it.
Ask for several references from a prospective solutions provider. Make sure you talk to firms around the same size as yours that have bought similar technology from the company in question.
Your queries about another’s implementation experience may highlight barriers to the successful rollout of a future project you have planned, or pinpoint areas where you need to be better prepared before starting a new deployment.
Also find out how long the company has been in business, specifically how long they’ve been offering the things you’re planning to buy.
Tip 2: Speak the same technology language
You should learn something about the application or service you’re planning to acquire before meeting those who will eventually provide it.
Not doing this makes you vulnerable to being misled by unfounded claims and boasts. You might end up with a solution you weren’t really looking for.
Prior research also helps you to ensure you don’t pay more than you should.
Tip 3: Look to the future
SMBs are often growing companies, so they should purchase solutions designed for growth.
If the contract you sign offers no flexibility, it is definitely going to hinder your progress going forward. Therefore, don’t just buy just for today’s needs, but for next year’s as well.
SMBs should also be less reactive and more proactive during the supplier selection process. Understand whether what you’re buying will actually work with your existing infrastructure. In other words, don’t just buy something because someone told you it was good. Understand why it’s good, and whether it will be useful at your particular organization.
Tip 4: Sign a smart deal
In most cases, if the service level agreement (SLA) you signed with the service provider is unfulfilled, you will be entitled to walk away without penalty. You should have the flexibility to opt out if basic service levels are not met.
Make sure the consultant can provide a complete service package. Critical elements of any software implementation include: product training, technical support, and future maintenance, and upgrades.
If your solution provider is only good at one or two of these elements, it’s probably not going to be a long and fruitful partner relationship.
Tip 5: Communication is critical
Do the solution provider’s reps listen to you? If they go on and on about what their products can do for your business, but fail to understand what your company actually wants, problems are likely to occur. The true consultant consults while the product peddler only peddles.
To make the best recommendations, a solution provider must learn about your organization, your business requirements, even your company’s quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Another good way to relate to and work well long-term with a solution provider is to understand exactly what that company is trying to achieve.
A solution provider will experience the greatest success if it is constantly building strong relationships, according to Kevin McGrath, president of Intuition Marketing. Such a company will be skilled at establishing rapport, trust and credibility.
Your partner must be better than competitors, differentiating itself from others that provide the same offerings. If not, there’s no point in partnering.
A good solution provider also has the flexibility to satisfy less common customer requirements, according to Dave Frederickson, vice-president, solution partners organization, at HP Canada Co.
He said such solution providers are often able to create, especially on the support side of things, offerings tailored to each customer’s needs. “Many times – because they may not have such a large number of customers – they are able to focus and create more customized solutions for the ones they do have.”
Frederickson also recommends that SMBs open up to their chosen solution provider. Besides strengthening the relationship, sharing business challenges allows solution providers to suggest new ways to offer help; or if they can’t provide it, to suggest others who can.
SMBs can engage the vendor as well. “We’re able to bring far more resources to bear and frankly, create more focused or more flexible solutions [depending on the requirements],” he says.
Openness helps, says Frederickson, “because often, whether it [is] us, or the partner, we’ve got many eyes to a solution. We could deal with it by bringing in expertise that we’ve seen dealing with other organizations either in the same line of business, or for that matter, other horizontal solutions from other parts of the business.”
Besides SLAs and other contracts, getting along with a partner long term is all about having regular, less formal meetings.
Frederickson urges partners to organize such meetings with customers, often on a quarterly basis. This encourages a sharing of knowledge and exposes the current state of affairs in the trenches for the benefit of the SMB’s senior management. It also provides an opportunity to get a better alignment between the customer’s business goals and those of its IT departments.
“People always say they never have time, but I’d suggest that organizations that do [this], save a significant amount of time. One, they tend not to change partners as frequently because they build a closer relationship, and then there’s more recognition and more communication of what’s expected,” he says.
But Frederickson says the partner shouldn’t be trying to arrange such meetings unless they are recognized by the customer as being valuable.
“[Businesses] I’ve seen that have done very well with this have a formal review [during which] they’ll go and do the SLA, and all the metrics updates, but then they also have an opportunity for the partner to share with them the other value-added activities that they’ve been involved in, to validate whether they truly are value-added activities,” Frederickson says.
Not only do such informal meetings help establish trust and bring out information for both side