by Travis Schwab and Jeff Bell
Let’s face it: establishing relationships with new vendors is fraught with peril and often doesn’t go very well. Many times, promises are made by sales people during the sales process, but when it comes time to deliver, the implementation/installation goes off the rails.. And problems don’t end there: software packages are often long on promises and short on working solutions, staff training is incomplete or an afterthought, and ongoing communication and service is difficult. While there is no one solution to these problems, in our experience we have found that addressing several key areas upfront can have a huge impact on how well things work out in the end. When you’re looking at establishing a new vendor relationship, we recommend that you pay attention to these five areas that are critical to success.
- What you see is what you get? Bait-and-switch is far older than the software business, but it’s far too prevalent in this industry. All too often, the people that sell a deal disappear between the time the contract is signed and the project is completed, leaving client and team alike to fend for themselves during implementation. We find that continuous and seamless transitions in the implementation are central to success. A good rule of thumb is to have representation from the implementation/service team involved towards the end of the sales process. This keeps continuity and makes sure they clearly understand your expectations. Another way to ensure that the promise matches reality is to talk to references and ask them if the vendor lived up to its promises regarding resources. A direct question usually gets a direct answer from a reference and can help avoid headaches down the road. If possible, talk to references both that were provided to you by the vendor as well as do a little investigation and find companies that are customers that you can call directly on your own. Often they will describe a different perspective or experience and this will give you a new insight as well.
- Show me the experience: There are a whole lot of talented developers in the world but it’s not talent alone that is a prerequisite to success. A development team might have exceptional technical chops but that won’t mean a thing if it isn’t grounded with real world experience in the relevant domaines. Real-world experience goes a long way to making life a whole lot easier: not only does it lead to faster and more comprehensive adoption of suggestions, but decision making that takes in the whole picture and understands the interconnectedness of people and processes will ultimately make things go more smoothly in the long run as well. With a new vendor, take a look at the profiles of the people that lead the company as well as those that you’ll be interfacing with on a regular basis and make sure that they have a solid background of experience in the areas that are important to you and your business.
- You can’t run the machine if you don’t know how it works: It’s hard to believe, but training is one of the most overlooked aspects of new vendor implementation. Often, this happens because the vendor doesn’t know or understand how their client currently performs their day-to-day tasks and the client, for their part, doesn’t know enough about the software to ask how it might improve or enhance their job. As above, the level and quality of vendor experience helps in this situation but it’s also important to take a look at the formal training process for both breadth and depth. The quality of the training process will not only lead to long-term success but it can also help to ease the transition process and this translates not only to better business results but employee satisfaction as well.
- Tell me how things work when things don’t work: There’s a saying that software is never finished, it’s released. The reality is that things often don’t work exactly as advertised or they sometimes fail to work (break). With this in mind, it’s important to look at how a vendor deals with exceptions and outages. What is the policy and process for handling production issues? Once again, talking to references can be very helpful here. One telling feature is how transparent the process is for you, the customer. Not all issues are “hair on fire” important but they might be of longer-term significance to you. Are you able to independently track the progress of these items and do you know where they stand in the development queue? Generally speaking, the more visibility you have the more likely you’re going to receive good service.
- Will you still love me tomorrow? No one gets more love and attention from a software vendor than a new customer. It’s all hearts-and-flowers in the first phases of deployment but it’s how things look months down the road that are going to have a real impact on your business. What is the process and structure for ongoing communication with customers and how often can you expect to have substantive contact with the customer support team? The best firms offer regular update calls that get to the heart of a client’s most important issues and keep them aligned on what is most important even as circumstances change. In addition to how often, ask what the structure of conversations will be and some examples of customer experiences that are indicative of how things work. Again, asking the same questions of references can be very illuminating as well.
The loss of productivity from an incomplete or unsatisfactory implementation of new software tools is a sad fact of business life that is easy to see but virtually impossible to calculate. Software that fails to deliver on its promises often means that customer needs aren’t met, business opportunities or risks aren’t fully addressed and both customers and your own team are dissatisfied, which can lead to lost sales, low morale and worse. Taking the time to objectively and thoroughly vetting new software vendors can have profound impacts that will pay dividends for years to come.
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