Business owners choose vendors or business partners on a regular basis. Selecting a technology vendor or partner is no different from other vendors. Best practices in vendor selection tell us to communicate the same set of outcomes to each vendor, ask each of them the same specific set of qualifying questions, and evaluate them using the same scale.
Beyond this general methodology, there are nuances to the process that can help select the right vendors who fit the project requirements and our working style. By doing a few moments of research, asking a few additional questions, and listening carefully for some red flags, the right vendor will rise to the top of the list.
Some of these red flags may seem second nature to some, and individual items do not necessarily indicate the vendor is not a good match. Watch for multiple flags or deal breakers.
They have communication issues.
Maybe the service they provide comes highly recommended, but the responses to your questions sound like another language. Perhaps they don’t return calls or emails in a reasonable time frame. Possibly conversations are challenging.
If a vendor can’t communicate during the evaluation process, how good are they going to be during the implementation? Even if you love the solution presented, but conversations are challenging, it’s likely you will spend more time trying to help them understand your needs than implementing the solution, which delays the project. Communication issues also can jeopardize the success of the solution.
Things to look for to ensure a good fit would be that they ask lots of questions that make you think about your end-goals for the project. Also, crucial to successful communications are meetings with agendas that include time to discuss next steps and set follow-up meetings.
They have staffing issues.
Be alert to how long the individuals working at the vendor have been employed there. Does staff move around inside the company frequently or your contact change to a new person during the process? Does the company employ third-parties to develop or support the software or service?
If you see more than one of these flags, it’s likely a sign that the vendor isn’t going to be very consistent with experience and knowledge. They may not be as in-tune with you as a client, and they may even lack the business knowledge to understand their own products and services. In addition, using third-parties instead of internal staff can cause communication issues and more.
Keep your eyes open for longer-term employees (those who have been there longer than three years) and healthy work environment indicators. Using resources you have already, LinkedIn for example, verify how long individuals stay at the company and in a role. Look for their open positions and what they post as requirements for staff. Check the company website to see what they communicate about their culture.
The solution sounds perfect.
Do they tell you they can provide everything you want? Do they promise to meet the deadline and budget? Do they talk about their solution as the perfect – and only – solution that can meet all your needs?
Perfection in technology simply isn’t reality. There will always be compromises to meet each business model and project. A company that claims they can deliver a solution that will meet all of your needs is frankly not being honest.
Look instead for awards the company has won. Listen to their stories of how they helped other clients – are these similar to your situation? Find examples of their work – does it match what they claim? Ask them if they use this same technology themselves.
They sound too good to be true.
When you talk to references, do they tell you golfing stories about the owner? Have the references finished their implementation yet? Do they say only positive things about the vendor and solution?
Just as no solution is perfect, no vendor is either. There will be challenges in the relationship and the solution. Again, compromise is always required for the best result.
Instead of only calling references the vendor provides, attempt to find some on your own. Ask references to talk about challenges and how the vendor overcame them. Ask them if they were honest about having problems at all.
They are not a stable company.
How long have they been in business? Do they have a long-term roadmap for the product or strategy for the services they provide? Are they a startup? Did they tell you they can start work immediately or did they have to look at their project backlog?
The last thing anyone wants with a technology partner is a short-lived relationship. We should be looking for a provider that we can contact when we want enhancements, new projects completed, and especially, support for any current solutions. Besides word-of-mouth referrals and the longevity of the business, there are several things to look for to ensure this is a long-term relationship.
Check to see if the business is on file with the secretary of state. Look for liens or lawsuits against them. Is the business up for sale? How many employees do they have and how long have the leaders been there?
One of the most critical parts of the selection process will be how honest we are with ourselves and how aware of reality we are. Do we merely like the vendor and want a quick, easy decision? Or do we spend time up front to make sure we are satisfied long-term?
This process is no different from a homeowner going through the selection process before they choose a flooring installer. There may be a few different criteria, but the process is similar.
I would caution that making a quick decision and ignoring too many of the flags mentioned will simply increase the likelihood that the project, and subsequent vendor selection, will need repeating or repair sooner than expected. Trust yourself, be honest with yourself, and look for those same qualities in any business partner.
Jodi O’Toole is Director of IT and Web Development at the National Wood Flooring Association in St. Louis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.