Firstly, a disclaimer. We are an IT systems integrator ourselves but like any other business we also work with external partners/vendors. I was compelled to write this post after being questioned by a number of our customers as to why we are being so nice or what the catch is for going above and beyond what is expected?
It got me thinking, if this is the general sentiment towards IT partners then the conventional ways i.e. checking customer references, running tenders etc will help identify IT partners who are "capable" but not necessarily the "right" partner. Let's look at some unconventional ways that can be used alongside the conventional to help you find the right IT partner that matches your business and its culture.
Relationship not just partnership
Remember the scene from Jerry Maguire when Rod comes out of the change room to the waiting media, finds Jerry and they both embrace. One of the other player looks at his agent and asks "why don't we have that kind of relationship?"
Find partners who have a genuine interest in helping your business and not just talk about themselves. Watch out for statements like "don't worry about the cost, you can get most of it back with the government grants" or "we can provide a quote once you've answered these simple questions" as these are sure signs of monetary interests. I know of one company who in their first meeting will request to physically walk around the business premises to observe, hear, smell, feel first hand how the business operates. This, he tells me, shows the customer that you will always put their interests first.
Speed date before signing
If possible, have the teams from both sides meet over a coffee or lunch. Observe how well they interact and get along with one another. Ask for feedback from your team on how comfortable they felt and would they be able to work with them. This achieves two things. One, it will save some time when the project starts as the team already have some knowledge of each other e.g. roles, responsibilities, capabilities etc. Two, your team are part of the decision to work with the chosen IT partner giving them a sense of ownership of the project.
Throw in a red herring
Most of us would prefer to work with partners who have honesty and integrity. A way to suss this out is by throwing in something that you very obviously do not need and hear what they come back with. A response like "sure we can do that, anything you ask for we can do" may come across as helpful but can be a sign of over promising and dishonesty. An IT partner with integrity should always highlight what are nice to haves, gold-plating or completely unnecessary. Some examples of red herrings you can use (tweak for your business);
- I don't have much space in the office but I think I need to put in a server to back-up our data.
- We have over a hundred employees, mostly part-timers and I guess everyone would need access to the system?
- I'm looking to implement some simple book keeping software. Would a budget of [some ridiculous amount] be within the ball park?
"Imagine you're taking a road trip. You have 10 hours, and you can only make three stops along the way. When you arrive, you see that you've made the trip in eight hours, and you've only stopped twice. That's fantastic! Except you're in Los Angeles, and you needed to get to Seattle. That's the situation businesses get into all the time -- they look at cost and process without looking at the outcome and whether or not there's any business value in these projects. They can't see the forest for the trees,"
I'd like to add to this analogy that if some pre-travel preparation was done and the right travel partner was chosen that it would result in better sentiments towards IT partners and more projects would be successful. Who knows...