Ask more questions when choosing an integrator  At VoiceCon 2005 I heard many end-user enterprise customers complaining about the service from systems integrators. As one of them said, "No one seems to have a solution to this problem." Well, to me the solution seems simple: we need to make better decisions when selecting integrators. This challenge has been with us for a long time, but it got worse with the advent of IP telephony. Many of the newer IP-based technologies are imperfectly and unevenly understood. As a result, installations get fouled up, and time and money gets wasted. And compounding this, almost every integrator—a term for suppliers that configure and install your new systems—has gone through a recent merger, acquisition or major reorganization. Internal staff have had to cope with the changes and many have taken shortcuts. And what’s the impact of the shortcuts? Problems—some of them a pebble in your shoe and some of them major. As one client told me last week, "You need good radar nowadays. If you can detect things early, you avoid a lot of pain." Selecting the appropriate integrator is not an exact science. So you try to get as many facts as possible, figure out the gaps and risks, and make an informed decision. Eleven Guidelines 1.Admit neither of you know all the questions. When it comes to planning and implementing some of the newer IP-based technologies for specific applications, neither the seller nor the buyer has all the questions, let alone all the answers. So get agreement on the need to work collaboratively. If you don’t, your short list just got shorter. 2.Bring in the manufacturer. Far too often, the integrators don’t know enough about the products and services they represent. At the outset, ask that the discussions include a point person from the manufacturer—someone who can answer your questions, or who will get the answers to your questions. 3.Go beyond the boilerplate and the templates. Most proposals consist mainly of general information included for legal, accounting and other reasons that doesn’t address your unique requirements. You need to be specific about what you need, and get specific answers. 4.Profile the integrator. Get information on the business items in a clear, concise fashion, e.g., financial strength, market share, installed base. Then verify the details. 5.Don’t check references, visit them. Get references to two or three organizations with similar circumstances and go talk to them—in person. Find out what went right, what went wrong, and what they learned. 6.Assess the integrator’s team. After you’ve identified and resolved the key service-related items, go one level deeper. For example, find out who will be assigned to your implementation and where they live. Read the bios for the team that would be assigned, ask the tech support staff how much training they’ve had on some of the specific systems you’re planning on buying, and ask how many other organizations they support. 7.Trust your gut. The list of selection items may be very detailed, the list of selection criteria may be very structured, the scoring system may have been designed by a team of actuaries. But there is still a subjective component that can’t be quantified. 8.Don’t take anything for granted. Definitions vary and it is important that your definitions match. If you’re not sure, ask. 9.Get commitment to keep the same sales lead. Too many implementation people have that "I wasn’t there when this was sold" expression on their faces. Get solid commitment early that the key salesperson stays on throughout the implementation. 10.Ensure you both agree on the scope of all integrator commitments. Many pre- and post-implementation problems are caused by a basic misunderstanding of a term or condition, or are triggered by an integrator saying. "This is out of scope." 11.Define escalation and agree on time frames. Many buyers’ complaints centre on their supplier’s lack of responsiveness. You need advance agreement on what is a fair and reasonable time to react and resolve. Get your group to come up with five scenarios and go through each with the prospective supplier. And then get it in writing. Today’s telecom environment is an exciting one. Suppliers characterize it as vicious and intense; buyers call it confusing and overwhelming. So decisions are not easy. So remember this: Sellers are paid to sell the sizzle; buyers are paid to buy the steak. "On the Line" is based on the consulting experience of Angus Dortmans Associates. Henry Dortmans, President, welcomes comments and suggestions. Send an e-mail to email@example.com or call him at 416-849-2896. For information on the firm’s advisory services, seminars and speeches, visit www.angusdortmans.ca.