You need to ask more questions when choosing a supplier Last year, I wrote about the dilemma of choosing suppliers (see Telemanagement # 224). People still encounter difficulty with it, perhaps even more so. So here it is again. I’ve made a few changes. I often hear many end-user enterprise customers complaining about the service from suppliers. As one of them said, "No one seems to have a solution." Well, to me the solution seems simple: we need to make better decisions when selecting them. This challenge has been with us for a long time, but it got worse with the advent of IP. Many of the newer technologies are imperfectly and unevenly understood. As a result, installations get fouled up, and time and money gets wasted.And compounding this, almost every supplier – the ones that configure and install your new systems and networks – 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 once told me, "You need good radar nowadays. If you can detect things early, you avoid a lot of pain."Selecting the appropriate supplier is not an exact science: you try to get as many facts as possible, figure out the gaps and risks, and make an informed decision.Eleven GuidelinesAdmit you both don’t 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. Bring in the manufacturer. Far too often, distributors 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. Go beyond the boilerplate and the templates. Most proposals consist mainly of general information included for legal, accounting, and other reasons. You need to be specific about what you need, and get specific answers. Profile the potential supplier. Get information on the business items in a clear, concise fashion, e.g., financial strength, market share and installed base. Then verify the details. 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. Assess the supplier’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. Read the bios for the team that would be assigned, ask the tech support staff how much training they’ve had on the specific systems you’re cosnidering, and ask how many other organizations they support. Trust your gut. The list of selection items may be very detailed, the list of selection criteria may be very structured and the scoring system may have been designed by a team of actuaries. But there is still a subjective component that can’t be quantified. Funny how few ever admit this. Don’t take anything for granted. Definitions vary and it is important that your definitions match. If you’re not sure, ask. 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 sales person stays on throughout the implementation. Ensure you agree on scope. Many pre- and post-implementation problems are caused by a basic misunderstanding of a term or condition, or are triggered by a supplier saying, "This is out of scope." 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 three or four typical 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. Decisions are not easy. But 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 email 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.