Six Steps to Choosing the Right Vendor
There are some clear steps institutions should follow to enter into a successful and beneficial service partnership.
As the chief information officer of a small, private university, I’ve always found that smart use of limited resources goes a long way in making my job easier. One of the best methods I’ve found in stretching those limited resources is to make smart vendor choices. I don’t have the time to waste on countless vendor “pitches” as they parade through my office with all of the reasons why their product will revolutionize my world or fulfill my project needs. So, here are some tried-and-true methods I’ve developed to help me get the right vendor for the right product, at the best possible price.

1. Do Your Homework

Before you tackle any project, make sure you’ve done your homework. Just like you were taught in school, gather your facts and know the data. I’m certain you would never step in front of the board to make a presentation without first preparing yourself and knowing the data you’re presenting. In the same way, make sure you know as much as possible about the problem you are resolving, goal you are achieving or the vision you are making into a reality.

This information-gathering phase should include input from end-users and your campus technology advisory panel or appropriate faculty shared-governance committee. Every successful project requires end-user “buy-in” and there’s no point in wasting valuable time and scarce resources on any project if they aren’t going to use the solution you’ve put in place. By the way, I’ve also found these projects are more successful when the project “owner” is a department head or implementation committee chair rather than an IT staffer or the CIO. You or your staff may still be doing the bulk of the work, but if the department or committee doesn’t take ownership of the project, then it may simply be seen as another IT project that has been “forced” on them.

Now that you’ve established the goal and identified the project owner, you need to find out which vendors can provide the services, products or systems needed. While a quick Google search will likely give you a list of potential vendors, I don’t always trust the value of these results. I like to talk to my peers and find out their experiences with the same or similar projects. In addition, I’ve found that local vendors seem to have more at stake in my overall success with a project and, thus, are more likely to give the same commitment to the project as my staff, which results in a “win” for both of us.

2. Create a Roadmap

The next step in this process is to develop a detailed plan that includes specific requirements (must haves) and options (like to haves). While I tend to even get into the details of specific brands and models with my requirements and options, this is primarily due to my background and interest in these things. Your request for proposal (RFP) doesn’t necessarily need that specificity, unless you are standardizing on particular brands/models. However, you do need to be as specific as possible in your RFP or you will get proposals from vendors that don’t really meet your requirements.

If you are unsure about the specifics in any area of the proposal, seek input from trusted staff and peers, or consider a consultant that specializes in that field. I don’t use consultants extensively, but in instances when knowledge is out-of-date or limited, it can be money well spent to get a consultant’s input. I’ve also found that requesting RFPs be divided into “essential and optional” categories helps me determine which items are meeting my requirements and which items the vendor has added into the proposal as a, “You really ought to get this, too.” Sometimes, those optional items were things we didn’t know existed but quickly elevated to essential once we knew about them, while other optional items were just “fluff” and were not included in our final order.

3. Get Informed

Once you have the RFPs in hand, you need to do some research into the proposed solutions. Read the reviews, look at the annual “best of” lists that come out in all of the trade magazines. Ask for references of customers actually using the products and call them for feedback. Post questions to any professional email lists to which you subscribe. While you can always expect some negative feedback from references, listen to what they are really saying about the product. I’ve had some references really blast a vendor, but as I listened to their comments, it became quite clear the real issue wasn’t with the product as much as it was a misunderstanding between the customer and the vendor. While that is still good information to have, it says more about the customer/vendor relationship than it does about the product.

While we’re on the subject of vendor reputation, make certain you check and double-check a potential vendor’s reputation with current customers — and I would suggest customers who are actually using the product(s) you’re considering and not just vendor customer references. If you only consider the information the vendor provides about themselves in their proposal or profile then, as my grandfather would have said, “You’re buying a pig in a poke.” Remember, you’re the customer in this relationship and it is the vendor’s job (and potential commission) to win your confidence and sell the product. Make sure they earn your confidence with more than just a nice lunch and fast talk or promises.

4. Find Your Savings

Now that you know the cost of the proposed project, you can begin to talk discounts. Vendors always have discounts they don’t tell you about. These range from the normal higher education discounts to end-of-year or even end-of-quarter discounts. I’ve also found that some additional discounts may be available by joining a consortia or identifying membership in an existing group or organization. Many of the surprising discounts I’ve been able to negotiate on projects were due to wording in a contract that allowed private institutions to be included in discounts given to state public institutions. You don’t get it if you don’t ask for it. I consider asking for these discounts a part of my responsibility as the representative of my institution. The more money I’m able to save on this project, the more progress I can make on the long list of projects or items awaiting funding.

If project timing is flexible enough to allow, you might be able to take advantage of those end-of-year/quarter discounts by making some adjustments to the implementation schedule. Many of my big, expensive projects are not seriously affected by pushing implementation out a month or two. If I can save five percent or more on a large project with a simple date change on the schedule without seriously impacting the project, then I’m very interested in saving money to use on other projects.

5. Lock Down the Contract

Now comes the “fun” part: contract negotiations. While securing legal counsel on the contract language is always advisable, don’t leave all of it to the legal team. This contract will define the relationship, outcomes, expectations and problem resolution processes for the entire project timeline and, depending on the scope of the project, perhaps longer. You need to know and understand what the contract says about expectations and responsibilities for both parties. Don’t let the language or seemingly pointless nature of the terms keep you from reading the fine print. If you fail to do so, you may find yourself being forced into honoring contract language and requirements you vehemently oppose. No surprise here, but vendor contracts are typically written heavily in their favor. I’m no longer shy about requesting changes that are more equitable for both parties and also requesting term or wording changes for better clarification. I think the ambiguity in contract terms is intentional. It gives the vendor’s legal team plenty of loopholes when you start questioning something.

6. Make Sure You’re Comfortable

Finally, as a small, private institution administrator, I prefer vendors that are local or regional. I don’t have the large full-time equivalent numbers and multi-million dollar contracts of my state school peers. When I start talking projects with big-name, national vendors, I become a small fish in a very big pond. Some of my state school peers spend more monthly than I do annually. So, I don’t feel my project is of much concern to one of these vendors. But, when I deal with a local or regional vendor, they are much more interested in giving my project the attention it needs. I realize these local or regional vendors may not have some of the resources or clout that a national vendor might, but if I’ve done my homework and determined they have quality staff and a good reputation, I’m certainly considering them as a potential partner. I think you’ll need to determine if a local or regional vendor can meet your needs on a case-by-case basis. In my experience, it is well worth considering.

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Readers Comments

James Branden 2014/01/28 at 1:48 pm

As a fellow IT staffer, I appreciate this piece by Nickerson. I agree that it’s vital to have someone in the administration take ownership of a new technology solution, or at the very least agree to champion it. I’ve found when that doesn’t happen, implementation is more difficult because of staff resistance or any number of reasons. That, in turn, can cause strain on the partnership with the vendor.

Ian Hollis 2014/01/28 at 4:02 pm

Good advice on some ways to find cost savings. I think the issue is that some institutions are inflexible about partnership agreements and, as a result, miss out on potential cost savings. For example, I’m a consultant and I once had an institution insist that a new technology had to be rolled out for a certain date, and thus missed out on working with a very good vendor at a competitive price that wasn’t available for that timeline. Turns out the important deadline was the institution’s 20th anniversary celebration — hardly a do-or-die date.

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