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Drawing a Line: The Differences Between a Partner and a Vendor

The EvoLLLution | Drawing a Line: The Differences Between a Partner and a Vendor
As outsourcing becomes increasingly important to the management of a modern postsecondary institution, it’s critical for leaders to not only assess the tools and technologies on offer but also the companies behind those products. After all, the differences between a vendor and a partner are stark and carry long-term implications.

Traditionally, colleges and universities have kept all aspects of institutional management in-house. However, as student expectations have grown while operational budgets have begun to tighten, many postsecondary divisions have begun to look to outside companies for solutions to manage different parts of the institutional back end. However, choosing where to outsource is a larger question than just the quality of the product itself—the company with whom the institution collaborates can have a significant impact on its future success. And there, institutions need to start conversations around where they want to engage with vendors, and where they want to engage with partners.

 At UCLA Extension, they implemented the Destiny One Customer Lifecycle Management software platform in 2016, and opted to engage in an Operational Health Check (OHC) shortly afterward. In this interview, Matthew Robinson reflects on that decision and shares how it truly came down to a conversation about whether they were engaged with a partner or a vendor.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did you see engaging in an Operational Health Check as a necessary part of your product launch?

Matthew Robinson (MR): When we decided we would need an OHC, we were only involved in the sales and the development part of the process. We understood the SLA and the plan for post-launch, but we imagined that we were going go off a big cliff in terms of actual work time with Destiny once we went live. Before our go-live, we were having these very productive back-and-forth sessions with Destiny’s team, and we had excellent access to get our questions answered immediately. We had direct contact with the team. We were worried that, after go-live, we would just be referred to a help desk. We weren’t sure what our level of service after launching Destiny One would be like.

On one level, we were thinking about the Operational Health Check as an insurance policy, because we weren’t sure Destiny Solutions was going to engage us as a partner or a vendor.

On a more practical level, regardless of the level of service, we knew we would need to get bugs fixed and we would identify some gaps after the go-live. The OHC provided us an opportunity to have Destiny team members back on-site, and to engage in direct one-on-one conversations between our end users and Destiny staff. It was just too logical to pass up.

Evo: How did the level of service change after the implementation?

MR: After going live, we did not experience the cliff that we imagined. The weekly service calls, the responsiveness of the client services team, and the responsiveness of the folks that we collaborated with during our go-live really sticks out. I really didn’t perceive a difference in the level of service we received.

Evo: In your experience, how common is a service like an Operational Health Check among tech vendors?

MR: My experience is fairly limited because Destiny was our first jump out of our self-managed systems, and it really kicked off a wave of purchasing and implementing at UCLA Extension. We are really diving into third-party software solutions in a way we haven’t before. We’re going to be engaging Salesforce as a CRM, we’re building a whole marketing tech stack—it’s a big cultural shift for us. We’re essentially in those first sales phases or the first six-month phase with a number of different third-party vendors. That said, in my experience the level of re-engagement offered by Destiny is fairly unique.

We expected to face the cliff I was mentioning because of some folks’ experience at other positions and their experience with other vendors that we’re currently engaging. When you’re working with a vendor, you get the sales pitch, you get the vendor’s full attention during development and then the vendor’s goal is to get you live because then a switch turns and then you’re no longer getting development support—you’re getting services support. Typically, services support is far less comprehensive.

The scale of a full site visit that has pre-work and post-work, as is the OHC structure, is a place where Destiny is unique.

Evo: When it comes to external IT services, how do you define the difference between a vendor and a partner?

MR: A vendor relationship changes drastically after purchase. After the sales pitch and set up, you’re on your own. You’ve bought the product and the service ends.

But the partner is a company that’s going to stay engaged in the specifics of your business. They’re going to continue to support you in a way that’s scaled back—because you’re no longer developing and launching—but the support is ongoing. They’re knowledgeable about your entire business, not just their specific aspect or touchpoint. A partner is engaged in the success of your company, not only in terms of your ability to purchase their product but beyond that. A partner wants you to succeed in your endeavors.

Evo: As you’re engaged with a partner rather than a vendor how does it change the mentality of the staff at UCLA Extension from those very short-term immediate issues to more long-term strategic growth?

MR: Working with a partner like Destiny Solutions, rather than a vendor, puts us a little more at ease in terms of knowing that Destiny understands the Herculean effort of migration and launch.

A true partnership puts us at ease because whatever comes up, whatever is going on in my space—whether that’s higher education, continuing education or even in my particular part of the country or part of the world—we’re going to be able to work through it with this software pack. This software will grow with us and our needs; we won’t outgrow it or Destiny.

Further, because this is a true partnership, if we have fears that we might be outgrowing Destiny One, we can simply have a conversation with Destiny Solutions about it to allow us to truly assess where we are. Destiny isn’t going to just tell us, “Sorry, that’s not what we do so you might have to look for another company.”

Evo: How important is a partner over a vendor when it comes to the kind of agility and flexibility required to be in the non-traditional space?

MR: Achieving the kind of agility required to succeed in the non-traditional space requires a partnership because time-to-market is everything. Here we are at UCLA, we’re talking about growing our online presence in 2017, so we’re late to the party. But we have a partner who is working with us on our systems, which saves huge amounts of time. For example, if we want to do one thing, but the system is set up for another purpose, we might find ourselves at a roadblock. A partner can look at it and help solve that problem. But with a vendor you have to submit the request and wait for the response.

The other aspect about true partnerships is collaboration. A vendor will manage many clients but they likely aren’t incentivized or inclined to connect them. Destiny takes a totally different approach. If we run into an issue, Destiny will help us with it and they’ll also connect us to other clients who have had similar issues to see how they addressed it. They create opportunities for collaboration both with the company and with other colleges and universities working in the Destiny environment. I’ve seen tons of that from Destiny. They don’t just drive collaboration on elements that specifically impact the product, either. They’re connecting people to engage with issues that we’re facing as players in the continuing education space. That drive to connect people in those areas that transcend the software really sets Destiny apart.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To learn more about how UCLA Extension is leveraging technology and their partnership with Destiny Solutions to achieve their strategic goals, please click here.

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