Vendor or Partner?

Ask yourself these questions before deciding whether a vendor is really 'strategic partner' material.

February 10, 2003

3 Min Read
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• Does the prospective vendor ask probing questions about your business goals and technical requirements, or does it barge in with all the alleged answers based on a cursory understanding of what you need?

One IT director at a fast-growing enterprise tells of the vendor sales rep who refused to acknowledge that the software he was peddling wasn't a clean fit for the customer's data analysis initiative. Had the salesman been more flexible and consultative--had he bothered to listen to the customer's extensive expansion plans--the vendor could have anticipated plenty of additional opportunities to sell into that organization, the director says. Instead, the vendor is now mercator non grata at that organization, a victim of its own shortsightedness.

• Does the prospective vendor try to sell you the store when all your organization wants and needs is a few key items? Cisco, for instance, is a topflight networking-systems vendor, but every customer doesn't need to migrate to its voice-over-IP architecture. The likes of Oracle, SAP, SAS and Siebel make fine software, but just because their products fall into the broad CRM category doesn't mean those products can be slotted or retrofitted into every customer-facing initiative. Seek out vendors that solve problems first and then look to extend the relationship on top of those initial successes.

• Is your integrator prepared to recommend a system or service of a nonaffiliated vendor, or is it predisposed to recommending only those products sold by its stable of partners? Is your integrator open about its relationships with other product vendors?The big consulting firms are regularly criticized for such conflicts of interest, particularly on enterprise software projects, but just about every IT service provider is guilty of bringing in its cohorts at one time or another. Clearly, the service providers you want to engage are those willing to ruffle the feathers of their vendor constituents to do what's in your organization's best interests.

• Do prospective vendors regularly go over your head--to the CIO, the CEO or your department head--when they're not making headway with you? More important to your standing within your organization, do such tactics ever succeed?

Brent Zempel, CIO of health club operator Life Time Fitness, tells of the time Larry Ellison approached Life Time's CEO with a proposal to replace the company's homegrown customer-service system and the people who built and manage it with an Oracle application and team--a scheme the CEO eventually passed on (and which, no doubt, did wonders for Oracle's standing among Life Time's IT rank and file). If the buck on IT decisions really stops with you and your organization, smart vendors will work within that structure.

It's a Two-Way Street

Remember, though, that acting like a partner isn't just a vendor's responsibility. You must reciprocate. Beating your vendor into submission on price, for instance, may help you pull off a project and enhance your standing with the bean counters, but it's no way to forge a long-term partnership. What goes around comes around.

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