Jumping into a relationship with a consultant or application developer without clearly identifying your goals can lead to disorganization and wasted resources. Ask questions to determine your need, and when you have them answered, ask another round of questions to choose a solution provider.
Choosing your provider
There are several characteristics to look for when selecting your solution provider. The questions are the same whether you are looking for an individual to help with a few days-long EDI project or for an offshore company for outsourcing your entire IT development team.
Finding a provider for larger undertakings generally requires more research, but do the research, because changing vendors mid-project can be expensive, time-consuming and counter-productive. When choosing your provider, look for the following.
* Expertise. Select vendors that have proven their expertise in the skills you need. Ask to see samples of work that relate to the project they will do for you. Ask for references, then talk to them. If possible, visit a customer site to see the proposed system or application in action.
* Longevity. The last thing you want to do is tie your prosperity to a company that may go out of business in a few years. If you're depending on your vendor to assist with mission-critical technology, make sure it will be with you for the long haul. If it has been in business for several years, ask how long it has been using the technology you are hiring it to provide.
* Stability. Check your potential provider's stability. Just because a company has been in business for 20 years does not mean it is stable. Check its Dunn & Bradstreet rating and ask for a turnover rate of key personnel. A low D&B rating is a red flag, but turnover is also important. If the company has a high churn, there may be underlying issues that impact your project.
* Objectivity. Honesty is crucial if you are to view your solution provider as a partner. You want a partner that won't let its eagerness to sell products or services impact the recommendations it is making. You also want a vendor that will tell you bad news as well as good, a trait most often found in companies with stated organizational ethics. Ask references how the vendor dealt with tough issues.
Turning vendors into partners
Many long-term projects can be viewed as mutually beneficial partnerships. You depend on your vendor to help you address technical issues you don't have the internal resources to meet, and your vendor depends on your happiness to keep you as a customer.
Before choosing your vendor, make sure it is easy to work with. Find out what its track record is when working with others and try to anticipate how its staff will interact with yours.
Narrowing down the short list
With clearly defined project deliverables and attention to vendor selection requirements, the final list of contenders should be relatively small.
When you select your solution provider, don't be surprised if it does not commit to your exact budget. Unless you have a perfect set of specifications, it is difficult to estimate how long a project will take. Nevertheless, it should be able to tell you if your budget is reasonable.
When negotiating your contract, insist on regular milestone meetings with individuals on both sides to ensure that the project progresses and the relationship is maintained. If you ask the right questions upfront and maintain the relationship during the project, you should not only find a great, reliable fit for your needs, but also find yourself in a very enjoyable working relationship. Sandy Mass is technical manager at BravePoint, a supplier of e-business and enterprise IT solutions to mid-market companies. Reach her at (770) 449-9696, ext. 3045.