IT Pro Panel: How to manage your supplier relationships

Ignore commodity suppliers - find vendors you can build long-term partnerships with

With the advent of cloud and the reinvention of the IT department as a revenue-driving division, the CIO role has become much more about business strategy than technology.

Savvy IT leaders don't try and do it all themselves. Instead, a core part of the job is often deciding what to do in-house, and what to outsource.

Cloud computing allows businesses to outsource large pieces of infrastructure, such as servers or even entire data centres, and the rise of 'as-a-Service' models means that many additional functions can also be handed off to third-party providers.

However, if you're going to be trusting an external partner with crucial parts of your organisation's IT estate, you need to be sure that you're making a good choice. The ideal tech vendor or supplier isn't just someone who's going to give you a good deal on a piece of hardware or some software licenses, but one that's aligned with your goals, attitudes and processes, and is going to support your business as it grows.

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Picking the right partner can be a bit of a minefield, especially in the fast-moving world of modern technology. In this month's IT Pro Panel Discussion, we asked our panellists about what they look for when choosing a provider to partner with, and how to build a good relationship with your vendors and suppliers.

Look for suppliers with shared values

With IT budgets under constant pressure, it's tempting to simply look for the supplier that will offer you the cheapest price, but University of Suffolk IT director Peter O'Rourke warns that while that's fine for commodity items like printer consumables, when it comes to more business-critical areas, you have to look for a supplier that's a good fit for your organisation.

"If you're buying paper to go in your multifunction devices ... that's largely a price-driven conversation," explains the University of Suffolk's director of IT, Peter O'Rourke. "Where you have people who have a much more direct impact on your organisation or indeed your external stakeholders, you do need to make sure you have a set of shared values and they understand what's important to you and your organisation, and they're able to articulate and deliver against that."

Mark Holt, CTO of ticket-booking app Trainline, agrees, saying: "The partners who we're successful with are the ones with complementary culture."

He cites Amazon Web Services for their focus on customer experience and speedy delivery, and application management firm New Relic, who demonstrated a culture fit from the salesperson who had the initial conversation, right through to the implementation and support teams.

"We have many instances of suppliers who are quite the opposite," Holt adds. "They send in some big, suited salesperson, they're hard to deal with, they spend forever in contract phases with lawyers all over the place and it just gets really ugly." 

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This is a view shared by Liam Quinn, Director of IT for Richmond Events, who argues that as well as ensuring a good cultural fit, finding a partner of the right size is vital.

"It's important that we're neither the largest or smallest client. We're looking for someone who is large enough to be able to provide the support and expertise we need, without being so large that they don't really care about our business. We, like most businesses, have our own peculiar needs and frustrations. If they have a 'cookie-cutter' approach to support, for example, that won't work for us."

"Personality is also important," he says. "Not just the sales managers, but the whole management team. People come and go, but if you have the right feel from the management team, you know that even when people move on, they'll be replaced with someone you'll be able to work with."

Don't forget the tech stack

For Chris Stanley, IT manager at Wales' Celtic Manor Resort, it's important to look at the full technology portfolio of any potential partners in order to simplify your IT.

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"Where I can, I look for the offering of all the solutions from core to edge, and keep it to one vendor as much as possible for ease of management and evolution of our IT environment," he reveals. "I'm lucky enough to work with some really cool partners who have this capability and when I see how a number of these have merged together over the last few years it gives me a great sense of pride and achievement that the vision I foresaw was also shared by the vendor."

Stanley also emphasises that IT buyers should be looking not just at where a vendor's technology is now, but where it will be going in future - looking at their development roadmap, and how it aligns with your business.

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"There needs to be a massive focus on the product's development, where they are going and what future integration they will have to other systems."

Find someone who's got your back

Richard Orme, CTO of gift personalisation giant and Moonpig parent company Photobox Group, also wants suppliers he can build strong partnerships with, so they are committed to fixing things if anything ever goes wrong.

"You want them to feel that they can be open and transparent with you, and that they're going to be on your side and not keep you at arm's length on a phone call while they try to fix whatever issues are going on," he explains.

"There really has to be a high level of trust and respect. We have to win in a world where it's almost impossible not to have dependencies on others, and the truth is everything breaks eventually but what you want to know is how are we going to get this fixed; how are we going to work together and have you really got our back in this moment?"

O'Rourke recommends meeting suppliers and understanding how they operate, before asking for customer references where things took a wrong turn.

"I'll always say to them, 'can I have a couple of customers who you really really screwed up with?'," he reveals. "They'll look at you like you're mad, and you add: 'who are still customers'."

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"That's because ... when things go wrong, because they will, how do organisations perform when that happens, because that tells you a lot. Have you got relationships where respective parties - without going into contractual dispute - can say 'yeah it looks like we made a mess of something here, let's solve the problem'?"

"I focus a lot on brand reputation," says Stanley. "As a company that has evolved rapidly over the last 8 years, we have ourselves become a better-known brand for what we do and how well we do it - the same applies in the world of technology."

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Quinn emphasises the value of honest and frank communication from the get-go, highlighting it as an essential part of building a good relationship with a supplier.

"I'm always honest from the start in what I expect from them and what I will do as well," he explains. "I let them know what I expect from the tender and negotiation processes. I don't like round-robin negotiations and I'll always stress that up-front."

"I also expect good, clear communication. If they can't communicate with me in a timely manner during the tender process, it's unlikely to get better once we start working together."

Invite vendors to join your IT teams

The best way to work out if you have a good culture fit, and to build those bonds in the event of a mishap, is for your staff and your vendor's staff to work together, says Orme.

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"We have a partnership with a big firm in the Ukraine where those engineers are in our squads, so they're motivated for the success of the team," he points out.

"For our key suppliers, we try to make sure that they're on site with us once or twice a month, so they understand what's important to us, and we send our teams to go get training with them so they build those personal relationships that you can call on in those times that are maybe not so good."

For Stanley, having a steady point of contact with a vendor is also key to building a long-term relationship., voicing his frustration at customers having to go through multiple different account managers in the space of a year.

"Stability is key not just in technology but also the vendor's representative who has learnt about your business and what you are trying to achieve," he says; "it's just as important that these account managers enjoy working with their customers as well, for success all round."

Get behind the marketing speak

On a similar note, Trainline's Holt advises IT leaders to get into deeper conversations with their vendors about previous projects to get an understanding of how the suppliers overcome the tricky problems and challenges involved in a long implementation.

"We don't want to partner with someone who's learning how to do something for the first time," he explains. "Someone who can come in and talk confidently about something they've done, and references are always important. Anyone can write a press release about what an amazing job they did but it's only when you talk to the people behind the scenes that you find out what actually happened."

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For Stanley, sitting down in person with partners is crucial in building a stable working relationship.

"I always look for a face to face every six to eight weeks to go through our business developments and our struggles," he says. "It's also an opportunity to keep myself informed of the vendors' products and what they have that can potentially help me overcome my IT challenges."

Involve your colleagues and relevant departments in the decision

Often CIOs will have worked with certain companies before and know what they can offer, meaning they're keen to get them on board on certain projects. But the University of Suffolk's O'Rourke warns against making a decision on your own - you should consult the departments which will be using the technology every day, as well as your IT teams, who will be tackling any problems that crop up.

"It can't just be about senior people articulating 'we're going to go this way', because they're not doing the day-to-day delivery," he warns. "Don't forget that people in your teams - your colleagues - are the ones who'll have to live with those relationships day-to-day. It's quite important that they are involved because two years in, they're the ones who are going to be dealing with whatever issues are arising."

If you're a senior IT decision-maker and you'd like to apply to be part of the IT Pro Panel, please email panel@itpro.co.uk.

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