Get your vendor's A team

Promises made about service delivery can slip away when you find that you've been assigned to a B team

Salespeople peddle the best-case scenario. When you're shopping for systems integration, outsourcing or other complex services, the salespeople will typically assure you that service delivery will be outstanding. They promise that the transition will be completed smoothly by a top-notch implementation team and that ongoing support will be provided by an equally talented operations team. They may well mean what they say, but the sad truth is that not every client can get the A team; somebody has to get the B team or in some cases, the C team.

Getting a great vendor team is not always easy, even when the contract includes severe penalties for poor performance. Review the backgrounds of key team members as soon as the vendor identifies them, ideally before the contract is signed. Demand the right to approve any team members assigned to your project. LinkedIn profiles can be helpful, but the best information comes from professional colleagues who have previously worked with key vendor staff.

Undertake the following investigations as soon as feasible:

  • Assess key team members' relevant experience. ERP upgrades, server center outsourcing and other routine but complex projects require deep experience with the primary software tools. Industry experience is also highly desirable. Recently, a financial services outsourcing firm undertook a project for a hospitality company. The outsourcer initially planned to move servers over a weekend until the customer pointed out that some hotels and many restaurants do the majority of their business on the weekend, unlike banks or brokerages.

  • Specific industry expertise is less relevant with high-level strategic projects. The key skills required for such projects are creativity and the ability to envision your enterprise operating in new ways. Look for a team that has successfully completed a similar project in an industry with a similar structure. For example, a pharmaceutical company might work successfully with a vendor team from financial services, since both industries produce complex products that are heavily regulated. Similarly, insurance companies and franchisors both deliver services and earn revenues through semi-independent businesses.

  • Understand team construction. Be clear about key team members' roles, the percentage of their time assigned to your project, and when they will join the team. The project manager and key staff should be full time (excluding very small projects.) However, expect that architects and other technical specialists will support multiple clients at the same time.
  • Beware of bait-and-switch. Sales teams often introduce highly experienced individuals during the sales process, implying that these people will be part of the delivery team. Determine whether each person will be an active team member or merely an observer.

  • Understand the vendor team's reporting structure. Some vendors only list assigned staff names and titles but omit reporting relationships. Figure out the hierarchy before you need to climb it in a crisis.

  • Assess team dynamics. Ideally, most of the team members assigned to your project will have worked for the vendor for several years. While they may not have worked directly with each other, they will share internal connections and a common corporate culture simply from working at the same company

Be suspicious of any team in which the majority of the key people are hired specifically for your project. They will spend the first several months learning the informal norms of their new employer and building an internal network. While people who are thrown together can become a great team, it takes time for everyone to learn how everyone else operates. Adjust project schedules accordingly, or object to brand new employees.

Assess the team's flexibility when presented with new information. A teams adjust as the situation evolves. B teams insist on adhering to the methodology even when it's not working.

  • Evaluate the vendor's project management approach. Be wary if the vendor is reluctant to describe its project management approach. It should include a clear initiation phase, a mutually approved plan, an execution phase, robust monitoring and a well-defined close. Become very concerned if the team does not develop a detailed work plan quickly.

Poor teams believe executing the work is more important than planning the work. Recently, an outsourcer embarked on a six-month data center migration. Despite repeated requests from the client, the outsourcer did not create a comprehensive work plan for the first four months. Not surprisingly, key tasks slipped through the cracks, and six months became nine months.

  • Assess how the team addresses problems. Every major project experiences problems. A teams acknowledge problems quickly then focus on developing solutions. They understand that bad news does not get better with age. When necessary, they have the courage to tell the client that a problem has occurred or that the sales team overpromised certain elements of the contract.

B teams either try to hide bad news or shift the blame. These teams lose precious time pretending the problem will disappear when they should be working on solutions. Become very concerned if you learn that the team on the ground wants to share bad news but fears reprisals from their own senior staff.

  • Evaluate how the vendor engages client staff. Client involvement is critical since client staff understand both the current technology base and the client culture. Even when entire departments are completely outsourced, open communication between vendor and client builds acceptance for the new environment. In addition, client staff can usually help the vendor anticipate potential challenges.

A teams treat client staff respectfully and spend some of their on-site time getting to know the people over coffee or a meal. B teams frequently ignore client staff, believing their knowledge is irrelevant. This leads to misunderstandings or animosity that can be detrimental to the project.

The team your vendor assigns determines the quality and success of your project. Negotiate with your vendor for the best possible team before the project begins. Changing horses in midstream can disrupt team dynamics, cause delays and impact vendor relations adversely during critical points in the project. However, if you later discover the vendor's team is not performing adequately, don't wait for critical delivery failures to occur. Negotiate for necessary changes in project personnel until you get the team your project deserves.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

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