For any company, irrespective of size, choosing the right IT solution is as much about engaging with the most suitable product or service provider as it is about choosing an appropriate technology.
In many ways, the two are inextricably linked of course. So in determining the best overall solution and service package which will deliver the financial return and customer service benefits demanded, how should an end-user undertake the task of determining the what kind of company is likely to provide the best fit?
The first, essential step is to look internally and clearly determine the business issue you are trying to resolve and what benefit you will derive from the investment in IT. Buying IT for ITs sake, the desire to keep up with the competition, or short term unhappiness with the current provider are not in themselves good enough reasons to go to the market, as there is no real business benefit to be had.
Such problems should initially be addressed, for example, by getting additional training on your existing solution or by opening up better communication channels with your IT vendor.
The next step is to write down the business-critical issue to be solved. Again, if you cant rationalise it, the chances are you should not be making that investment.
At the same time you must be clear and realistic on what you can afford and the budget you have available.
Talk to prospective suppliers about the business problem to be addressed and not what you think the solution should be. At the same time, a responsible provider will not simply sell you what you think you want: rather, based on a joint analysis of your needs, they are just as likely to advise that you not to spend money on a whizzy new technology if this is not the best way forward.
In putting together a shortlist of potential providers, talk to trusted advisors, personal business contacts or those with whom you have a commercial relationship, such as suppliers, and take advantage of their experience. A simple analogy is that this is no different from sourcing a domestic plumber personal recommendation is invariably more powerful than sticking a pin in the local Business Directory.
In differentiating between the shortlisted providers and ensuring that the proposed solution precisely meets your needs, it is essential to determine at the outset who should represent your business in making an intelligent and informed decision.
As the executive sponsor, the business owner, managing director or general manager is likely to be involved, both at the outset and in the final stages of decision-making, in looking at the overall business requirement.
However, it is important that a small team is put together typically representing IT, finance and operations to precisely define the objectives to be met and assess each proposition against strict purchasing criteria in meeting these goals.
Finally, and certainly not the least important element in choosing a vendor, it is essential to recognise that selection and implementation is not the end of the process. This assumes that businesses stand still, yet for both purchaser and vendor this will almost certainly not be the case.
As an end-user, your business is likely to grow and your needs change. Equally, as a vendor to the SME market, your product and service offering will evolve in response to new market demands and opportunities.
As a result, it is essential to maintain a dialogue between the two companies, involving a mix of communications mechanisms. Regular account meetings should be supplemented by emails and other marketing communications relevant to the end-user business.
This should also include information not necessarily related to the provider or their products or services, such as advice on impending legislation and what it will mean for the clients business.
General marketing mailings of irrelevant material will only irritate. By contrast, targeted communication of potentially valuable and targeted information will help build trusted advisor status for the supplier, as the basis of a mutually beneficial, longer-term relationship.
There is a common denominator here. In choosing the solution and provider most likely to offer the best long-term benefit to the business, it is clear that there is a great deal of homework to be done, both in drilling down to the real needs to be addressed and in putting together the right teams for the initial selection process and in working with the chosen supplier throughout the life of the investment.
Lakeview is a leading provider of tailored, flexible software and systems for most areas of business management, accounting and manufacturing control.