The things IT leaders love - and loathe - about their IT suppliers, when they like to engage with them, and how they select their partners was the topic of the final panel session of yesterday's inaugural European Channel Leadership Forum.
The session was hosted by Stuart Sumner, editorial director of CRN sister brands Computing, V3 and The Inquirer. The panel comprised Karl Hoods, CIO of charity Save the Children; Nick Ioannou, head of IT at architect Ratcliffe Groves Partnership; and Andy Maxwell, global information systems director at Pyrotek.
Here are the edited highlights:
What are the key traits you look for when choosing a technology partner?
Andy: When we're looking for a partner to help us with a project, we are looking for someone who is experienced in that area. One problematic thing we've come across is people trying to sell services they don't actually know themselves. We also want a very stable company to work with. We've had problems where the staff change has been pretty dramatic, and we're never quite certain of whom we are working with and have no consistency of people to contact. So: knowledge of that business; and staff consistency.
Nick: I'm looking for people who have the additional knowledge. I don't want to pay people to learn on my time. Technology is moving so fast, it can be difficult finding people who know what they're talking about and who are not using me as a pilot. And then finding people who have been around a long time.
Someone going bust on us is a major problem. In construction, it happens all the time with the people we work with, so when it comes to my IT vendors I need to know they are still going to be around, that they are not overstretching themselves and that basically they do what they say on the tin.
Does that preclude you using younger, innovative start-ups?
Nick: Yes; when it comes to the cloud, we're cloud first and a lot of the start-ups are raising too many alarm bells. I see so many cloud start-ups fail. There's big fanfare, and then it gets swallowed up or disappears, so it's safer to go with people you know are going to be there when you are having problems two years down the line.
Karl: [Being a guinea pig] can work in two ways. If we are both going into it knowing that's what we're doing, that's fine. We're doing that at the moment with three start-ups around blockchain. So that's great. But there's nothing worse than going through a process where you're sold the A-team and the B-team turns up. [We seek to discover] can we work with these people and can we go through a process where the team is being assembled and we are part of that selection process? Sometimes that sits well companies; other times it's 'no, get lost; we're the expert', and that can lead to problems.
How do you judge whether an IT supplier is giving you value?
Nick: Being cloud first, what I hate is consultancy fees, which turns out to be three clicks, and I've just been charged £1,000. It has happened in the past and it is really annoying. I will happily pay for someone who is genuinely doing work that I don't know. But don't try to sneak in two days of consultancy, especially when as a percentage of overall cost of service and product, it's massive. You're running a service in the cloud and it's your system - you should know it - why are you charging for two days to configure it?
Can any of you imagine using the Japanese model, where you have an open book and are aware of the margins your supplier is making and you are working to keep the costs as low as possible?
Andy: That would be a nightmare for me. I've got a CEO who is a cost conscious micromanager. If you showed him that type of profitability, all he'd want to do is slash you down.
Karl: We did work that way in terms of our digital platform, and that was quite good. We had gone through a short exercise upfront after the award process to [work out] how we could best help you understand exactly our requirements, and then moved to an open book. It worked well in that instance. It cut away quite a lot of the mistrust upfront - both parties went into it thinking 'we want to make this a success, based on this'.
We hear about the increased prominence of the CMO and line of business in IT decision making. How much are executives and staff in the business now involved in IT purchasing decisions?
Andy: Normally we try to make that a collaborative effort. One of the problems we find when IS [information systems] is not involved and where you [IT suppliers] might be selling purely to the business team and you make that sale, is that there are IS implications we don't know about. It feels like IS is actually a problem, and is trying to stop that contract from happening, and we try to educate the rest of the business that IS needs to be involved as early as possible. I think it works a lot better when that happens.
Nick: Architects are forever asking for Ferraris when it comes to their IT. They will push everything to the max, and I would go bust if I listened to them. That said, occasionally they will come up with a really useful piece of technology or software that will be a game changer for us. I have to try to always be two steps ahead and pre-empt what they're trying to do. And that just means faster processors, faster RAM and so on. The overall cost per head in my business is massive: we are over £10,000 a head per year, just to put a bum on a seat - architecture is expensive - we have to make wise decisions and give value for money and performance, and find the sweet spots.
How can resellers maximise their influence near the start of the buying cycle?
Nick: The first thing I always ask is how much does it cost? Give me a ballpark figure. If you can't do that straight away I don't know if you're trying to sell me a Maserati or a van. I need to know roughly what it costs; I don't want to waste your time. Then I want to see it work: show me a demo. You don't need to visit me - we have the internet - just give me a web demo, then we'll know straight away if we're wasting each other's time.
I'm tired of people saying when I ask them whether they know how much it costs 'oh no, I'm just technical, I'm just sales; I don't know the price' - it's a lie.
Karl: It's tough, isn't it? I wouldn't want to do your jobs, in that sense. Email often doesn't work for me as I get thousands every day, and sorting the wheat from the chaff is difficult. Calls: I'm hardly ever at my desk. Event scenarios, like this, where you can get to talk to people and spend time with them are quite good. Then for me it's a bit more of a slow burn. It's about taking some time to understand what the challenges are. We don't have a defined buying cycle. So some of it is a bit fortuitous and about the timing being right. But when I look back to some of the really good relationships we've had they've just been borne out of chance conversations at some of these sorts of events. Then six months later you think 'I actually spoke to those guys and they were quite good; let's get them in for a chat'.
Andy: The other thing I'd add is that I really appreciate honesty. To hear someone say 'OK, this won't work well in China', that's really helpful to have that honesty upfront. You will go back to those people again and again because you know they are going to give you truth.
Does email spam ever work?
Andy: Very, very occasionally. One of the things we tested and invested in came off a Facebook ad and it just happened to capture my attention that day. I passed it on to my team who explored and played with it, and it did work. But I would have said 99.99 per cent of those ads don't do anything. That one I just happened to catch on a day when probably someone the previous week had mentioned a problem. The unsolicited items when you are not looking at it are just going to get junked straight away.
Do MDs see you as part of their digital journey, or are you still just viewed as a massive cost that everyone wants to bring down?
Andy: It has changed dramatically over the past 10 years, certainly where I work. We used to be very much the back office; it wasn't even recognised at the main board level. That's very different now. I present at the main board meeting and IT is regarded as a part of everything. However, I have this CEO who is 'we are not IT leaders; we will not be at the cutting edge', and I have to work in a budget of 2.6 per cent.
How much of your time is spent helping business leaders drive business outcomes, versus running the IT department?
Nick: The good thing about software-as-a-service is there's not that much to run compared with the traditional on-premise, so I'd say about 20 per cent of my time is looking at moving the business forward. I would like to spend more time doing the more pleasant things and the research, but there are times when you have to do the duller stuff, and that will take over for ages.
Karl: I'm the opposite. Most of my time - three or four days a week - is spent in discussion or in an advisory capacity or in business boards, and the rest of my time is spent on our own strategy: where are we going with our own platforms to support things we are hearing across the business. We are a 100-year-old charity. We are changing rapidly all the time and have to look at how we can use technology more and more to deliver the outcomes we need to deliver. A lot of the last six months have been spent [thinking about] what do we do around both our digital and technical strategy to underpin everything we want to achieve.
Andy: I'm probably more like about the 20 per cent; the rest of the time is keeping the systems going.
What are your main dos and don'ts for suppliers when they are selling to you?
Karl: We covered most of this with spam. But on the positives, when I look back at some of the really successful partnerships, the open book-type approach has been good.
[Particularly when it comes to tenders] we also quite like being challenged on business requirements. There was one particular case in the construction industry around normalisation and price indices [where they said] 'well, you've done it this way, but we've brought in our statisticians and they've said you might want to look at it and approach it in a slightly different way - therefore can we have a conversation?'. And going through that kind of process makes you think, maybe our approach was slightly flawed and there's something in it.
Nick: My top 'do' is when we're asking for a sledgehammer and you tell us all we need is an upgrade. The don'ts are don't lie to us; don't make out you're an expert when you're not and sit there charging me a horrendous day rate when I know as much as you do. That said, honesty will go miles: I will recommend you to everyone left, right and centre if you're honest with me, and say 'don't buy this, why don't you do this'. We'll sing your praises.
Andy: I think we've covered most of them. When we did our Sharepoint implementation the partner we used wasn't brilliant. Our business requirements and our plan were pretty woolly because we didn't know 100 per cent what we wanted from Sharepoint. They ran with it and charged us a fortune - they delivered against that contract which was messy and woolly. So it's back to that honesty again. If you can see that we're not very clear on what we want, tell us; that would be really helpful. We've never worked with that partner again and we've not recommended them. And the other one I'll add is if I say no to something, don't go to my boss.
Karl: One I had recently was someone saying 'do I need to be speaking to someone more senior'? Which went down really well.
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