What does your company do, and what is your role there?
SmartDebit is a leading direct debit bureau. The company specialises in recurring payment processing for businesses, not-for-profits and the public sector. SmartDebit is a Bacs-approved bureau, scoring 'Excellent' ratings in the Bacs audit. The company is also ISO 27001:2013 certified.
I am the company's CIO and a member of the board. I run all IT across the organisation and am responsible for product strategy, IS strategy and supplier relationships. I am also accountable for ISO 27001:2013 policy definition, corporate alignment and controls.
What traits do you seek in your IT suppliers?
Consistency, honesty, reliability. Absolutely. Building a good working relationship - where things get done - is more important to me than driving down the cost of purchase. Everyone appreciates that the lowest cost is likely to mean the lowest level of service. I appreciate good overall value rather than engaging with loss leaders.
What are your main dos and don'ts for resellers and other IT suppliers when they are selling to you?
Do provide the best price at the start. I don't have time to do rounds of reductions between suppliers. For any non-commodity service, arrange a demonstration so we can get a feel for it early on and, please, simplify the procurement process as much as possible. If you can engage directly with our accounts team, if we need it, even better. Finally, consider the complexities of your licensing policy, and make it easy for the buyer to understand.
Don't keep phoning just to "touch base". If you have a new service or option, I'm more than happy to hear from you, but phoning to see if I'm ready to take up a quote, or to check if there's anything I need, takes up time that's scarce. Reconsider providing a quote that is valid for a certain time, and then jumps up - unless there is a valid regulatory or business reason you can explain. I cannot always control buy cycles and constantly reviewing prices is painful.
How can IT suppliers best influence you early in the sales cycle?
I would like information and broad pricing to be available early on. Sometimes it takes so long to get to the price that it has wasted a huge amount of effort on all sides to ultimately discover the solution does not fit the budget. It's not always comfortable to state a budget upfront because there will be a suspicion that the price will be made to fit it. However, early indication of costs gives IT more time to negotiate internally and possibly move other projects around to achieve an outcome that works.
Please also have ready clear information on how the product or service benefits other areas of our business. My team and I spend significant amounts of time translating and preparing material to take to budget panels. Anything that can reduce this effort helps the prospective supplier.
Provide honest (and as unbiased as possible) competitor comparison information. We will be researching the market anyway, so having this early makes it faster to compare. Any supplier that makes their features opaque to comparison will be marked down.
Do email spam or cold calls ever work?
My team screens cold calls and never uses a service that comes through an email or call - unless it is from an existing supplier. Money is better spent on good marketing and brand awareness, I think. The exception to this is for commodity sourcing suppliers, where price and service are the differentiators. An email that shows a service differentiator may well get a response. Most organisations will want a three-quote minimum, so competitive option research is going to happen in every case.
Can you give us an example of a project where an IT supplier has really impressed you? What did they get right?
I was looking for a particular type of online service and had a very short implementation timescale. The supplier that impressed us most was the one who dealt with our particular need for a quick turnaround despite the fact that we were not a huge contract for them. The key factor in closing the deal was that they extended their proof-of-concept period with no tie-in, so we could test the service during one of our particularly busy periods. It was impressive that they were more proud to prove that their system could handle the load over trying to get the contract signed really early on. For non-commodity systems, it's always important that while you're buying a system, you're actually buying from a person. That person can make all the difference if they actually care about their product.
Do you generally prefer to procure as many IT goods and services as possible from a single supplier, or work with multiple specialists?
Procurement is simpler from one supplier, so this will often be the case for commodity items. I will get multiple quotes for bigger-ticket purchases, but that is more to show we are continuing to source competitive quotes than to change suppliers. It's important for suppliers who sell commodity to make it clear what other services they offer to make sure they are in the running during new non-commodity projects. We would never constrain ourselves to one supplier when looking for best-of-breed enterprise solutions.
How much of your time is spent helping business leaders drive business outcomes, versus running the IT department?
It's about 50/50. This does depend on both the organisation and the person, but particularly in technology services organisations, the CIO is essential in linking product and business strategy. Additionally, if there is no CISO, the CIO will often get deeply involved in compliance and contract review.
We hear about the increased prominence of the CMO and line of business in IT decision making. How much are executives and staff in your business now involved in IT purchasing decisions?
Often, this increased involvement comes from the fact that purchases are cloud-based, so other areas can research and implement services that affect only themselves without any real need for IT oversight. I see this as the main area where others are involved. The downside here is the risk to data protection, security and the lack of centralised licence, contract and risk control. Services they have bought, if there is not a strongly enforced security policy, can easily only be found at audit or contract review times. The solution to this, beyond strong policies, is soft power - becoming an internal influencer, so that other people ask you advice before they make a decision.
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?
Technology is moving at such a pace that only professionals in the sector can keep up with it. MDs know that technology is the lifeblood of the business, and will usually turn to IT for business-enhancing solutions. There will always be a need for CIOs to justify spend, but especially with PAYG solutions, the outcomes can be shown to be directly proportional to cost.
For this reason, it's becoming ever more critical for CIOs to become cross-skilled in all aspects of business operations. I proactively engage with the board on strategy, and advise on technology advances that would help specific sections of the business outside the traditional remit of the IT department.
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