Bart Perkins: Unresponsive suppliers might just not be that into you

You would think that in tough economic times, it would be easy to hire a supplier of almost any IT product or service. And if your enterprise is a name-brand behemoth, it probably is easy. But smaller fish can't always get suppliers to provide product information, respond to an RFI/RFP or deliver adequate support.

You can do some things, however, to make your organization more attractive to suppliers. Here are some ways to get the attention you deserve:

Clarify objectives. Confusing requirements take time to decipher and open the door to suppliers making assumptions. Some won't respond, reasoning that every assumption adds risk and that competitors with current contracts already understand your environment and need to make fewer assumptions. And proposals based on incorrect assumptions won't address actual needs.

Make the RFI/RFP process easier. While formal RFI/RFP processes increase the likelihood that supplier selection will be based on merit rather than collusion between buyer and supplier, extremely rigid purchasing processes can make things difficult. Find a good balance.

A year after issuing an RFP for an ERP system, one organization concluded that all the responses were too expensive and therefore decided to relax some requirements and broaden its search. Unfortunately, its procurement rules barred employees from speaking directly to potential suppliers, and the selection team had to find out things like which languages products supported through websites and third parties. An already slow process got slower, and everyone was frustrated.

An overly structured RFP template can also be trouble. A government agency released a 68-page RFP. The problem statement took two pages, and the RFP contained regulatory information, forms, templates and affidavits to be completed. Result: Many qualified suppliers didn't respond at all, and most of those that did failed to describe how they would address the agency's needs.

Actually award contracts. Some organizations release multiple RFIs/RFPs but rarely award contracts. Over time, suppliers drop away, convinced that they will spend a lot of time preparing a response with no possibility of winning business.

Pay a fair price. Nobody wants to overpay, but squeezing suppliers until they can't make a profit is bad business. At worst, they could go out of business, leaving an unsupported product. More typically, requests for additional services at no additional cost result in support cutbacks. Since many IT products are complex and require significant after-sale support, poor supplier service can harm your ability to fully utilize the product.

Know your weight class. Large suppliers target large organizations that have big budgets and name recognition. Smaller organizations that hire major suppliers often find they don't receive the attention they expect. A smaller supplier that's hungry for your business is often more responsive.

I know of one midsize company that outsourced its data center to a large, well-known supplier. After repeated service problems, one of the supplier's executives admitted that its best staffers were reserved for its largest clients.

In the end, if you aren't a Fortune 500 company, your best bet may be to go with a smaller vendor. Sure, it's easy to get approval to hire a household name, but a second-tier supplier may be able to dedicate more resources to you. You'll be impressed how well things can go with a supplier that's as invested in your success as you are.

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

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