Before the Handshake (5 questions you MUST ask any prospective technology vendor)

by Michael Anderson

August 4, 2011

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The handshake. A simple gesture that can communicate so much: congratulations, gratitude, sportsmanship, and often, the completion of an agreement.

It’s the last one that I want to focus on. In the context of entering into a service agreement, the handshake (as a figurative representation of a signed deal) marks an important transition for you, the customer. It is the threshold between a sales/evaluation phase, and an engagement/delivery phase.

This is not a transition that should be taken lightly.

Far too often, companies find that their experience after signing an agreement is different than the expectations they developed in the sales/evaluation period, creating a level of dissonance / buyer’s remorse. Companies can safeguard themselves against some of these surprises by asking specific questions around the actions and processes that follow a signed agreement, before they enter into it.

Here are 5 questions to ask any prospective technology vendor before closing the deal (and why you should ask them):

Question 1:

Is there a documented on-boarding / on-ramping process? Can you see it?

Why ask?
If the proposed service has any level of complexity, the vendor should have a documented process for implementations.

In our area of expertise – managed IT services, adding a new client is a significant undertaking. Our on-boarding process moves through 6 distinct phases: Sales Handoff, Client Set-Up, Knowledge Transfer, Technical Data Gathering, Deployment & Documentation, and Communication & Training. On average, it takes our team 4 weeks to on-board a new 365Care+ client.

If a vendor does not have a documented process for bringing new clients on board, it is often a good indicator that other aspects of their service delivery are not supported by process.

Question 2:

How is successful service delivery measured? What performance metrics are in place? How is the vendor’s performance reported to you, the client?

Why ask?
A vendor that has established benchmarks for performance demonstrates a commitment to continuous improvement in their service delivery. Carefully consider how these benchmarks align with your own expectations. Conversely, the absence of key performance metrics should raise a red flag. How is success measured? What steps is the vendor taking to ensure consistent, high quality service?

Question 3:

What feedback mechanisms are in place?

Why ask?
The presence of a simple, visible mechanism for client feedback demonstrates a certain level of confidence on the part of the vendor. At 365, every one of our closed service tickets is followed by a 3 question survey. Every completed survey is reviewed, and any survey with a score below an acceptable threshold is followed up in person. It’s why over 10% of our service tickets receive a completed survey. We want to know immediately if we’ve met our clients’ expectations. Asking whether your prospective vendor has a feedback mechanism in place is also a great way to determine if your feedback will be taken seriously once the agreement is signed.

Question 4:

How are performance failures identified and handled?

Why ask?
No vendor will execute perfectly 100% of the time. How a prospective vendor identifies performance failures, and whether they have a process for handling them will tell you a lot about your potential client experience. Assuming there are benchmarks in place (see Question 2), what happens when performance target (response time / customer satisfaction / issue resolution) is missed? Is the onus on you, the client to report these problems?  Finally, if performance issues go unresolved, how easy is it to terminate the relationship?  Are you locked in?  Are termination charges used as a means of holding you hostage?

Question 5:

What has been the experience of recently added clients (references)?

Why ask?
While it is fairly standard to ask a prospective vendor for references, the ones provided are usually hand-picked by the vendor, and are quite certain to provide positive comments about them. By asking to speak with recently acquired clients, you are asking for relevant feedback from other companies who have just been through the process of implementation/on-boarding that you are considering. How did it compare to their expectations? Were there any issues? Anything you should be aware of?

By taking the time to ask these questions before the handshake, you greatly increase the chances that your experience afterwards will meet your expectations, and your new vendor agreement will begin delivering the end results your company desires.

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