Don't look in the phone book to find a technology solution provider. That's the consensus of four leading companies providing technology solutions to end users.
"Word of mouth is the best way to find a company that can solve your business problems using technology products," says Bruce Karlson, president of Word-Tech (Kansas City, MO). His company specializes in providing document management, imaging and workflow solutions for large corporations, banks and law firms.
Tom Olivieri, partner/managing director of MicroNetwork Systems, Inc. (Brentwood, NY), agrees that asking peers for referrals is important. His company specializes in providing imaging and storage solutions in the pharmaceutical, legal and banking markets. Olivieri also suggests searching for solution providers by using the Internet and by asking hardware and software vendors for recommendations.
Trade associations are also sources of referrals. "The fastest, easiest way to identify potential solution providers is through industry trade associations," says Rick Duris, president of Business Technology Group, located in Chicago. His company provides automatic identification and data collection (AIDC), document imaging and networking solutions to a variety of businesses. Members of trade associations have access to the association's membership list. Duris recommends calling a few members on the list. "Tell them what type of technology you're looking for and ask them what they're using," he says. Duris used this approach when helping a potential customer - a waste disposal company - upgrade its computer system. "I called 50 people on the customer's waste disposal trade association membership list. One type of software package was recommended by the top 20 companies on the list," says Duris.
Bob Hess used his membership in a trade association to locate a phone system vendor for his own company. He is vice president and COO of CCI Group, Inc. (St. Louis, MO), a point of sale (POS) systems integration company specializing in multiunit retail and sports/entertainment facilities. "I called several people and asked them what systems they were using and for vendor recommendations," says Hess. He says many trade associations publish buying guides that also can be good sources of information.
Once you've identified three or four potential solution providers, be prepared to ask questions. "Make a list of questions and stick to it when interviewing each integrator," says Hess. These questions should include:
- How many years has the integrator been in business?
- How many years have they been providing the solution the end user is looking for?
- Do they use products from multiple vendors?
"Always ask how a company handles problems and service," advises Hess. The same question should be asked of references offered by the solution provider. Because installations, for the most part, never go perfectly smooth, it's important to know upfront how any problems will be addressed, says Hess. Also, ask the references if their projects were completed on time and within budget.
"You want to work with an integrator who has good planning and project management skills," says Karlson. He uses the analogy of building a house. "You wouldn't build a house without detailed architectural drawings," he says. "Likewise, you can't install technology without a plan."
Karlson says an integrator should provide at least three examples of a "scope of work" document prepared for previous clients. The scope of work defines what services and products the integrator will provide, known as the deliverables. An integrator writes a scope of work only after studying the end user's business.
Karlson follows a five-step approach with his clients.
- Discovery - This includes studying the end user's business, surveys, needs analysis, etc.
- Analysis - Analyzing the data collected during the discovery phase.
- Design - Choosing the technology, designing the solution.
- Implementation - Installing the technology.
- Future enhancements - This includes the system "going live" and any future needs of the customer, such as technology upgrades.
"A good integrator will help you through the process of implementing technology," says Duris. Early in the process, Duris helps his customers identify possible outcomes or results of installing technology. These outcomes are categorized into three areas: cost (What is it costing your company to operate the way it is now?); key frustrations (What happens, for example, when you run out of inventory?); and opportunities (What would you like to be able to do?). "An integrator should choose the right technology for your business," Duris says.
Olivieri recommends end users use a "touch and feel" approach to buying. "Ask to see demo equipment. You can talk concepts all day, but it means more to be ‘hands on' with the products," he says. This often elicits additional questions and enables end users to understand better how the technology will impact their operations.
Using A Team Approach
A team, rather than an individual, should choose the systems integrator to provide new technology, say all four interviewees. All advise forming a team of four or five people to choose and evaluate solution providers. The team must include an employee directly involved in using the technology. Hess cites the team chosen to select the telephone system in his own company. "Our team included people who would be using the new telephones. When evaluating systems, they had strong opinions on what the phones looked like. We had to consider that, since they would be ones using the phones every day," he explains. Other members of the team represented the administrative and financial interests of the company.
"You want the people using the technology to have a sense of ownership," says Karlson. He suggests forming a technology committee to help make functionality decisions. "Identify what decisions will need to be made by the committee, in what order these decisions need to be made and who will make them," he says.
The Final Analysis
The process of finding and choosing a solution provider does not have to be difficult. The key, according to Karlson, Olivieri, Duris and Hess, seems to be using a step-by-step process. Asking for recommendations, checking references and working with a team will help ensure success. The solution provider's job is to lead your company through the process of installing new technology as smoothly as possible.