You know you need to hire a systems integrator. Do you know what to ask to make sure their capabilities fit your needs? Three VARs in leading technology companies have some advice on what to look for in a systems integrator - regardless of the technology - and how to ask for it in no uncertain terms.
How Do You Start The Search?
If you don't already have a list of solutions providers to choose from, there are a few ways to find a company. Ask other end users in your industry for referrals, or ask an industry vendor for its partners in your area.
"You won't see all your solutions options implemented in your industry," says Richard Barsh, founder and president of FasTouch POS Systems. The company designs and sells open architecture point of sale (POS) systems to independent and local restaurant franchises. "Look through trade magazines to get an idea of what products and solutions are being used in your industry."
According to Dave Murray, vice president of SSE Technologies, an automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) VAR that installs asset tracking and inventory systems, another great resource for end users is www.ISIT.com. The Web site is an online library of integrated solutions for information technology. It's designed to help buyers of information technology products navigate their ways through a variety of technologies. Now that you have a list of solutions providers you could hire, what's next?
Should You Work With A New Solutions Provider?
Ultimately, whom you choose to work with is your choice. If it is a modification of an existing solution, Murray recommends going with your current solutions provider, if possible. "Choosing your current solutions provider will probably provide the most economical and efficient solution," he says. "The integrator won't have to learn everything about the system; the company should already know it."
Lynn Luxenberg, founder and principal of Systems Solutions, Inc., a document management systems integration company, doesn't recommend using new solutions providers at all. "Working with new solutions providers is not the best thing you can do," she says. "If you pay them a dime, you are paying for their education." While they may have experience with the technology, she adds, they often don't have the expertise required for projects.
"If you pay a cheaper price, you get what you pay for," she continues. By not spending the right amount of money to get your project done, you could have a failure and spend twice the original amount fixing the mess."
Is it ever okay to choose a new solutions provider? If you want to be a beta site, says Barsh, be informed. Look at the company's references, check with the Better Business Bureau and make sure it is a profitable, legitimate business."Make sure that your solutions provider is letting you know that you are a beta site and provides alternatives if there's a problem with their installation," says Barsh. "Get in writing that they will replace the new system if it isn't doing the job.
"I only recommend using a new solutions provider when the integrator can provide a superior solution and the end user is comfortable with the company's attributes," he continues. "It would be appropriate to check references from work at a previous company. Ask for personal references to help establish if the solutions provider is trustworthy."
How Many Installations Have They Completed?
Look for quality installations instead of the quantity, Barsh continues. "A solutions provider may have done hundreds of installations that are not working well," he says. "But another company may have done significantly fewer, but high quality, installations. Choose someone who takes pride in their work."
Does The Solutions Provider Understand Your Business?
"End users should let integrators develop a business requirement," says Luxenberg. "It's a low-risk investment to see in writing if integrators understand what you do. It will show how they see your problems and how they plan to solve them." Also, review previous business requirement definitions the solutions provider has done in situations similar to yours.
"The best way to review capabilities is to review documents," she explains. "The review compares the need to the deliverable. Any good solutions provider will have a proven track record you can check. The provider must have a tried and true methodology, be able to implement in a certain order, and have a corporate culture that can handle that method or approach."
Does Their Support Match Your Needs?
When a company boasts that they have 24/7 support, find out specifics, warns Barsh. "Make sure the company's support services match your support needs. Ask the solutions provider:
- What is that support?
- If I need on-site assistance, will someone be at my site in a few minutes?
- How fast is the support?
- How often do you go on-site to fix repairs?
"We often receive phone calls from end users with what they think are serious software problems," he explains. "Most of the time the problem is as simple as an unplugged printer. The solutions provider must have a staff that understands the product well enough to be able to work out most problems over the phone. A good product and installation won't require frequent service calls."
If you need 24/7 service, look for that kind of support in your integrator, says Luxenberg. "Make sure the integrator has a help desk," she says. "If you have an international company, can the integrator provide support in different countries? If you have an office in Japan, can the integrator give that office the same support you receive in the United States or Canada?"
Also, make sure solutions providers have an adequate staff to address your specific needs. "On the most basic level," says Murray, "providers should have the necessary staff to address the needs of the end user. There should be sales staff, technical support staff, a software design engineer and hardware design engineer if applicable. There should be an expert on staff for each product that end users sell."
Additionally, beware of the VAR that carries the image of a "Yes" man, warns Luxenberg. "Don't hire a solutions provider that only does what you ask. That's a red flag for failure. If the provider says ‘You want that? We can do that,' you are in trouble."
Do Your Corporate Cultures Match?
There is something to be said for gut instincts. Make sure you are working with a company you like. "Your corporate culture should match your solutions provider's corporate culture," says Luxenberg. "When hiring, don't expect the solutions provider to fit the job description to a 'T.'"
"An end user should feel comfortable with the solutions provider," adds Murray. "A good working rapport is important." Murray recommends calling the solution provider's salesperson to get an idea of the company's response time. "Any solutions provider that gives a quick and timely response means the company cares about how it deals with its customers."
How Many References Should You Obtain?
Murray, Luxenberg and Barsh agree that end users should speak with at least three references for each solutions provider. Barsh recommends taking the reference check one step further. Talk to the employees actually using the system, not just the upper management who purchased the solution. Let the solutions provider give you locations for each referral, and then go and visit these sites.
Is The Solutions Provider Y2K Compliant?
"Anyone who doesn't ask about Y2K-compliance is foolish," says Murray. "Along with that, any solutions provider that would not incorporate Y2K-compliance is incompetent." Luxenberg and Barsh say to get proof of Y2K-compliance in writing.
How do you make sure that a product is Y2K-compliant? "End users need to put a Y2K clause in every contract they do," Luxenberg says. "And, they should make sure their own attorneys insert the clause. Once we reach the millennium, there is going to be a lot of suing going on."