How to create a relationship that works

Choosing a supplier can feel like entering a lottery - there's a chance you'll come out on top but nothing is guaranteed....

Choosing a supplier can feel like entering a lottery - there's a chance you'll come out on top but nothing is guaranteed. However, if you know what to look for, you can considerably up your chances of making that perfect match.

When it comes to choosing an IT supplier, "cultural fit" with the client organisation is increasingly appearing in the list of must-have factors. Defining this elusive cultural fit can, however, be more difficult. What does cultural fit really mean, how do you recognise it, and does it really matter if a supplier fits the bill in other ways?

A poor cultural fit can mean money wasted on expensive applications, because the supplier has not succeeded in explaining to end-users why they should use the system or how to use it effectively. "The bottom line is that if an organisation has spent a significant amount on a product that's just sitting there, then there's no return on their investment," points out Tim Mister, a consultant with supply chain management specialist Kurt Salmon Associates.

At worst, a mismatch of cultures can result in systems that fail catastrophically - like the now-notorious London Ambulance Service computer-aided despatch system, designed by a company which apparently had no previous experience of the sector, and did not have a thorough understanding of the users' needs.

No attraction is fatal
The issue of whether a supplier is good at getting on with the customer's staff may seem trivial, but can make a huge difference to the outcome of a project. "If you do not feel you can build a relationship with the individual that is selling to you, it is unlikely you'll be able to work with that company in the long term," says Alistair Blaxill, managing director of software businesses with business solutions supplier XKO Software.

But there are more deep-seated indications of whether two companies will work well together. One fairly important factor is how well the supplier understands the customer's particular market.

For a supplier accustomed to the strong profit ethos of the private sector, for example, it may be hard to adjust to dealing with public sector customers, who also have to take into account factors such as local politics, changing legislation, and the local public's requirements. Organisations with a track record in the sector, and ideally with staff who have worked in the sector themselves, will have a head start in providing solutions that work for the business.

Though it might seem obvious that organisations will work best with suppliers of a similar size, it's not necessarily so; cultural similarities can mean that for once size doesn't matter.

According to Andrew Yuille, marketing director of supply chain software specialist Strategix: "It's not a question of size, but of attitude. We partner with IBM, which is many times our size - but their people and the way they're structured make it easy to work with them. If you're a small organisation dealing with a big organisation you can find yourself dealing with people who answer every question with 'I'm not sure, I'll have to go and ask,' so one important issue is how empowered the people are that act as your interface with their organisation."

Route to the top
A good indication, says Yuille, is who you get to talk to in the organisation. "If you're the MD, what access do you get to senior people in the company? If you ask a software vendor if they can add enhancements to their product, do you end up in a dialogue with the people who can make the decision?"

Nor is cultural fit necessarily about similar ways of working. Indeed, one of the reasons you might call in a third party is to transform the way your organisation works. But if that's the case you need to be clear upfront what you're trying to achieve and what role you want the supplier to play. For example, if you need to introduce new ways of working quickly, you might need an organisation that can be quite assertive about implementing a new product; if minimising the impact of change is important, you need a supplier that is prepared to move slowly and flexibly and take more of a partnership role.

Fools rush in
"It's important to spend time in the set-up phase to decide what you're trying to achieve and how the two organisations will work together," warns Ian Marriott, research director of Gartner Group. "Organisations will pay lip-service to this, but in fact leap straight into evaluating suppliers without preparing the full range of factors they need to know about."

As with any relationship, first impressions do not necessarily mean you're going to be right for each other in the long term. To test the ground you could try running a small-scale project before committing to a major deal, or asking the supplier's team to run a workshop where you can observe how well they work with your own staff. Do they engage with them or just read from a pre-prepared script?

These options may not be possible, but both buyers and sellers reckon it's imperative to visit some reference sites before you buy. "It's almost as important as getting information from the company and doing a proof of concept - I'd always try to visit three reference sites," says Steve Needham, vice-president of IT client reporting at Deutsche Asset Management.

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