Bridging the gap between IT suppliers and clients
The National B2B Centre is positioned as an independent provider of IT consultancy and training services. That puts us slap bang in the middle of an on-going divide between IT suppliers and their clients. This is a divide characterised by debates over costs, deadlines and deliverables.
In the past we have highlighted ways in which SMEs could do better when, for instance, specifying web development or CRM (Customer Relationship Management) purchases. In this article by Martin King-Turner, MD of the B2B Centre, we look at some of the concerns that clients and end-users flag up about their dealings with suppliers.
The B2B Centre has had a long running role in connecting the small and medium sized business community with IT suppliers over the years.
It’s been our job to help SMEs to adopt technologies that will help them to grow their businesses and this has entailed preparing them to firstly provide adequate information to potential suppliers and then to define good processes for making a final choice.
At the same time we have worked with IT suppliers to help them understand the wants and needs of the SME sector and highlight both where their prospective clients have some difficulties and where they could change their approach.
The problem as we see it is, however, that the gap between end-users and suppliers doesn’t seem to have closed. So building on our on-going dialogue with SMEs we have put together a short list of the key issues and some possible solutions to a get a discussion going to help close the divide.
Where are the gaps?
So here are the key areas that our clients have noted where there is a bit of distance between themselves and vendors.
- Suppliers are not successfully translating business requirements into detailed proposals and IT specifications. This leads to disputes about whether finished systems actually do what the client expected.
- The wider implications for, and responsibilities of, the business are not always spelled out properly. This means that implementations can founder on non-technical issues such as the need to change business processes, train staff or alter working practices.
- Suppliers don’t offer an underlying approach (our interviewees didn’t use the word methodology) to show that they clearly understand the business, have a clear set of steps to achieve success and provide a sense of confidence that that they will have everything under control.
- There is a tendency to use phrases like “project management” and “customisation“ as catch-alls in proposals. The problem is that phrases like this are either not understood by clients at all or have different meanings to how they are used in the IT community. As a result clients see them as a form of padding that’s used to push the price up.
How do we bridge them?
Now, reading these points may make the suppliers amongst you throw up your arms in protest and talk about the times when you have been at the wrong end of bad practice from clients. Hold back for a moment because the clients we talked to also had some observations and confessions that might help you out.
- End users are well aware of their shortcomings in this debate. They put their hands up to, for instance:
- Not being able to talk technically (or technically enough)
- Not being able to provide clear and detailed user requirements (because of time or expertise restrictions)
- Changing their minds. A lot.
- Having “I want one of those” moments without understanding all of the implications
In the short term simply recognising these shortcomings may help to change the nature of the interaction. Then it's worth suppliers considering what tools they have at their disposal to help: a different sales process, discussion guides or specification templates, for instance.
- Suppliers might also be interested in the view that the dislike of the “catch all” phrases highlighted above doesn’t mean that clients won’t pay for services.
Want they really want to see is an explanation of what they mean in their terms, what the deliverables are and where they add value.
- Recognising that suppliers will highlight price competition as being a big issue the people we talked to said that they would respect an approach that spelled out why a project would fail if a particular set of steps weren’t carried out (and therefore costs incurred).
They want to work with people who can and will give them the complete picture so that they can fully understand all of the issues at stake.
- Finally if suppliers can establish confidence that they understand a clients’ business and have a clear plan to link business and technology, then this will trump both potential technical superiority and price differentials in other bids.
We know that many IT suppliers already recognise the issues highlighted in this article and have made their own efforts to “bridge the gaps”. There is still an opportunity, however, for the wider IT supplier community to take on board of the learnings that have been described.
At stake are profitable projects for suppliers resulting in successful, profitable investments for end-users. That’s an outcome that I am sure all of us are interested in achieving.
To take part in this discussion contact Martin on firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a message on Twitter @b2b_centre or comment in the B2B Centre Members Group on Linkedin.
Martin King-Turner is Managing Director of the National B2B Centre and has over 20 years’ experience helping companies maximise the benefits of using technology.