Setting the right foundations for the customer/partner relationship


For a successful project, you need a good partnership between the customer and the vendor, systems integrator or implementation partner. So what are some of the key planks of that relationship? Freya Purnell reports.


We’ve all heard the stories about projects that were doomed from the very beginning, with customers and partners ending up at each other’s throats amidst a mire of mismatched expectations, finger-pointing, and ultimately, dissatisfaction with the project outcomes. Here are some ways to avoid this happening to you.


Find a partner with the right approach

Human capital management solution specialist Presence of IT (PoIT) knows a thing or two about building long-term relationships. Eighty per cent of the company’s revenue comes from its existing install base of loyal customers.

PoIT co-CEO Shane Grobler says the company has achieved this by supporting multiple technologies, so customer opportunities can be maximised, and having a robust account management strategy that’s not just about making sales.

“First and foremost we are about maximising our customers’ opportunity and leveraging investments that they have already made. Our account management strategy is about making sure that customers are 100 per cent satisfied with the technologies that we implement, as well as taking them on their transformation journey,” Grobler says.

So while it might seem obvious, choosing a partner that aligns with your philosophy, approach and can act as a trusted advisor on the project is the first step to success.


Doing the groundwork

At the outset of a project, clarity and transparency from both parties is crucial, according to experienced program and project director, Elaine Silver, who has worked on both the customer and partner side of the fence.

“Working on the vendor side, I need clarity about what the customer wants, and I need to be confident that that is something we can do. If we can’t, there has to be an honest conversation right at the start. I also have to be aware of my timelines and resourcing, so I can actually commit to something,” she says.

“One of the things customers hate is when it’s all promises and not backed up by delivery, so it’s all about setting clear expectations on both sides. If the customer is expecting a huge shopping basket of things to be delivered at the lowest possible price, something will give. If the customer intends to push all the risk onto the vendor, and the vendor is sufficiently desperate to accept that, the wheels will fall off at some point.”

Daniel Jurczyszyn, key account executive at field service and workforce management software vendor Click Software, whose solutions are resold by SAP, agrees that all assumptions need to be put aside in favour of actually pinning down the facts about the project at hand.

“It’s all about understanding every component necessary before you even start the project and making sure everyone’s on the same page,” Jurczyszyn says. “Having joint meetings with the key stakeholders and being part of the steering committee is critical.”

Jurczyszyn speaks from experience, having been involved in a large SAP implementation where a large consulting company took control of the project, and didn’t pull other key partners in at the steering committee level.

“There were many areas that just didn’t work out well in the project, because there was a lack of expertise and input from us in particular,” he says.

Having a solid governance structure also ensures that all key parties – including internal customers, vendors and other consultants – are represented throughout the process.

“I think it’s important that everyone has a strong voice in that space, because everyone sees things differently. Everyone builds their own components in isolation, and you are obviously putting everything together to do an end-to-end test,” Jurczyszyn says.

However he does warn that internal representatives in particular need to be selected carefully, so that they have the right skill-set to be able to understand what is happening with the project and be able to communicate this in a meaningful way to others in the organisation.


Keeping the train on its tracks

Establishing and maintaining a relationship of trust is essential for keeping the project on track for success, particularly for when it starts to wobble or encounter impassable obstacles.

Silver says this means creating an environment where the partner can communicate honestly with the customer, even if mistakes have been made or further discovery has uncovered unanticipated issues.

“They have to know they can come in in an atmosphere of mutual problem-solving, and they won’t get kicked from here to next week,” she says. “That can sometimes come down to how you establish the contractual framework.”

At opposite ends of the spectrum, either having a contract with massive penalties for the vendor or an open chequebook from the customer are both unwise.

“The engagement model I favour, if the vendor is sufficiently mature, is having a shared pot you can both dip into under certain circumstances, with the aim of not having to dip into it so you can share it in the end,” Silver says.

“It keeps both sides honest, and it just opens that dialogue for when things go wrong, as they invariably do. It gives you a safe place to discuss that yes, we do have that option – but it has to be a genuine occasion where the estimate couldn’t be finalised before and an assumption has changed, and you have to have a vendor who’s got a really strong commercial understanding and is willing to work more openly than some do.”

Jurczyszyn agrees on this importance of this ‘contingency fund’, particularly when projects are venturing into uncharted territory.

“Every organisation has a very different level of IT complexity in their back-end, and whenever you look at implementing something new, it is totally different, because these systems may never have worked with the latest software you have put in place, and your integration layer might have created a different headache than you had expected. So there is nothing 100 per cent certain when you go into those environments,” he says.

From a ‘housekeeping’ perspective, where possible, Silver likes to have the whole project team working in one location, and using a collaborative working environment such as Sharepoint – something shared, open, well-crafted with a view to moving a project forward and solving problems constructively.

Forming buddy relationships also helps to keep the project on track – for example, by buddying a technical lead with a customer lead, a solution lead with an architect – and with non-project people, such as those who are going to manage the service after go-live. This can be particularly complicated when there might be several parties involved, and the project team will invariably have very different requirements to the support team.

“Negotiating through that and having an awareness of everyone’s needs is important,” Silver says.


When the going gets tough

As in most relationships, the average project is bound to have tough times, and as in most relationships, not keeping promises is bound is cause tensions.

Vendors need to be clear about what they do know, what they don’t, and what is yet to be discovered at the outset of a project, so allowances can be made.

“Once we make a commitment – whether it’s to adhere to a schedule or come in at a certain price – then it’s about honouring our commitments, and escalating early when it looks like we can’t,” Silver says.

Understanding that with the best will in the world, there are likely to be aspects of the project that go off course at times, and having some buffer in the timeline to deal with any unforeseen issues, can help to avoid stressing the relationship and jeopardising the project outcomes, according to Jurczyszyn.

“I think you need to have the flexibility within the key stakeholders or decision-makers to be able to be flexible on the timeline, if things go really badly askew or there is a total oversight,” he says. “I have seen projects where they are trying to fit everything into a particular timeline, so things fall off the project and it doesn’t deliver what it needed to in the end, because all the focus was on hitting a deadline and keeping costs to a certain point.”

From an interpersonal perspective, it’s especially important when things may not be going well on a project to continue to conduct meetings in a respectful way.

“It has to be done with an opening assumption, we’re all really good at what we do, and we all have the best interests of the end client in mind,” Silver says.

Jurczyszyn agrees.

“Everything needs to be run transparently with that level of trust, and being able to be honest amongst that group without people screwing up their noses and egos getting involved. If you can build that, which is not necessarily easy, I think you are always going to have a great project.”

Having said that, where there are very critical issues that are impacting the progress or success of the project, Silver says sometimes you have to be willing to keep moving up the chain of command to have them addressed.


Wrapping up well

To make sure a project finishes on a strong note, there must be effective change management and a seamless transition to ‘business as usual’. To achieve this, the groundwork must again be done at the beginning of the project.

“There is always a lack of money put into change management. IT is seen as a silver bullet, but it’s not, because you could put the best system in place but if you can’t get people to use it, then it’s a failure,” Jurczyszyn says.

Similarly, not having people who are going to be managing the system once you reach business as usual is a mistake.

“It creates a whole piece of work and frustration when it’s rolled out, so I think it’s critical to have people from the business to be part of that journey,” he says.


Winning the next engagement

Having a strong customer/partner relationship doesn’t just mean having a better chance of delivering a successful project or winning another engagement with that customer down the track, it could also lead to business with other organisations.

“Your reputation in this marketplace wins or loses you business. People are using their informal networks all the time, and you don’t know who is talking about you,” Silver says. “So you need to conduct yourself with integrity, keep your promises, ‘fess you when you mess up, and say how you are going to fix it.”


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