A new year brings opportunities for new partnerships.  Maybe you’re not happy with your incumbent, or your in-house model is not working…or perhaps you have an exciting new offering, and want to partner with a vendor to support your growth.

No matter which category you fall into, we recommend supplementing an RFP process with a “try before you buy” approach.   Let’s face it, an RFP can never demonstrate whether a system is truly user-friendly, or an account manager super-responsive, or a call centre full of happy, engaged employees – and it’s those intangibles which are just as important as tangibles like pricing, features and product information.  In this article, we provide some real-life examples of how you can “date” your vendor before you propose. 

Site Visits

Nothing beats a site visit to really get to know your shortlist of vendors.  Site visits can be used to assess:

  • accuracy of written representations – develop a checklist of questions you want to ask to confirm consistency in verbal and written responses.  Remember, anyone can hire a tender writer to write impressive stuff!
  • capability of key personnel – get to know the people who will be integral to the success of your relationship. For example, the role of account manager is often key. Yet without sitting down with the vendor’s proposed account manager, how can you know whether this individual has good communication skills and will make a trusted ally? The formality of a typical procurement process inherently contradicts this approach. 
  • executive/cultural alignment – a closed door session with 1 or 2 senior executives from each side can reveal a lot.  For example, do your executives share a complementary vision?  What level of governance and oversight will the vendor’s executives provide? Do they view your business as a “priority account” or will you be lost in an ocean of bigger clients?  
  •  the acceptability of a client’s facility (layout, security, amenities, accessibility, orderliness) – a well-documented OH&S plan is great but if there’s no first-aid kit on site, that doesn’t augur well.
  • technology capability, through live demos and tests (more about that below)

During the site visit, you can also test-drive a working relationship by scheduling a role play scenario.

The Role of Role Plays

Role plays are fictional scenarios where you (that is, your evaluation team members) play the role of the client and the vendor plays the role of the vendor.  You get to see how the vendor would act in a given set of circumstances – for example, a specific change request – which you provide in advance to allow limited preparation (eg. 48 hours’ notice).  Role plays allow you to simulate: 

  • how the vendor responds to unexpected change requests
  • the professionalism and quality of recommendations provided
  • the skill of the personnel assigned to manage and deliver your requirements
  • the vendor’s approach to conflict resolution, stakeholder management, and being proactive.

Your team members can adopt different roles and personalities to test these things: for example, a hard-nosed procurement manager, who has a tight budget, and wants an NDA signed on the spot; an operations manager who is worried about meeting the transition deadline & stringent KPIs; and the representative of the Executive Office, who only cares about the reports the CEO has requested.

There is nothing wrong with deliberately omitting key information from the role play outline provided in advance, and springing a couple of “shockers” during the meeting – and observe how this is handled!

Demos and tests

Similarly to role plays, it’s wise to test out vendors and their ability to quickly and effectively turn around a sample request.  An example is asking an IT vendor to customise screens, reports and functionality in accordance with a sample specification, unique to your needs.  Again, give a limited and equal amount of time to all shortlisted vendors to respond.  During demos, don’t forget to include actual end-users of a system, since these are the people who can let you know if it’s as user-friendly as it sounds.

Another example: if you’re sourcing a training provider, ask for permission to sit in on one of their client’s training sessions. Check out the quality of the training and demo it yourself!

Proof of Concepts (PoC)

The classic case of try before you buy is to run a proof of concept. If the carrot of ongoing work is big enough, the POC might even be negotiable free, or at cost.

Spend time with other clients

It goes without saying that you should spend time with your preferred vendors’ clients and find out what the experience has been like post contract.  Was it as rosy as everyone thought during the sales process?  Some vendors have excellent sales people but fall down in implementation and support.

If you’re ready to start sourcing a new vendor this new year, get your shortlist here:

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