How to get along better with your IT vendors

I think that old line "You can't live with them, but you can't live without them" is really about IT vendors. We all need them and these days IT seems more reliant on vendors than ever before, not just for equipment, but also for IT development, services and support.

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I think that old line "You can't live with them, but you can't live without them" is really about IT vendors. We all need them and these days IT seems more reliant on vendors than ever before, not just for equipment, but also for IT development, services and support.

But from my earliest days as an IT manager, my relations with vendors were difficult and reactive and I don't think that is unusual. My seniors took a hard-nosed approach. "Don't worry about the contract," they'd say. "If they don't perform, just nuke 'em and swap them out." Or maybe the equally tough, "Just hold their feet to the fire. That never fails to bring 'em around."

Nuking vendors didn't seem like the best approach to me, not least of all because of the legal complications that I foresaw as a result of actually carrying out such a plan. Instead, I was trusting. If a vendor's representatives told me they would deliver a service or product at a certain time for a certain price, I took him at his word and moved on to address other duties.

If you've ever dealt with IT vendors, you probably know just how naive this approach was. Inevitably, some agreement wasn't quite met. Vendors that were late or whose service was below the level agreed upon were ready with lots of excuses. I heard account service managers cite snow days and other natural phenomena as reasons for failing to perform as required.

"We thought you knew what we were doing all along," one told me once, leaving me to think, "Actually, I thought you knew what you were doing, but I guess I was wrong." All of my attempts to move my complaints up the vendor hierarchy were short-circuited by unanswered phone calls and emails. Meanwhile, the vendor's account service managers would sympathise with me. They seemed to earn their keep by acting as heat shields for the higher-ups. I was getting nothing but empty promises.

I still didn't want to nuke the vendors, although a tactical strike against them did tempt me from time to time, but it was clear to me that my approach would have career-limiting consequences. If I didn't come up with a better way to achieve consistent and cost effective results from vendors, my credibility as an IT manager would steadily decline. I obviously didn't have my vendors' attention, so I decided that they needed some of mine.

Escalation

The vendor that finally sent me over the edge had been contracted to send us many workstations for a call centre. They arrived just before the weekend, giving us time to set them up and have them ready for Monday business. But we quickly discovered that all the machines were incorrectly configured. It being the weekend, we could get no hands-on help from the vendor, so the local IT team set up a makeshift workbench and installed what was needed and put the equipment in place just minutes before the call centre opened on Monday morning. What should have been a one day, three shift conversion took two days and six shifts.

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