Varsity Blues

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted October 01, 2000
by Deidra-Ann Parrish

BY THE TIME LENA FERNANDEZ REALIZED that her company's first CTI installation was also her VAR's first venture into computer telephony, it was too late. "We were their guinea pig," Fernandez says. "We had nothing but problems with that system. We had to have it taken apart and rewired." Fernandez and the rest of the staff at the Porter, LeVay & Rose, Inc. marketing firm in New York were stuck with a shoddy system that was soon replaced. They'd also learned a hard lesson about how to choose the right technology partners.

Unfortunately, many companies end up dealing with VARs, integrators, and consultants that try to do too much or don't fit the bill for one reason or another. Usually, they don't know they've got the wrong one until something goes wrong. But when you've got an IT project on the table, you can't afford to miss the mark or waste time, money, and manpower. That saps your core business and flies in the face of what technology is supposed to be about. The promise of technology is that it better enables you to perform the tasks necessary for your business to excel. The challenge, however, is getting the right solutions provider to deliver on that promise.

"The major difference between large and small companies is resources," says Beth Gold-Bernstein, vice president of strategic products and services for White Plains, N.Y.-based ebizQ.net, an online information resource for VARs. Gold-Bernstein's group works with solutions providers to achieve better end results, and she has also been an IT executive at a modest-size firm. "It's not uncommon for a small company to be unable to assess their problems or their needs to begin with," she says.

That puts a small business at a disadvantage right away. Without enough time, money, or technological expertise, a company can get stuck before it gets started. Getting unstuck means getting help. But where to turn for that help isn't always clear.

LETTERMEN

The IT industry has about as many varieties of IT professionals as Baskin-Robbins has flavors of ice cream. Recently, the menu has become even more complicated, as the proliferation of Internet solutions and online transactions has created a whole new league of IT specialists whose calling card is an "e-" designation before their names.

Sorting them out can be confusing, but take comfort in the fact that the titles are there for your benefit. IT companies want you to know what they do. What good is a name like chocolate chip mint if that's not exactly what you're getting? The same is true with network integrators, Internet service providers, and application developers -- all of which are essentially value-added resellers with targeted areas of specialty.

Many businesses hire an IT consultant to explore and explain the options. Hiring one IT firm to help find another may be counter-intuitive, but sometimes it's necessary. Consultants perform a variety of functions, from making independent assessments of your company's IT needs and coordinating the appropriate team of specialists to designing custom software. What typically sets them apart from VARs is that they are less hands-on.

In particular, you might enlist this kind of outfit to perform an initial needs assessment. They'll tell you what's feasible, what the cost will be, and how long it will take. If they're thorough, their assessment will include recommendations for the services you'll need (like training or system maintenance) -- but they won't typically provide these things.

At the end of the day, even the specialists themselves urge client companies to pay less attention to the nomenclature and more to what the companies behind the names can deliver.

A BAD CONNECTION

Once a company knows what it wants, they need someone to implement it. The consultant that helped work up the
current strategy may be fine, but that shouldn't be taken for granted. Lena Fernandez's firm was no stranger to technology: It's networked, it has its own Web site, and it has a sophisticated telephony system. But, like most techno-veterans, PLR has bruises from lessons learned the hard way.

Fernandez admits that when the company had its telephony system installed, no one was paying attention to labels. A systems integrator with whom they had been working discovered the PR firm's interest in a telephony system. So Fernandez, who is responsible for hiring solutions providers, turned the project over to them. Because they were a known entity, she didn't question their credentials. "They must have figured it would be an easy enough transition for them to make from system integration to telephony," she says.

Geoffrey Day, president of The Consulting Exchange, a Boston referral service that matches clients with qualified consultants, says this is an easy mistake to make. "Don't over-assume another company's skill level," Day says. "Look only at their actual credentials."

Still, it's rare that failed IT endeavors are solely the integrator's fault. Liz Wolfe, president of Wintec Group, Inc., the Manhattan VAR that Fernandez eventually settled on, insists that clients have a responsibility to come to the table with demands and a fine-toothed comb. "You have to do your homework before you engage a VAR. Make sure their skills are current, that they'll respond to your needs the way you want them to, and that they're flexible enough to make the special adjustments you may need." Most potential partners you eliminate won't be unreliable or grossly incompetent -- if only it was that easy. More likely, it just won't be a productive pairing. "It's impossible to get good results from an improperly matched union," Day says.

A CATASTROPHE, NARROWLY AVERTED

Solutions providers are no different than experts in other fields. There are some that are superior, some that are mediocre, and some that should raise a warning flag upon first sight. Even when dealing with a qualified VAR, as Fernandez did, treat every project as a separate and new venture. "No matter what they did for you in the past, make sure they're up to the next task," Day warns. "Cleaning up messes is a very expensive proposition."

Shigeru Miyagawa found this out the hard way when an all-important project almost failed because he picked the wrong partners. Although his project involved producing a CD-ROM, the lessons he learned apply to all businesses. Six years ago Miyagawa, a professor at MIT's school of journalism, had the idea to design a social studies CD-ROM for schools. It developed into a business called StarFestival, Inc., and he enlisted the help of a modest team to develop the product. Miyagawa, no technical genius, was outsourcing his way into software entrepreneurship. Early versions of the product won awards, but the whole endeavor nearly fizzled when developers tried to move the software from the Mac platform to Windows.

After many fruitless efforts, Miyagawa had to take the project elsewhere. He needed a company with true technological know-how to take the product the last critical mile. He was also negotiating deals for StarFestival, which were now at risk. He brought in Eight, Inc., a Boston-based IT consultancy, and a little more than a month later he had a working CD and was able to secure a deal to put the CD in 82 schools in Boston.

The StarFestival saga shows that clarity of vision is essential to finding the right VAR. Miyagawa admits that if there's any blame to be assigned, he'll accept it. "The company we had been working with didn't fail us," he says. "They had expertise in artistic content, and we needed someone to build a technology backbone. If I had known from the beginning what we were going to do, we wouldn't have started out with the kind of firm we did."

As Miyagawa learned, it's never too late to admit a mistake.

THE PERFECT VAR -- FOR YOU

One good thing about getting bumps and bruises is that the pain fosters lessons. How do you get good at separating the wheat from the chaff? Unfortunately, you have to chew a little useless grain first. In the eight years Fernandez has been PLR's network manager, there have been seven or eight companies that have come and gone. Some have dropped the ball on service or failed to devote the appropriate resources to PLR. As a result of their failures, Fernandez says she's extremely thorough in the VAR selection process now. She takes nothing for granted and investigates thoroughly.

But it's often hard to sort the good from the not-so-good, especially on paper. Be sure to check that a VAR has some sort of certification in the appropriate technologies, but even then don't put too much stock in little pieces of paper. According to Tom Chang, co-founder of Eight, Inc., it's a mistake to rely on them to make a judgement. "They don't necessarily mean a company is qualified in a particular area," Chang says. "It just means that they sent someone through the training program and they passed."

Chang, whose company boasts clients like KPMG and MIT, says if a company is truly qualified in a specific technology, it should show in its work, and it should be able to demonstrate on-the-job problem-resolution experience. The best way to substantiate a VAR's claims is through its clientele. Get at least three references and contact them directly. "Ask how much work the VAR has done, what the client considers the VAR's specialty to be, whether they'd recommend them to a friend, and what the best and worst aspects of the VAR's performance are," Gold-Bernstein says. If it's possible, visit the facilities and see the work first hand.

A sticking point for PLR's Fernandez is accountability. "I need to be certain that the VAR I work with will be able to give me a single rep to handle our work," she says. "I don't want our projects to get passed around within the company. It takes too much time to retrain a new person every time out." If she isn't guaranteed a single point of contact, she won't do business.

Finally, pay attention to company culture. Every company has an internal culture, and it's important that the VAR you choose shares a similar culture. They need to understand and appropriately respond to things like employees' skill levels, the business process, the organizational model, and the overall needs -- all of which can be significant factors in a VAR's ability to satisfy your firm.

HOW TO GET SATISFACTION

Even with the ideal VAR on board, the work still isn't done. Stay involved in order to ensure that you get the expected level of service. Taking time out from watching the bottom line to check up on a VAR is unpleasant but necessary if you want to get results. Joe Galatas' company, McDonough Marine Service in New Orleans, rents and leases vessels, and it runs custom software on an IBM AS/400 to oversee its barges' whereabouts. "Having the right software in place is one thing, but having the right support for it is another," he says. "We've had lots of problems getting adequate support."

Just as in the implementation process, the VAR needs to be familiar with the technology you use and the problems that are likely to crop up. "Many VARs have generic approaches to technology," Galatas says. But if you want to know what gets results from a VAR, ask a VAR. The WinTec Group's Wolfe says plenty of businesses come knocking on her door because other VARs are failing their customers. That's great for her, but she admits that it would be better for the industry at large if more VARs knew how to build solid relationships with their customers.

Wolfe urges client companies to be active and direct in their engagements with VARs. "Ideally, what you want to do is work toward building a relationship with your VAR, rather than just an account," she says. Every VAR has accounts that come and go. Those aren't as profitable, so typically a VAR isn't going to invest as heavily in a basic account. "When you engage a VAR and let them know you want to develop a ongoing business relationship, they're going to make smart decisions that will benefit you for the long-term."

WinTec may have a better handle on building relationships than other VARs, since they're specialty is providing customer relationship management solutions. Still, there are basic ingredients every relationship should have that no technology can duplicate. Wolfe says she's learned over the years that client relationships should be based upon mutual trust and respect. While the VAR is the expert and you trust their professional know-how, make a point of letting them know that your projects demand the utmost respect. Let them know you're looking at their work and expect to see measurable results. That fosters an element of accountability.

Technology itself is only half of what it takes to build successful IT solutions. Having the right solutions provider is the other half. When you get both right, the result is a long-lasting, productive relationship. By now PLR has learned enough to know what to look for, what questions to ask, and, most importantly, what it wants. "They give us exactly what we need," Fernandez says of the relationship with WinTec. "I'm not even thinking about trying to replace them."

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