If you're like me, you get bombarded with invitations every week to spend time with product and services vendors. Spending some time with your core vendors makes sense. And keeping a close eye on developments in critical areas of technology and services is necessary to let you make strategic choices--or, at least, to validate your current decisions and road maps. (For more guidance on evaluating vendors, consult CIO Insight's 2011 Vendor Value Study.)
Yet, we're all pressed for time, so how do you filter out the meetings that will be time wasters from the potentially useful contacts? I have a handy set of questions that I use to grill prospective IT vendors to help gauge whether a meeting is worth my time.
Before asking any of the following questions, though, I do some homework. If I can't tell what a vendor or its products do from the invitation I receive to meet--or by spending 30 seconds on its Website--forget it.
Now, for the vendor quiz part. Next time a vendor asks to meet with you, try asking these can't-miss questions first:
- What do you know about me, and the company I work for? I don't have time to educate you about us, our operating model and priorities. Or to figure out whether what you have could help us. Once we're in contact, I may decide to make that investment, but not upfront. I just don't have the time.
- What do you know about the industry I work in? Explain to me what you see as our challenges and opportunities? How can you help? Who else do you work for that could be a reference I care about or a competitor I pay attention to? Where can I see what you have actually working at a company that looks like mine?
- Can you support me wherever I might need your product or service? I'm a global business, so I probably need you to be, too. If you're not, do you have credible plans to get there by the time I'll need you?
- What can you do that your competitors can't? No, really. There are very few truly unique products or services, but there are some valid differentiators, and some of these actually matter to me. What are yours, and do I care? If you're trying to displace an incumbent (and you'd better know that there is an incumbent), why should I incur the switching costs?
- Does your scale match my scale? I don't want to be your biggest customer--too risky for both of us--but I also don't want to disappear inside some giant sales and service machine.
If a prospective vendor successfully answers all of the above, it will have just one more question to get past: What's your core value proposition? I'll need (in less than five slides) to understand where the exchange of value takes place, at what scale and over what time frame.
If this is going to be a transactional relationship, I'm going to be buying primarily on price--probably through a reseller I already deal with. If it's a strategic decision, I will want to know how well the vendor understands what I mean by strategic, and I will need to have confidence that it can deliver. Otherwise, our first meeting will likely be our last.
About the author
John Parkinson is the head of the Global Program Management Office at AXIS Capital. Hes has been a technology executive, strategist, consultant and author for 25 years.