Four steps to vendor evaluation

POC testing is just half of the battle in making effective purchases. Here are four areas to focus on during vendor evaluations.
Written by Allen C. Kratz, Contributor
POC testing is just half of the battle in making effective purchases. Once you’re on the test drive, you have to know what to look for and avoid getting distracted by the bells and whistles that don’t relate to the key business needs. Here are four areas to focus on during vendor evaluations.

Keep the focus on your business environment
It’s the salesperson’s job to sell their product to as many customers as possible. This means they’ll visit many sites and repeat the same sales presentation over and over. It is important to get past this dog-and-pony show and focus the discussion on your particular business needs.

Sales people will often resist moving the discussion this way because it gets them out of their comfort zone and into a less rehearsed topic. This change may be uncomfortable for them, but it’s essential to your evaluation of a vendor’s ability to meet your true business needs. It also keeps you from becoming too impressed with features you may not need. For instance, ever since wireless became the buzz technology, one of our vendors always includes his product’s wireless support in his presentations. Our company has no plans for this technology, and we’ve repeatedly had to tell him to skip that part of his presentations.

Define basic requirements
To keep focus on your business needs, you must develop and gather internal consensus on the requirements you expect a vendor to meet. Get approval on the requirements from all parties before you sit down with vendors. In doing so, you ensure the critical factors have been considered, everyone agrees on the mission, and the team is prepared to judge each vendor effectively. In addition, by disclosing these requirements to your vendors, you’ll be able to direct the presentations and sales focus to the actual requirements of your company.

Keep the evaluation simple
Before you sit down with vendors, your team must agree on how to measure vendor options. Participants should agree ahead of time on how to prioritise the requirements and rate the vendor’s ability to fulfill those requirements.

It’s best to keep this process as simple as possible. I’ve been on teams that have spun their wheels determining if we should rate on a 1-to-5 scale or a letter-grade method—and then spent even more time debating how to weigh those values against priorities. In an attempt to make our evaluation scientific, we risked turning it into it a wild guess. In the end, we used a True/False test against the basic requirements, followed by an overall rating of the product.

The core requirements should drive the decision process. Beware of overvaluing a product that scores well on all the extra features while scoring poorly against the key business requirements.

Some industry experts suggest that you only invite a very limited number of vendors during the evaluations period to allow you to focus on the core features. Of course, you should formally keep track of evaluation results and decide ahead of time what metrics you’ll use to determine satisfaction.

Timing, timing, timing
The salesperson would like you to make your decision as quickly as possible. Most of the time, a fast decision is only in the vendor’s best interest. It seems every time I sit down to negotiate with a vendor, the end of the quarter is next Friday, and if we want to get the best prices, we’ll need to decide by then. If vendors want your business, they should be able to provide the best price independent of their quarterly sales quotas. While the evaluation process should be kept simple, it should never be rushed.

It’s best to move slowly on the final decision, but you should get a grasp on pricing and the vendor’s ability to meet your core requirements as soon as possible. Making this determination early on can save time for both you and the salesperson. If the price is out of reach, or if there’s any doubt of a product’s ability to meet your core needs, move on to the next vendor.

Working with vendors can be a challenging task for developers, as it pulls us away from the keyboard, away from our programs, and beyond the code. Even when the process goes smoothly, you may get more than your fill of the sales world. If you execute the evaluation with a simple but methodical approach, you can improve the quality of the test drive and help ensure that you make a decision that provides long-term benefits for your company.

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