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How to make the most of your suppliers

Getting the best out of partners and suppliers has never been more important: here's how one tech chief does it.

The pressure on CIOs to spend less time on operational concerns and more time on innovation means the role of great external partners has never been more important.

CIOs who want to do more with less can use the specialist skills of vendors to meet fast-changing business targets. One such IT leader is Bill Wilkins, CIO of energy specialist First Utility. The firm started as a small, entrepreneurial business in 2008 and experienced rapid growth.

Wilkins says the investors behind First Utility had a passion for technology, and believed IT systems and services could help create a differentiation in the marketplace. By 2014, the firm had become the seventh largest energy supplier in the UK, with a market share of two per cent.

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Innovation happens everywhere, not just within your own organisation, says Bill Wilkins, CIO at First Utility.

The company is now scaling up for further growth through a focus on its digital platform. Wilkins recognises that great IT partners have been - and continue to be - crucial to his firm's success. Below he explains his best practice tips for making the most from his firm's relationships with technology suppliers.

1. Gain experience in the way sales teams cut deals

Before moving to the energy sector, Wilkins spent time in senior roles with vendors, such as SeeBeyond and Sun Microsystems. He moved to First Utility in 2008 and has relished working on the other side of the fence.

"Most suppliers have one-year roadmaps and three-year roadmaps at most for their products," he says. "What you see realised in terms of benefits from a business point-of-view can be pretty limited."

Wilkins says moving to the end user side was exciting because it allowed him to see something new. Yet he also recognises his experiences on the supplier side have helped create a competitive advantage, particularly in terms of how the firm uses IT.

"I feel like I'm much more savvy in regards to what vendors want," says Wilkins. "When I speak with suppliers, I can quickly work out who's the pre-sales guy, who's the sales guy and what each person can contribute. Commercially, that's been an advantage. It helps me to establish when's the right time to do a deal."

2. Know how to distinguish the wheat from the chaff

Wilkins says his department does very few speculative meetings with vendors. Like other CIOs, he gets inundated with requests for meetings. Most of the conversations his IT team sets up take place when there is a genuine interest in the product or service. And these chats can be crucial.

"Innovation happens everywhere, not just within your own organisation and there's a lot of really cool things being developed out there," says Wilkins. "We try to learn from vendors, without having them try to impose their products on our world."

But he adds: "Not all vendors are very good at articulating, or knowing how to attach, their value to your business. Some are not willing to stop talking and start listening."

3. Make novel use of the cloud to increase your service options

Wilkins says First Utility is a big user of the cloud. The firm's inter-company collaboration is completed through Google Apps. Amazon hosts First Utility's online digital platforms and Salesforce runs the company's customer relationship management systems.

Most interestingly, perhaps, the firms does not own a data centre. Unlike other firms that might buy and run installations, First Utility rents rack space that can be scaled-up as required.

"I cannot get rid of data centre requirements entirely but there are not limits to what I would think of hosting in the cloud," he says. "There are techniques you can use to make sure that going on-demand is safe, such as not storing sensitive data."

First Utility uses a secure third party gateway to store and process credit card transactions. The firm does not store customer information, which means Wilkins can avoid a large amount of auditing costs and increase his service provision options.

"As we're not carrying really sensitive data, I can be a lot more flexible when it comes to moving between different hosting platforms and getting the best possible return for the business," he says.

4. Let third parties take the strain so you can focus on experience

Wilkins has a theory of IT leadership: "You can't be great at everything," he says. "That's true of the individual and the collective technology department. You can only have a set of skills that extends so far."

As a CIO, says Wilkins, you get to choose where you focus your efforts. One approach is to be a highly run-oriented IT leader that owns the data centre, manages a generator and security, and who tries to create the absolute lowest cost of operation or the most robust level of service delivery. Wilkins takes a different approach, calling on vendors whenever possible.

"We've chosen to use trusted partners in those areas," he says. "I'm willing to pay a premium to a third party so that I don't have to worry about the mechanism of providing a data centre. The third party then gives me hassle-free scalability, where I can go to a console and just push a few buttons if we need to increase the amount of infrastructure we need."

Wilkins says the approach creates space for the IT team to go and focus on the areas that are more important to business stakeholders, such as consumerisation, engagement and experience. "Rather than worry about operational issues, I'd rather focus on how we can improve customer stickiness through the creation of a great digital proposition," he says.

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