Will You Marry Me? Part III: Reality

The first two articles in this series (see Part I and Part II), examined the relationship between an ATS customer and vendor, noting that this “marriage” is not only tactical, but also emotional and synergistic. The first steps toward evaluating and committing to a vendor in this perspective involved the stages of self-identification, courting, pre-nuptial research and the wedding. Now let’s move toward “happily ever after” with the honeymoon and the anniversary. The Honeymoon Shortly after the wedding day, vendors and customers head off to spend their first time together as a “married couple” and kickoff the implementation. With a larger, complex implementation, there may be several pre-kickoff meetings to help set the scope and define the project. As a new customer, you show up with great expectations, and maybe some anxiety, along with a team of willing participants. The vendor comes to your conference room chambers with their own expectations and plans. This is the time you want everything to “work”. In the software industry there are “likeability” stages between a vendor and a customer. In the early stage, there is no knowledge, so the likeability is low. Then, as the selection process matures and more knowledge is shared and interest heightens and the likeability starts an upward trend. Finally upon signing and the honeymoon, you reach a high. What happens after that is just like any marriage…you get out of it what you put into it. There is an incredible amount of learning done in the honeymoon stage as each party starts to “look under the hood.” I’ve found that customers and vendors alike can exhibit extraordinary politeness and manners during this stage. The vendor is always there for you, making you feel that you are the only client that exists in the whole world. All your questions are answered promptly and the vendor’s data-gathering process runs smoothly. The customers seem energetic, willing to do their part, and are attentive to the project. So what could go wrong? Like a real honeymoon, there comes a time when you may end up saying, “the honeymoon is over.” Here’s a list of potential warning signs for a rocky relationship: What customer companies should pay attention to:

  1. Responsiveness on every aspect of the interaction. The customer is still the customer. Are there lingering emails, phone calls or deliverables? Is turnaround time on any aspect of the product lagging on the part of the vendor?
  2. Confusion and disappointment about feature functionality. Even the best exploratory efforts prior to the final contract cannot substitute for getting your hands dirty and examining how the system really works with each business rule, integration demand, or proprietary process. Some things you thought worked one way may actually work another. You may hear, “That’s in our next release,” or, “We can’t customize that field right now.” In other words, you’re discovering if the toothpaste is squeezed from the top or rolled from the bottom.
  3. Items that may have been “oversold” in the sales process. This is an unprofessional and devastating practice for some projects and is usually brought out in the honeymoon stage. Vendors who continue this practice usually don’t remain vendors for long.
  4. Technical performance. Demo and training databases are different from production databases. Companies should be very comfortable with the technical performance the vendor is delivering at all stages of development including ongoing customizations, loading and deployment. Any snag in the early stages could be a warning for later troubles. I once worked with a vendor that would always under deliver on my customization requests and the implementation ended up being quite stormy all the way through.

What vendors should pay attention to:

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  1. Wrong people in the wrong place. Sometimes, companies do not assign the appropriate resources to the project. A star recruiter may not be the best person to drive a software implementation project. Strong and knowledgeable leaders and other knowledgeable team members are needed to drive internal issues and adoptability.
  2. Lack of availability. Company participants that promise 75% of their time on the project but deliver only 25% can have serious effects on project timelines ? a point of frustration for vendors managing critical paths on their project plans.
  3. Disrespect (only if respect is deserved). Vendors usually have the privilege of incredible perspective and deep knowledge from other client assignments. Good vendor representatives can provide customers with a continuous flow of useful advice, innovative ideas, and strategies. However, sometimes “know it all” attitudes by the customer may relegate the role of the vendor to merely a tactical level.
  4. Ownership. Vendors and customers alike should be clear on who is doing what and who owns what. Sometimes customers want the vendor to build a strategy, design a process, implement a system AND write an employee handbook, reconfigure all the company desktops, bring lunch and take out the garbage. The contract should clearly specify ownership and responsibility.

The Anniversary If you’ve been through any implementation before, you realize this is all part of the natural progression in a relationship and that expecting the unexpected is a healthy mindset. After being together for 2-6 months, you start to establish a communication equilibrium with each other. The vendor may anticipate some of the customer’s needs ? sort of like knowing how your partner likes his/her coffee in the morning. The customer not only comes to know the vendor representatives better, but now has met more people “in the family” and feels comfortable sharing with different people in the organization. Sometimes issues “flare up” and there are increased spurts of communication. But, not to worry, you’ve been on the road together for a while and know that you’re in this for the long haul and can work it out one way or another. At this stage a good idea is to initiate “relationship meetings” at key points in the first year and beyond. This is not a “status update” or “user group” meeting, but an exchange of ideas for the client to say what they like and dislike in working with the vendor, and conversely for the vendor to say what they like and dislike in working with the client. Mature adults can face each other and honestly share the things that are bothersome to them. This type of meeting can foster good changes in process and expectations. Divorce? Dare we say that successful marriage statistics in some countries are not positive. In the IT world, the Standish Group reports that 40% of IT application projects are canceled before completion and 33% of the remaining projects are challenged by cost/time overruns or change in scope. These are not promising statistics. Can there be divorces? Even with a great beginning, some vendors and customers part ways. I know of two large companies that went through the pain and effort of implementation only to file for divorce when the vendor could not meet their needs. In conclusion, going forward with the relationship means the customer should get involved as much as possible in focus or user groups hosted by the vendor to offer up direction and improvements on future product releases. Vendors should be sensitive to environmental changes with the customer such as layoffs, hiring freezes, down turns in stock, departmental reorganizations, and further integration with other systems. In reality, the customer/vendor relationship is not as emotionally soul-tied as a true marriage, however, with the proper attention it can remain strong and can continue to grow way into the “golden years” (at least a few) on the technical timeline. <*SPONSORMESSAGE*>

Gretchen Sturm (gsturm@recruitsoft.com) is Knowledge Manager of Services with Recruitsoft, the leading provider of Internet-based recruiting solutions for major corporations. She manages the implementation, eLearning and product knowledge transfer for Recruitsoft's consulting services and global client base. Her career has focused on integrating technology into the full hiring cycle and establishing effective Internet recruiting strategies. Previously, Sturm managed the recruitment technology and online recruiting areas of the Unisys worldwide recruiting team and oversaw recruiting technology and sourcing for CIGNA Corporation's US-based operations.

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