What your customer wants

Six Middle East IT executives spell out exactly what services, solutions and qualities they look for in their IT providers

Tags: Dubai Aluminium CompanyDubai Mercantile ExchangeDubai Silicon Oasis AuthorityNational Bank of Abu DhabiUnited Arab Emirates
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What your customer wants Srood Al Sherif, CIO, National Bank of Abu Dhabi. (Alan Desiderio/ITP Images)
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By  Julian Pletts Published  May 14, 2009 Channel Middle East Logo

The financial crisis has seriously rutted the playing field for those working in the region’s truncating IT sector. CIOs are taking fire from the boardroom and facing up to the reality of reduced IT budgets, while at the same time having to show that the investments they do make go even further than usual — a scenario that you, the IT provider, are probably quite used to hearing by now.

With the current financial climate increasingly forcing IT managers to account for every dollar spent, it is vital that the Middle East channel knows exactly what customers want and expect from an IT provider. With that in mind, we went straight to the source and asked six prominent IT executives from around the region to lay out everything that systems integrators need to bear in mind:

• Srood Al Sherif (SS) - CIO - National Bank of Abu Dhabi (Finance Sector)

• Grant Baxter (GB) - IT Manager - The Palladium, ICE (Entertainment Sector)

• Abdulsalam Al Bastaki (AB) - Director of IT and Services - Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (Government Sector)

• Paul O’Kirwan (PO) - IT Director - Dubai Mercantile Exchange (Commodities Trading Sector)

• Ahmed Al Mulla (AM) - VP Information Technology - Dubai Aluminium (Manufacturing Sector)

• Ashraf Hamed (AH), IT Manager Egypt and Middle East - Duravit (Furnishing Sector)

What do you look for when selecting an IT provider?
SS: One of the first things I look for is the people behind the IT provider — who they are, their backgrounds and track record in the industry. I also look for the quality of their offerings and the value proposition of an engagement with the provider, as well as their stability, users, presence in the area and, naturally, the quality of their deliverables.

AH: The longer the years of experience and the wider the experience, the better. Cross-platform experience would usually provide wider and deeper insights into innovative and agile solutions. They must understand and commit to service level agreements, under-pinning contracts and guaranteed response times. In addition to this, a provider must maintain a budget cycle, work within strict business constraints related to payment cycles and payment upon delivery requirements. They should practice a service-geared set-up that provides a clear and efficient escalation process and learn from unavoidable setbacks. We like transparent business which includes the ability to share bad news so that we can work together to solve any issues.

GB: They must be able to deliver on their promises. It is perfectly acceptable for parts to be out of stock or people to be busy, but what is unacceptable is when someone promises two to three weeks knowing it is going to take six weeks. It makes them look unprofessional and it damages my reputation. By far and away the most important thing to me is communication.

I’d be happy to pay a premium to a systems integrator who drops me a call each day as a project progresses to keep me up to date. If something is going to be delayed, the sooner I know about it, the sooner I can put measures in place to cope with it.

What are the biggest mistakes systems integrators make?
PO: I’ve had scenarios where SIs have basically ignored the scope or the specifications that we laid out initially. They were totally controlled by the vendor. You have the situation where certain partners are fed business by the vendor and that can be a problem because sometimes they follow the scope that the vendor has laid out.

AB: The biggest mistake they make is they look at the price and try to beat the others by being cheaper. They can’t give you the right solution that way and they end up losing and then complain, “We could have given you the higher solution too.”

SS: One of the biggest mistakes is thinking that they can get by without committing their very best efforts and resources to the work. Another equally bad mistake is not being completely honest and transparent. Relationships have to be built on trust and confidence. System integrators should avoid doing anything that could undermine a customer’s trust and confidence in them.

AH: We hate to see unsustained levels of service. Lack of transparent business processes can make a bad situation worse through delaying bad news until the situation deteriorates beyond. Another problem is the inability to cope with agile business requirements, changes in payment terms and business work flows.

GB: Put simply, they forget that we are the customer. Some of the systems integrators seem to have the attitude that they are doing us a favour by making time to help us!

There are plenty of other systems integrators in the market that would be happy for the business, especially now.

How can IT providers improve their service?
SS: Many resellers are substantially dependent on technical expertise based elsewhere and then parachute them in whenever needed. Serious resellers must invest in building up credible technical expertise and capabilities locally to support their customers. The importance of the geographical proximity of the IT provider to customer relationships should never be underestimated.

AM: I would like them to think from a service perspective rather than from a product perspective. I want the relationship to start after you sell. A lot of people still have sales managers. Today you should have client relationship managers.

GB: I would like to see more investment in staff training. Not necessarily from a technical standpoint, but more from a customer service standpoint and in the managing of their customers’ expectations.

PO: It is unfortunate that in this climate their workforce is very transient. People get qualified, do a couple of years and then move on. So there is no long-term growth or maturity within the organisations here, with one or two exceptions. They need to get better at doing the overall project. Often their project management skills are abysmal, they are not really up to speed and they are not up to spec. They will try to quote you on a project that will include a project manager and what you get is not that. People delivering the projects must have basic certifications in project management. Also, estimates and costing can be immature. For instance, you are looking for a solution for some 30 or 50 employees and they come back with solutions with a US$1m price tag on them.

How important is vendor interaction when working with a systems integrator?
SS: We expect the vendors to be fully involved with the services that their partners are providing. In fact, we normally require vendors to be party to our contracts with their partners to ensure they complete the job to the required quality standards.

GB: From my perspective, I would rather have a single point of contact with the systems integrator. If I wanted to have to deal with all the vendors then I would purchase the equipment myself, with the possible exception of very large orders such as Cisco active components.

AM: It depends on the size of the deed or the work, but I expect the vendor to do a quality analysis on any work that a systems integrator has done. I want the vendor to say, “I really would like to see how the work is done and I will perform a free QA for you.” It shouldn’t take them very long to see how things have been done, what technology they have used and if, as a customer, I am happy or not. In general, if I buy Cisco from a certified company then Cisco should come and see how I am doing. It doesn’t happen.

AB: If the vendors are involved, we prefer it. We usually go to them and ask about the solutions provider to find out how good they are or whether they are a Gold partner.

PO: We basically have an infrastructure platform based on a certain vendor’s platform so we have evaluated solutions first to see how good a fit they are for that platform. In some cases that may involve vendors directly.

What are your IT investment priorities right now?
SS: We will be implementing and replacing several risk management systems, a data warehouse and comprehensive system for our financial market division. We are also replacing our internet banking platform and upgrading our trade finance system.

AH: Our priority is bringing internal processes to a higher and more stable level. Also, we are adopting a virtualised environment approach that will provide the business with the agility, sustainability, continuity and capacity required.

AM: Today, my priority is mainly business intelligence. This is a natural progression for us because we installed SAP two years ago. We are staying with SAP and looking at Business Objects. We have not really selected a product, but we are looking at the options that we have and at partners.

AB: Right now, we are investing in CRM. We should be able to finish by the end of this year and then wireless activities will be a priority. We are also doing lots of other things like increasing the storage area network capacity because we want to give services to tenants. We are also doing document management for the entire company and to resell to the tenants.

PO: The biggest thing we are driving through right now is a total upgrade and redeployment of our ERP solutions and financial systems. Irrespective of what the economic climate is doing, I have to get that done, it is important to the business. There are also a lot of other ancillary upgrades that need to be done this year as well.

Are attractive payment terms a factor when selecting a partner?
SS: Not particularly. We select SIs based on a number of factors and payment terms are taken into account in the evaluation process.

AM: To be honest, payment terms are not usually a big deal for us as payment is usually made after the work is done. When it comes to IT, because you are really buying a service and it is complex, the quality of the work is more important than the payment terms.

PO: It is quite important that the vendor or systems integrator is realistic about payment plans. They may come up with a price tag like US$1m and they will want 50% up front. When a proposal comes in I like to see that the payment plan is somewhat milestone-based in terms of delivering a certain item on a project list and a payment associated with that. I’m fortunate in the way that my current systems integrator works. We sit down, discuss it and say, “This is what we can realistically do”, and then they work out what they can do for that.

AB: Right now, we have our own standard and we go that way, we haven’t changed because of the economic crisis. That standard is that as soon as the provider has delivered the equipment they get so much, and so forth. It depends on the contract and the project. If the project is a majority hardware delivery, the payment is going to be a lot faster.

AH: Payment plans carry less weight to my organisation than the sustainability of the provider and their ability to match the required level of service and service agility.

On another note, the vendor’s ability to match the new imposed business rules that have come as a result of the current climate would foster a reliability alliance that would carry the relationship beyond the financial crisis.

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