Five lessons

Venkat Raghavan, general manager of Al Futtaim Technologies, provides his top five tips for how integrators can improve relationships with their customers and achieve smoother implementations.

Tags: Al Futtaim TechnologiesCustomer serviceSystems integratorUnited Arab Emirates
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Five lessons RAGHAVAN: The biggest mistake a losing provider can make is thinking the client does not want to deal with his organisation.
By  Venkat Raghavan Published  October 18, 2009 Arabian Computer News Logo

1+1>2 is unorthodox arithmetic and was never taught in my engineering school. But this is what my manager in my first job wanted us to familiarise ourselves with.

He insisted this is the teamwork equation where the sum productivity of members in the team can be greater than the sum of their individual capabilities for the right combination with the right commitment. This strange equation prepared us to be open for unconventional wisdom.  In the many years of systems integration business lessons have been constant, not all of them that defy logic, but still important not to take for granted. This is all about the most important person in our professional life – the customer.

Lesson #1: Does the customer know what he wants?

At the end of a joint project review meeting, when you walk out together with colleagues from other SI companies, a familiar conversation is how ignorant the customer has been in being clear on what he wanted at the beginning of the project. My exasperated colleague would burst out: Why should he be paying now (by way of additional works) for what was a mistake on part of the client? This is not the time to infuriate him further, so I would just nod. I wondered if he ever bothered to ask those crucial questions before finalisation of the contract.

It is the tendency of the SI, therefore, to keep whatever special knowledge – even as sparse as the case may be – which they tend to believe serves to keep their hold.

Often solution providers withhold questions and limit interaction with clients especially when they smell the deal. The apprehension that any discovered gap could result in escalation in pricing therefore presenting a hurdle dictates this. My rule: the customer always knows what he wants but he may not know how to ask for it. The competent and professional SI knows how to ask the questions and extract the answers properly. The onus is on the SI.

Lesson #2: A good systems integrator with a lower specification product is a better bet than a mediocre SI with a superior product.

Often, in rating the proposal submissions, the tendency of the evaluator is to use product specifications/brand as the first filter. One might ask what is wrong with this safe approach. The problem is, such ‘safe’ evaluators then go about applying the principle of using the lowest pricing for (what they consider) the equivalent specifications, and the decision is made! The evaluator considers this a clean approach, but this does not assure him (or the end-user he may be acting on behalf of) of the best value. What gets missed here in its entirety is the evaluation of the systems integrator. The simple fact is a poor technician cannot get a product to perform to half its potential. If I had a Formula 1 car, I am more likely to crash it rather than winning a race.  

Fortunately, the ‘quick and safe’ decisions are fewer these days.  Tenders often call for a convergent solution now, the multiple components of which one technology principal cannot cater to – which brings the SI in focus, who often tries to offer ‘best of breed’. It however takes a deeper analysis to judge a proper SI and the client knows it is worth the effort. The commitment to SLAs, the collective experience of the organisation, professionalism of the team, and the recent track record, all of which goes to establish this. And often the SI may have a good reason to offer a specification that was deemed lower. If that rationale did not appeal to the client, the client could ask the SI to upgrade the offer. It is easier to change the car than asking the driver to learn new tricks!

Lesson #3: A good project manager is not the one who is most optimistic.

A decade ago we had just won a deal for revamping the active components for a large hotel. The new installation was a major leap from their existing set-up. It was also clear that the hotel’s old cabling infrastructure would have to be overhauled substantially as a first step. Two senior members of the team were considered for the project manager’s role of this crucial programme. Engineer A was a bit more experienced than the other who was technically brilliant. Engineer B, who always looked self assured, was keen on doing this prestigious project and outlined a plan where he did not foresee any problem. The person A on the other hand made clear that he wanted someone from the manufacturer on the site for two months as a precondition for him to accept the role. Intuitively I wanted to throw my lot behind A, but B got the job. The team was not convinced as to why the first person needed manufacturer support on a system where we had trained engineers on the most recent version of the active components. It is the passive component where it looks like we would have a challenge. In a working hotel it is never too easy to rip open old infrastructure and replace it.

Six weeks later, we knew we were wrong. The new software version was not stable as we had been led to believe. On the cabling side there were challenges too. Project Manager B was not the same man that he looked when he accepted the role; he was breaking down under the huge pressure of this crucial project. At this stage, we had to bring in A and give him the steering wheel – he had an engineer from the manufacturer flown in, and he made other changes that soon brought the project under control.  

What did we learn?  There was nothing wrong with the assumption that the passive component was quite complex to overhaul. However, we underestimated the challenge in getting the newer version deployed with only factory trained engineers who did not have prior live installation experience on the latest version. This is where A made the right call. He knew it was important to be prepared for the worst.  When the manufacturer’s engineer took care of the technical side of things, the Project Manager ‘A’ could focus on the complex passive infrastructure coordination. This is what he said when we commissioned the project just in time. “What I can see and understand, and know completely I can control however complicated.  What I do not know, and cannot see, I am at risk, however small”.

Lesson #4: Share knowledge with the customer; it helps in more ways than you would anticipate.

This is not a radically new statement, but the depth to which one believes in and practices can make all the difference. Today, it is the norm for the customer to have certified people in-house for the systems-used, reducing dependence on the SI for maintenance.  Even those who have partially or fully outsourced the services, keep critical knowledge within the organisation, essential for control and also for future planning and evolution. Therefore, there is hardly any difference that the SI makes as a storehouse of expertise. It is the tendency of the SI therefore to keep whatever special knowledge – even as sparse as the case may be – which they tend to believe serves to keep their hold.  Typically this is a detail regarding the overall systems environment or a special configuration.  However, often such an approach does not help to secure value. If anything, it promotes mistrust potentially jeopardising a relationship.

Lesson #5: The customer is NOT lost forever.

We win some, we lose some.  But a deal that is lost after protracted battle leaves the bidder completely sullen and with a sense of detachment from the client forever. So turn away from the client and ignore him com pletely, only if you had been doing an awfully bad sales job. Keep in touch if you want an easy sale when the next available opportunity emerges.  

The biggest mistake the losing solution provider can make is to think that the client does not want to deal with him/his organisation.  Unfortunately, in most jobs if not all, only one bidder can be successful. But if you have lost after being shortlisted, the client must have had every reason to like you and in that sense might have been left with a sense of obligation. Tender deals are not like marriage, where you lost the bride forever to the other suitor.

What is lost is an opportunity; not the customer forever.  Trust me on this one.

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