When was the last time you downloaded a new app to your phone?
Every day, we make choices about new and existing technologies that will (hopefully) make our lives easier or more enjoyable.
When it comes to choosing technology for your business, though, the process can be daunting – especially when it’s in a field outside of your expertise.
What if you invest a bunch of time, money and effort into a new tech platform, but you don’t end up with the solution you actually need?
To ensure success, it’s incredibly important to select a tech vendor you can trust.
Over the past two decades, I’ve been on both sides of the experience – as a publishing operations manager, and now as a publishing tech vendor – and I’ve learned that there are five simple steps you can follow to ensure a great outcome:
- Be honest upfront about your level of knowledge.
- Plan your tendering process carefully.
- Read responses with an open mind.
- Schedule check-ins at key stages of your project.
- Surround yourself with people who listen!
You don’t know what you don’t know (and it’s probably not worth the effort to learn)
Don’t worry if you think your technical skills aren’t up to scratch. As your company expands its use of technology, you will learn and realise that nothing is as complex or as difficult as you initially think.
In fact, it is much better to be honest about your lack of knowledge than to undertake a tech project of significant scope whilst making false (or perhaps even arrogant) assumptions.
Remember, it is a technology company’s job to provide you with a solution. They are paid to share their technical expertise, not to appraise yours.
It’s your job to be clear on what you want, not to be an instant tech whiz. Don’t be afraid of asking for help or advice from a third party.
You might even decide to kill two birds with one stone by hiring a short-term technical consultant to guide you through the consideration process. You gain confidence during the vetting process, and afterwards you have acquired the core knowledge required to push things forward independently!
For a successful long-term relationship, go easy on your tender
Whether you have a formal tender process or are simply researching and interviewing a range of vendors, it’s important to be clear about what you want – but without being too prescriptive.
Create a tender document that gives your vendors a chance to showcase their abilities. Rather than being unnecessarily specific in your requirements, focus on outcomes:
- What is the goal you want to achieve?
- Which environments do you want the tech platform to work in?
- What is your ideal workflow?
Then, create a good set of user stories. Good user stories are not technical at all. They just outline your problem and how you’d like it to be solved.
The basic template is this:
As a [persona], I [want to], [so that].
As a manager, I want to be able to understand my colleagues’ progress, so I can better report our success and failures.
Also create User Test Cases (with sample data) prior to development. These can be nothing more complex than your current input data and a manually rendered output, but when paired with your user stories, they’re invaluable resources for respondents when drafting their initial scope.
Be aware that responding companies will spend a considerable amount of time building your solution based on each of your specific instructions.
An overly specific tender is like plotting multiple stopovers in Google Maps: the more prescriptive you are in the steps required to reach your destination, the longer and costlier the route will be.
Simply share your ideal destination with your tech vendors, and let them plot the best way to get there. You may find that some of them know of back roads, shortcuts, or maybe even a whole new mode of transport that you never considered before!
Expect your expectations to be managed
As companies respond to your tender, they are not only answering your questions but also starting the process of managing your expectations.
While it’s important to keep an open mind about the technical aspects of the solutions you’re considering, it’s just as important to maintain an open mind about your vendors’ motivations.
- Be cautious of the technical response from a company that tells you they can do it all, just like you wanted.
- Be wary of the technical response that tells you they can do it much cheaper than everyone else.
- Consider trusting the response that is upfront about costs and identifies areas that could be expanded or reduced in scope to alter expenditures.
- Respect a response that pushes back a little bit by clearly stating what will be required from you for this project to be successful.
You want to start the project knowing which of your criteria are easy wins, which areas will face some risk in succeeding, and which may need to be parked for now due to time or budget constraints.
If you start the project thinking that you will get everything you wanted for half the price you expected, the company you selected has either done a very poor job of managing your expectations or an even worse job of pricing their solution. Perhaps both.
Make check-ins milestones, not millstones
Once you’ve chosen your tech vendor, it’s time to get working. Start with a timeline that includes regular check-ins – at key stages ONLY!
Plan your check-ins to occur at key milestones of the project, and insist that the tech company demonstrates only the deliverables they’ve ‘completed’ up to that stage. At that point, your feedback and steering of future progression will be invaluable.
Some tech companies will offer to make you part of their regular internal sprints. Think carefully. It may feel exciting to be part of this agile process, but is it valuable?
Early stages of a technical project can involve in-depth data structuring and configuration that is almost impossible to demo effectively, and which can be really hard to communicate to someone who lacks those skills.
Presumably you hired the company precisely because you lacked those skills, so your feedback at these stages is likely to be minimal. Save it for when they have translated data into visible actions and deliverables. Then, ensure they are still on track to your original goal.
Make your goals heard, by choosing a team that listens
In any project, the people who listen best are often the most valuable. By focusing on two-way communication, they develop a deep understanding of the pain points that others are experiencing, and work to find a solution that alleviates that pain.
With this in mind, choose a tech company that understands your goals, listens to your struggles, and does not try to impress you with jargon, low costs or overly technical solutions.
Then look at your team. Find the person (or people) that can best express your pain and goals, and let them lead the project.
This may not be the person on your team with the most impressive jargon or the fanciest job title. It may be the person who deals with the current problem on a daily basis and fully understands the outcomes you want to achieve by implementing your new tech solution.
Choosing a new vendor doesn’t have to be daunting. Focus on selecting your best team, both internal and external, and give them the guidelines and support they need to succeed.
Jason Mitchell is the VP of Customer Experience at Typefi, a global leader in automated publishing software for print, web, and mobile. Jason looks after the team that looks after Typefi’s customers around the world, from pre-sales through to support.
Prior to joining Typefi in 2015, Jason gained over 15 years of experience in managing publishing operations and digital products for both small and large publishing houses, where he successfully led teams to redefine the publishing process to include digital products and to improve profitability.