In Part 1, I discussed some of the preparations you’ll need when choosing a software vendor for design or development. In this post, I dive into actually selecting the vendor and what you can expect once you do.
Time to find some vendors.
This is the fun part since you’ll get to evaluate a few companies and see what they have to offer. I’ve had more luck going with referrals or companies I’ve met at trade shows than starting a search online. At this point, you should be able to narrow down some big or small players depending on the size of your project and your budget. As you can imagine, big established players will be more expensive, but don’t assume they are better. There are many “boutique” players with better rates that do stellar work. If you’ve never done this before, give their sales guy a call and talk about your project. They are always happy to pitch to you.
Be ready to answer some questions.
During your initial calls with the potential vendors, you’ll get a chance to share what you are looking for. This is also an opportunity for the vendor to ask key questions, so make sure you have good answers. Here are some typical questions: Do you have a requirements document? When would you like to start? When do you need this done by? What is your budget? What other companies are you evaluating? Based on your answers, they will be glad to run you through their capabilities and give you a ball park on time and cost. If you seem interested, they might even take you out to lunch (but you didn’t hear that from me).
Getting a proposal.
Depending on the size of your company, you might be required to evaluate several vendors and make this a competitive bid, including an RFI (Request For Information) and an RFP (Request For Proposal). Between you and me, most vendors are not fans of the RFP process. It means the project is very competitive and not likely to move fast. You’ll get more traction with smaller vendors if you keep the evaluation light. Some vendors will walk you through their proposal document. This is an opportunity for you to see how they think and to ask the tough questions.
Evaluate the companies and their people.
When companies give you a pitch or present a proposal, they’ll probably assemble their “A-team” and give you a killer presentation. Make sure you get a feel for their company culture and level of talent. After all, software is a people business. But also keep in mind that you might not get that specific talent in your project. It’s equally important to understand the resourcing policies of that company, as well as their ability to share knowledge among their employees to ensure that your account will be taken care of. The last thing you want is for that vendor to lose an employee and have all your company’s knowledge walk out the door! As part of your evaluation, you should ask the vendor for references. Talking with current or previous clients will give you an idea of the vendor’s strengths and weaknesses, and overall, what it’s like to work with them.
Be honest about your time commitment.
Whether you decide to go with staff augmentation (where you are just adding extra people to your team) or to hire a full-solution provider, you will need to spend time managing the vendor to ensure everything runs smoothly. A large percentage of projects go over budget or over schedule because the client (you) wasn’t able to quickly respond to the needs of the vendor (i.e. provide feedback, direction, etc). This delay can be multiplied if you need to get feedback from executives, your team, another department, a remote office, etc. Make sure you allocate enough time to work with the vendor throughout the project. Good vendors will usually let you know how much of your (and your team’s) time they’ll need. Remember it’s a partnership, and you are sharing the responsibility of success with the vendor.
Pay for project management.
Most reputable vendors will include a project manager with your engagement. Very often I see clients contesting that cost and not wanting to pay for a PM. In their mind, a PM is only sitting in on meetings without adding value and that money could be better spent on another designer/developer. Nothing is farther from the truth. A complex project has many moving parts, so you need somebody that can herd cats on both the vendor and the client side. You need somebody monitoring risk and making sure budgets and schedules will be met. That person will keep you in the loop so you can avoid surprises. If you remove the PM on the vendor side, you will seriously impact your chances of success. In fact, many companies will not sell you a project without a PM. It’s just too risky.
Decide what type of contract you feel comfortable with.
This part might be dictated by your company policy. If you get a chance to choose though, make sure you understand the differences between Time & Materials (T&M), Fixed Fee and Retainers, among others. You can read my contracts primer series to get a good grip on what to look forward when entering contract negotiations.
Each company will have a unique set of considerations, but this should get you started. Once you select a vendor and sign an SOW (Statement of Work), get ready for the kickoff meeting! In a future post, I’ll share some thoughts on how to manage a vendor during your project. Stay tuned!