Vendor selection: Find that forever friend.

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The bond between agency and ITS vendor should last long after the sale.

By Matt Schroeder

Director of Marketing, ETA Transit Systems

What makes for a good partnership when it comes to vendor selection?

I mean, you’re spending hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of dollars on a new intelligent transit system. You have sales reps from at least a half dozen vendors whispering in your ear about what you should do, what you shouldn’t do, which competing vendor has a poor reputation for service, which provider has unreliable hardware … in the end, it’s a lot of noise that you have to sift through. What benchmarks and criteria do you set for your selection?

Now, before we go too far into the woods on this topic, let’s get a few things out of the way first:

  • Every vendor says they excel at customer service.
  • Every vendor says they have next generation technology.
  • Every vendor says they’ll have your back; that they’re in this for the relationship, not the sale.

Every vendor says those things—and so does ETA for that matter. We mean it, and I have no doubt our competition means it as well. But in the end, all those promises, all those claims, merely add up to background noise easily forgotten among pages of technical details and product offerings.

In the end, you know what agencies most often cite as the deciding factor? Price.

And that’s a shame, because there are some truly substantive differences between transit technology providers; differences which can make for a ho-hum addition to your operations, and life-changing, supercharged ‘holy crap can life get any better than this’ miracles. We know this, because it’s our job to research our competition and know their systems and capabilities, just as well as they do.

If you’re selecting on price, it’s because you haven’t really done your homework—or your prospective vendors haven’t done an adequate job differentiating their solution from the competition. Either way, both outcomes do a disservice to you and your aspirations for this new technology you’re pursuing.

In the spirit of both irony and complete candor, there’s a reason why vendors hype customer service, technology, and relationships as the key differentiators. They’re the areas where you’re going to feel the impact of your ITS purchase the most.

So how do you select the right vendor?

 Step 1: Define your expectation for an ideal vendor partnership

Before you really dive into the technical requirements, sit down with your key stakeholders and map out the qualities you want in a potential vendor. No, we’re not talking about the features of the system, but in the staff, culture, and approach to the personal side of business. You define the criteria for how you judge the people you’ll be working with, because in most cases, you’ll be stuck with them for the next 3-5 years.

  • Do they listen to you when you speak, or are they simply waiting to make the next pitch?
  • Do they follow up your messages and questions in a timely fashion, or do you have to chase them down for answers?
  • Do they possess an eye for detail, or do they need reminding of key situational needs?
  • Do you feel a personal rapport with them and look forward to conversations, or do you cringe whenever answering a call or sitting through another webinar?

Whatever criteria you’re looking for in a partnership, start with the personal side. If you’re not comfortable in the short run, it’s not going to get any better one, two, or three years down the road.

Step 2: Does their reputation live up with their references?

References are a tricky thing. When I hire new staff, I seldom ask for references because I know they individuals they provide are certain to give glowing reviews. It’s not rocket science, so don’t take a glowing recommendation from a vendor-provided resource at face value. Instead, see if you can get a full list of their customers—especially those clients who either have long-term relationships with the vendor (customers longer than 5 years), or those who no longer use the vendor. You’ll get the straight scoop from those references.

Step 3: Collaboration or dictation?

How much effort does a potential vendor put into truly understanding your agency’s situation. Do they ask exploratory questions designed to uncover truth, or leading questions designed to steer you down a specific path? Is the exchange of ideas two-sided? Does the vendor tell you what you need, or do they listen before offering up suggestion and recommendations to better identify all possible solutions? Collaboration is a good method to understand the nature of a future working relationship. Ideally any interaction should be positive, open, and honest; you should walk away feeling energized and optimistic about the future of the procurement.

Step 4: Warning signs.

There’s a reason why in step 1 we recommended setting expectations. A vendor that fails to meet your non-technology criteria isn’t likely to be a long-term ally when it comes to diving deep into technical application. Look closely at the issues that just don’t align with your expectations for a vendor relationship.When you get into the technology, be sure to ask real questions; hard questions; situational questions. If you’ve done your research, push for answers to any concerns about their reputation and the reliability of their product. See if they give you the straight scoop, or if they try an evade providing a clean reply.

Step 6: System offerings.

Examine their solution carefully and make sure that the features and capabilities serve to directly address the challenges your agency is looking to solve? Is their system too high-powered? Under-powered? Do you find yourself reassessing and compromising beyond your comfort level? What level of control does their solution provide—can you self-manage most aspects of system performance, or do you have to rely on them for changes you’d rather handle yourself?

Short of having unrealistic expectations (e.g. cost vs. features), be sure to take note of how far you’re moving off your desired solution while researching systems. Don’t place all your hopes on personality or bottom-line cost; ultimately, it’s your job and reputation on the line, so make a sound investment based on real issues and solutions. Make the wise call and hold out for the items that really matter.

Step 5: Intangibles.

These are hard to detail because they vary from client to client. It’s a good thing you set your expectations early on because the intangibles a vendor provides, whether it be personality or responsiveness or product knowledge, will become more apparent as your exploration into your ITS solution advances.Many people like to state that it was logic, reasoning, and research that resulted in a decision, but that’s never 100 percent true. Emotion, or a gut instinct, is often the deciding factor. On paper two technology solutions may line up favorably, but in the end, it will be the intangibles that help you feel confident in your selection.

Final thoughts

Relationships are the key to any successful endeavor. You must trust the people you work with, and you need feel respected, valued, and part of the solution. Selecting a low-price vendor because of the cost is a terrible way to decide, and more times than not, it’s a choice that leads to greater stress and disappointment. Not necessarily because the technology was inferior, but because the alignment of personality, service, and technology didn’t perfectly align. Make choices based on all available information and with an eye toward the future, because it’s that long-term relationship based on trust and mutual respect that will ultimately deliver results.

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