(Photo by Flickr user Hsuanya Tsai, used under a Creative Commons license)
As a leader for an independent software consulting firm, one of the hardest things I have to do is convince our clients to bring us less work.
I know, I know, that sounds like a perfect going-out-of-business strategy, right? But in reality, our customers often have a long list of things they think they need done right now, if not sooner. And we can certainly execute the whole list for them tout de suite. But if we do, they may end up unhappy with us in the long run.
Because, truthfully, they probably only need a fraction of their initial list done right now. And they definitely need to see success with their higher-priority items before they spend more money on lesser priorities. But prioritization is only one of the challenges facing companies that hire specialty firms for outsourcing engagements.
Let me offer five tips for clients on how to hire IT outsourcing specialists without falling into some of the most common pitfalls.
1. Align with IT
Today, often our customers aren’t in the IT department. Now that almost anyone with a credit card can run their own apps in the cloud and purchase managed services for production, our customers can be in sales, marketing, HR, or manufacturing instead of the CIO’s office.
The problem is, if what our customers ask us to develop isn’t consistent with the strategy and infrastructure of the IT department, they can run into “uh oh” mighty fast. So it’s important to ensure you’re aligned with your own IT team before proceeding with an outsourced project.
2. Put me on the team
Treat your outsourcing provider like a team member, not just a vendor. To get the best results, it helps if we know what your overall strategy is for deploying the technology solution you’ve asked us to develop. What business problem are you trying to solve or market opportunity are you trying capture?
What other interdependencies exist that might impact your project, now or in the future? What challenges or issues — technical or otherwise — might we run into that could affect the outcome? If we understand all that, we can help you make better technology choices.
3. “Be smart in your ignorance”
As professor Leslie Willcocks of the London School of Economics puts it. Keep in mind that you hired your outsourcing partners for our expertise — for what we know that you don’t know.
While the customer is always right, sometimes clients need to remind themselves why they decided to take the outsourcing route in the first place. If we tell you that you’re about to step on a landmine, you’d be wise to listen to us.
4. Have a plan
Again, as professor Wilcocks observes, customers often outsource for the wrong reasons — like trying to offload a technically thorny problem they don’t fully understand. The result: you might sign a lengthy contract without full knowledge of the consequences and the costs.
You wouldn’t hand a mechanic a blank check to fix the transmission on your car just because you don’t know anything about transmissions. Do research, analyze benefits and liabilities, get recommendations, and ask questions — lots of questions — about the best longterm solution for the problem you’re trying to solve.
5. Penny-wise is pound-foolish
If you get three estimates to paint your house, typically the lowest bid will be roughly half the highest. Why is that? Same house, same paint, right? But you should not only ask “why is that one guy so expensive?” but also “why is that other guy so cheap?” Don’t get lured onto the rocky shoals of a misleading low-cost bid — the “savings” could easily get eaten up or even surpassed by overages for problems the vendor didn’t anticipate.
Worse, the low bidder might just do a lousy job, and you may end up with a solution that doesn’t do what you wanted in the first place. Fixed-bid projects may seem less risky, but they’re not — you can easily find yourself coughing up more, falling short of your goals, or ending up in court. Make sure you understand the details of what you’re paying for and why before you sign.
Outsourcing your complex projects to expert firms can be a great way to address a technology challenge and adopt a new solution that will help you grow your business. But for your projects to be successful, you have to ensure you’re hiring the right firm for the right work at the right price. And sometimes that means asking them to do less than you initially wanted.