Relationships are what business is all about. They make and break business deals every day. A key business relationship that is often taken for granted is the relationship you have with your IT integrator. From enterprise applications, to network hardware, to security assessments and beyond, IT integrators have a very deep tie-in with most businesses. It is a relationship that cannot be taken lightly or treated with indifference by management.
Being on the receiving end of IT integration services as well as having owned and worked for multiple IT integration firms, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. The following are the seven essentials — including some insider secrets that no one ever talks about — for finding and getting the most out of your IT integrator.
Putting out Feelers
The first step in establishing a good relationship with an IT integrator is to hook up with the right one in the first place. Finding the right fit at the beginning is not easy, but it is worth the effort. I have found that partnering with the wrong integrator can be a lot like marrying the wrong person — there is typically a lot invested and it is not easy to get out.
The sad fact is that any businessperson can start up an IT integration firm with minimal qualifications and minimal experience. All it takes is incorporating, getting a business license and setting up a few vendor partnerships and a distributor account. A few days and a few hundred dollars later, the integration firm is in business. In essence, though, a neat company name and glossy marketing slicks mean nothing — anybody can do it. What you need is a company run by people who care about your business and will do what it takes to prove themselves and create a long-term relationship.
The Seven Essentials
If you are in the market for an IT integrator’s products or services, here are the key factors to keep in mind to make sure you find the right fit:
1. Call them or meet with them to have a conversation sharing what your business does and what your business needs from an IT perspective. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen IT integrators (typically their salespeople) meet with potential clients, talk about the basics that they need, and end up misquoting products or underscoping services because there was a gross misunderstanding of the customer’s business. Some people are so hungry to gain a new client and make a sale that they overlook the very essence of why they exist: getting to know the customer and establishing a good rapport.
In your discussion with the integrator’s representatives, there should be a mutual dialog. They should listen more than they talk. Pay attention to the types of questions they are asking. Are they centered on selling you certain products, or are they more interested in learning about what your company does and needs? One of the best determinants of a good relationship can be revealed at this stage by your good old-fashioned gut instinct. We humans have that gut feeling for a reason and if the people you are meeting with come across as uninformed, cheesy, or just not your style, you are going to know it within a matter of minutes. Don’t ignore that feeling.
2. Tour their facilities. If the IT integration firm you are considering is a relatively small company, they may not have anything fancy. You might just meet them for lunch or at a coffee shop since they may have their employees working remotely — that’s not out of the ordinary. If it is a larger firm, take a look at the office environment. Is it relatively neat and professional? How’s the receptionist? Many managers still don’t get this, but the receptionist is often a direct reflection of the overall culture of the organization. Do they have a stocked warehouse? Does it appear to be relatively organized? Are the employees friendly? Are they even coherent?
3. Get reference accounts in your industry. It is highly beneficial to speak with existing customers of the integration firm. You will usually get candid feedback in addition to getting to see how the integrator treats and responds to a customer who has needs and pains similar to yours. At least call these references, but meet on-site if you can to examine the integrator’s work. Two minutes in a wiring closet or data center can speak volumes about an integrator’s quality of work. You may even get to meet and talk with some of the integrator’s employees. A good IT integrator should have several outstanding testimonials from people willing to put their names on the line. No excuses.
4. Do not base your opinion solely on price. Sure, IT costs matter these days, but there is a lot more to the overall equation than just the up-front costs of IT products and services. Less tangible considerations include the level of service you are going to receive and the skill sets of the integrator’s consultants — things that you often will not really know about until way down the road. So, don’t be swayed by just your tangible investment in an initial quote.
5. Look for IT and security certifications. Many IT integrators are partners with large product manufacturers, and their consultants are often certified in those products. These certifications include MCSE and CCIE. There are also vendor-neutral IT and security certifications that their employees may possess such as CISSP and CompTIA A+. Certifications can show a basic level of knowledge, but do not let them be a huge selling point that sways you to go with the integrator.
The thing is, certifications are not the best representation of the skill level, and especially, the quality of work you are going to get with a particular integrator. Anyone can get certified, know enough to be dangerous, and then talk the talk. More importantly, go beyond certifications and look at the level of experience and what the integrator’s people have accomplished.
6. Never assume a brand name is better. There are several global IT integration firms, but industry recognition does not mean they are going to be a good fit. It is important to know that with many of the larger IT integrators, the people in the pre-sales meetings are not necessarily the ones who will be doing the hands-on work. It sounds trite, but once you are on the receiving-end of this setup — and something goes awry — you will see the value in smaller organizations pretty quickly. In the end, the skills, experience and leadership of the integration firm (regardless of its size) are more important than a brand name.
7. Watch out for conflicts of interest. There are many IT integrators who will consult with you and maybe even perform “free” network and security assessments — only to turn around and sell you the things they are authorized to sell at very high margins for them. They are not focused on what is best for your business.
If an integrator truly believes in a specific set of products, that’s one thing — but oftentimes, integrators will hook up with the manufacturers who offer the best spiffs (or kickbacks) based on sales volumes. The smart integrators know that margins on most products are not worth risking relationships over and instead sell anything and everything (even what you want and ask for) and get their bread and butter from services.
Staying the Course
Once you find the right IT integrator, maintaining the relationship is a two-way street. Sure, a large part is up to the integrator, but you are going to need to stay involved to ensure everyone’s expectations are properly set and the communication lines stay open. Again, the relationship you have with your IT integrator — especially with the risks involved — is a very important one for your business. You will be working closely with your integrator and both of you may even be subjected to some stressful situations. As with any relationship, open communications is essential to keeping the ties strong.
One of the best ways to keep communications open is to go beyond your sales representative and assigned consultants and actually get to know the management at your integration firm. This is especially true for the service managers — they are the people who are ultimately responsible for the level of service you are going to get and your overall loyalty to their company.
Another way to keep things sailing smoothly is to demand the same consultants every time. They know your environment, you will have a rapport with them, and you will know what to expect. Assuming you get along well with them, you could be creating a solid relationship with the very people who are installing, configuring, maintaining and troubleshooting the critical systems your business relies on to stay afloat.
The final point is a no-brainer, but it is sometimes taken for granted — make sure you have a strong contract to protect your business in the event of a problem. And make sure it is a contract that is reviewed by your business’s legal counsel. It is easy to assume what the legalese is saying, but there can be some state-related issues or loopholes that could spell trouble. All it takes is one “gotcha” for your business to be in a world of hurt and the vendor to be off the hook.
If you do your homework up front you will make more informed decisions when selecting the right IT integrator for your business. Once you establish the relationship, it will be as much up to you to keep things running for a good long-term relationship. Once you find the right integrator, though, you won’t regret your efforts.
Kevin Beaver is an independent information security consultant, keynote speaker and expert witness with Atlanta-based Principle Logic LLC where he specializes in performing independent information security assessments. He has authored/co-authored seven books on information security including “Hacking for Dummies” and “Hacking Wireless Networks for Dummies” (Wiley). He is also the creator of the Security On Wheels information security audio books and blog providing security learning for IT professionals on the go. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.