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.