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Selecting a supplier – natural selection

date: 2 March 2022
reading time: 5 min

Selecting suppliers: there’s no silver bullet that guarantees success. But equally, there are no Dark Arts, either. But taking a common-sense approach will reduce the risk significantly.

These are my take on the five key considerations when selecting suppliers.

Setting up

First, I’d say make sure you’re starting your selection process in the right place. Time and again in IT and digital transformation, I see CIOs and Programme Leads decide the kit before they’ve decided the plan. The sector has a peculiar tendency to decide it needs Platform X, System Y or Solution Z before it has

  • defined the problem in full and/or
  • created a transformation strategy

If you’re new to transformation, please don’t think you have to be able to define the strategy all by yourself. There are excellent transformation strategy consultants out there who will guide you through. Their expertise represents a major opportunity for de-risking your programme: and won’t necessarily be a major investment. These days, advice doesn’t even come with a vested interest in selling you particular items of kit.

With a good setting-up process, you will have a good understanding of the precise problem(s) you are seeking to fix and an outline approach.

Seeking out

Nobody ever got fired for buying [insert name of global IT supplier here].

There’s an IT-sector tenet that it’s safer to buy well-known brands. Indeed, it’s an approach shared in the wider world, or I wouldn’t be wearing Oakley glasses right now. But I think we need to be a bit more nuanced than that.

Your first purchase may be advice, as described above. I think this is an area where there may be significant skills available to you outside the major brands. There’s a growing army of very talented and knowledgeable digital transformation advisers, strategists and consultants out there. And not all of them – by a wide margin – work for the Usual Suspects in IT consulting.

So when you’re looking for advisors, examine potential suppliers on their merits, not their volume. You’ll need people who recognise the reality of your transformation and advise accordingly.

That might be creatively and innovatively: and/or cost-effectively and pragmatically. Choose people with experience of your specific challenges, irrespective of their branding.

Weighing up

That said, when you’ve selected your strategic advisors and are moving on to choosing your solutions and services, I’d recommend a slightly different approach: focus on getting the risk down further. But again, that doesn’t mean always buying the biggest brands. Repeat: you’re looking for the best fit.

Once you’ve been through the initial Dance-Off, it’s usually the case that a small number of suppliers and their offers rise to the top of the pile. Often, these will have differing strengths. Assuming you’ve done your due diligence and all your short-list can demonstrably deliver what they say they can, how do you compare apples with oranges?

Three filters to view it through:

  • Whose USP or key strength fits best? Which vendor’s specialism is the closest fit to your biggest problem? Their expertise means they are the most likely to deliver the most.

  • Treat basic capability as a given: they wouldn’t be in business if they couldn’t do some of it. But be careful about capacity, especially if you see the USP you need in a smaller provider.
    Be warned: there are some significant global skills’ shortages in certain areas of IT at the moment.

  • Disappointment can be managed. Don’t give in to he who shouts loudest in your selection panel.

Working with

Culture matters. You need suppliers that will cope with your culture: and vice versa. Unless you’re driving a programme of radical culture change, where you’re using a supplier to help change minds – and that’s a WHOLE different article – then pick a supplier whose culture matches your own. Energetic or careful, risk averse or outside-the-margins, your team will work best and trust fastest with people whose principles they share. That’s not to say everyone will have the same ideas – just the same ethos.

However, don’t confuse culture and affability. Just because you personally like ‘em; or a sub-team shares their interest in snowboarding or 1950s French film noir, that doesn’t mean they are a cultural fit.

And that brings us back to the subject of disappointment. I will usually involve transformation sub-teams or internal customers to consider the offers of the various suppliers on my shortlist. Colleagues are invaluable here, because subject matter experts can spot weaknesses or over-claiming in their area of expertise, which helps to exclude the thinner offers. But it will sometimes be the case that one sub-team prefers an outlier supplier. If that happens, you personally will need to carefully manage the building of a relationship between that team and the appointed supplier that they didn’t want.

It’s always worth investing that attention and time at the start of the programme.

Paying for

Finally – and no sooner! – think about paying for it. Once you have satisfied the above considerations, check the supplier out on the cost. No-one should be on your shortlist unless you can afford their package, so again, we’re looking for the edge, not the basics.

Comb through the offer and challenge anything that might look like hidden price traps or “not included” items. Make sure your discovery, research, analysis and planning has been robust, preferably with an experienced partner as I mentioned earlier, so there are no nasty surprises lurking. A major source of stress in transformation is handling, negotiating and selling-to-the-Board escalating costs.

Because whilst it’s true that nobody ever got fired for buying a big brand, plenty did for over-spending.



Mark Aikman is an internationally recognised global technology leader. He specialises in delivering IT/digital business transformation and divestment, usually in complex, worldwide and high-risk environments.  His clients have included BP, Upfield and Unilever. 

Mark is well-known as an industry speaker and commentator and is the author of Uncommon Sense: Alternative Thinking on Digital Transformation. You can read more of his texts here.

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