An alternative perspective on what makes a software service provider great

What makes an IT consulting and services company great? The truth is that there is an overabundance of such outfits. One that takes pride in its work must work to differentiate itself from the riffraff. Correspondingly, a firm looking for such services (a client) should have enough information to discern and judge which vendor is likely to be the best fit for for them. In the absence of such information, selection of a consultant or a vendor is likely to be done based on such factors as stated cost, company size, brand recall value etc. While these indicators are not to be scoffed at, there is much more to be considered in this equation.

The forging of such a relationship implies a lock-in; even if the client company is less than happy with services provided after a deal is signed, it is likely that they will persist with the vendor, if for no other reason than that the perceived cost of pulling out and starting afresh with someone new is just too high and appears too daunting.

A company that is looking for software services can be from any field – logistics, agriculture, medicine etc. and hence it is likely that they won’t know who to contact when they feel the need to have IT to support or augment their business. A knee-jerk reaction to such a need is below – less than ideal but not all that uncommon:

Step 1: Reach out to one or more of the big service companies, and explain the business problem or opportunity

Step 2: Become frustrated at how long talks take. Ask for a quote, be staved off for months

Step 3: Finally receive a horrifying number

Step 4: Become disillusioned. Search for service companies based on just one criteria – cost

Step 5: Ink a deal with a company based on this criteria only

Step 6: Become a victim of the “Chinese whisper” phenomenon. Get a low quality, error-prone product far removed from what the vision was

Step 7: Continue with this company since by now, they are too invested to pull out

Step 8: Realize that they have spent much more than initially bargained for, so even the purported advantage of selecting a “low-cost” vendor is lost

It is clear that the exercise of zeroing in on and choosing an IT/software partner is one that should be done with the appropriate rigor and perception.

If we pull back a bit and attempt to take a panoramic view, there are two broad viewpoints:

  1. What kind of an IT partner should one look for (and hence, what virtues software service companies worth their salt should look to inculcate)
  2. Assuming that an IT consulting company does have these virtues, how do they go about signaling it to the world in general, and prospects in specific?

In this article, we take a look at the first point. We will explore the second point in a follow up article.

The Ideal software partner

In listing down some common characteristics of great software service companies, the assumption is that the deal has already been closed and the project underway. Any steps preceding the closure of deal the will be part of a follow-up article, focussed on the second viewpoint above.

Product management 

On occasion, the problem statement given by a client can be somewhat vague and not immediately actionable. In such cases, a great service company will differentiate itself by changing tack and becoming a product company in the context of the project. They help the client out by brainstorming and defining the product/service till it can be consumed by the tech implementation team.

Now, almost all service companies will state that they in fact do this – that they work to elucidate and discover requirements, and design strategy and marketing with the clients. The fact of the matter is that this is almost never the case. In most cases, good product management is just not one of the fields invested in, with the consequence that the lack of well-defined requirements spells a meandering project . A service company that can provide this skillset to its clients is worth its weight in gold. Key takeaway: a great service company engenders the culture of a great product company within its projects.

Managing expectations

As Harsha Bhogle says, “Cliché’s are clichés because they are true.” Take, for instance: “Honesty is the best policy.”

It is all too common for starry eyed startups (and sometimes even mature companies) to have unreasonable expectations on feasibility, time-to-market, budget etc. In such cases, an unworthy vendor will play along with such illusions – for a couple of reason

  1. Fear of making the project a non-starter and losing the client
  2. A general aversion to upsetting the applecart

  A better approach is to take the bull by the horns and tell the client not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. Notwithstanding the temporary upheaval a direct MO like this might cause, it is definitely better for realistic expectations to set in sooner rather than later. Being completely upfront does run the risk of the client looking elsewhere. The message can and should be tempered by suggestions on how to move to market quicker, how to keep the budget in check – in general looking out for the client’s interests and not just acting like a grumpy harbinger of bad news. If the client persists with you, rest assured that you have forged a strong relation by standing your ground when it mattered. This is the basis of a long, mutually beneficial partnership with a strong foundation of trust.

Contributing ideas to the client – technical or otherwise

Many vendors shy away from proposing innovative ideas to their clients. This can be for various reasons – they might not actually have any ideas, or they might not want to appear too forward, or they might think they can keep the idea for themselves and hence see bigger profits.

What are these ideas? It might be a product feature idea that might greatly enhance the client’s target market. It might be a technological idea that might allow the product to scale gracefully while bringing down costs. It might even be related to creative deployment strategies bring down OPEX, or marketing strategies to grab more eyeballs.

Whether sharing a great idea with a client is always advisable is a subjective call. It depends on the context, the client, and the magnitude of the idea and the effort required to bring it to fruition. Sometimes, you might not want to share an idea because it is not in general alignment with the client’s vision. But speaking in general, we have seen that voicing such ideas is received well. Even if it is not adopted, the good intent is appreciated. It shows that you are constantly thinking of the client’s interests. If it is adopted, and the client sees profits or saves costs because of it, it is usually the case that you will also benefit from it.

Remember, the more good you do within the ecosystem, the more favorable repute you will earn organically. Doing great work with good intent is the ultimate marketing strategy.

To be continued in Part 2…


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