A Better Way to Vet Potential Partners, Part I

Thoughts on applying greater rigor during the vendor-selection process.

homerI’ve said many times that I have perhaps the worst possible background for what I do. In May of 1997, Cornell University awarded me a masters in industrial and labor relations. Equipped with that degree, I promptly began working in corporate human resources.

Big mistake.

For a bunch of reasons worthy of a separate post one day, I didn’t last long in HR. Still, I remember very well many things from the experience. For instance, I learned how to conduct behavior-based interviews at CapitalOne. The theory is simple: the best performance of the future is the past. Rather than pepper people with silly theoretical questions, get specific.

To be sure, anyone can easily search for questions that individual companies ask for specific positions. It’s not hard to school yourself on what to say if you really want the job.

Brass tacks: there’s no foolproof way to assess potential employees. In hindsight, many employees only show their true colors after a year or more on the job. Still, behavior-based interviews remain popular because, generally speaking, they work better than 1970s-style queries.

This begs the question: Why not apply the same rigor to potential partners that recruiters do to candidates?

While nothing is irrevocable, the choice of the wrong partner can devastate an organization and ruin careers. I should know. I worked as a consulting partner on dozens of IT projects throughout my career, many of which informed Why New Systems Fail. Many salespeople tell clients what the latter want to hear. (Insert obligatory Glengarry Glen Ross reference here.)

Better Questions

With that in mind, what are some specific questions that prospective partners should be able to answer?

  • What specific tools does your organization use to manage projects? If the answer is e-mail or a 2003 version of Microsoft Project, be wary. It’s fair to ask if that prospective partner is really the progressive juggernaut that your organization requires. Communication is absolutely essential to successful engagements and e-mail invites misunderstandings.
  • Tell me about a specific time that you disagreed with a current or former client’s decision. What did you do to talk the client out of making what you considered a big mistake? Consultants should not be neither lackeys or yes men and women. Clients hire—or should hire, anyway—third parties precisely because of the expertise that they latter bring to the table. Yes, it’s ultimately the client’s candy store, but I’d gladly hire a partner that tried its hardest to convince one of its clients out of making a spectacularly bad decision, regardless of whether the client listened.
  • Tell me about a deal that your company turned down. Why did it walk away? Does your potential mate know the definition of bad business? Which red flags does it look for?

It shouldn’t be hard for a salesperson to quickly answer these questions.

Simon Says

Foolish is the soul who signs a contract based on a partner’s flashy website and self-promoting case studies. Do your own homework, and that includes opposition research. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions before writing a big check.

I’ll return to this topic in my next IBM-sponsored post.

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What say you?


This post comes from IBM for MSPs. The opinions expressed here are my own.

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