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Cracking IT Vendor Relations

Cracking IT Vendor Relations

It’s not easy to bend your supplier to your own will to get the products you need, but there are ways of making them talk

Everyone thinks their own baby is the most perfect, handsome being ever to have come into the world, but the truth is that newborns often look rather squashed-up and, not to put too fine a point on it, a little bit ugly. Most of us just don't have the courage to tell the parents.

Anthony Abbattista, though, is not one to shrink from telling it like it is. The VP of technology solutions at Allstate, North America's largest publicly held personal insurance company, used this analogy recently when describing his firm's collaboration with Tibco Software on the integration of its ActiveMatrix product with Microsoft's .NET environment.

"We'd been having listen-to-each-other days and that had led to Tibco's collaboration with Microsoft," he said. "When they showed us what they'd got, their first question was: 'Isn't our baby beautiful?', and we said: 'Actually no, it's wrinkly and quite ugly'."

Abbattista was using the point to illustrate why his company had been working with Tibco for the past four years, when the vendor didn't have a track record yet in the insurance sector. In short, he likes the firm's willingness to change. "Tibco has the eagerness of a start-up and the follow-through of a partner," he told the vendor's user conference in San Francisco in May this year. "They're long on vision; they'll listen, collaborate and make changes."

For an IT shop like Allstate which is 50 percent Java and 50 percent .NET, that was important, as Tibco technology was forming the basis of Allstate's enterprise service bus. Of course, as one of the largest IT users in the US with nearly 40,000 employees, Allstate can perhaps expect partners to design their products with it in mind.

But not all vendors are so open to this kind of collaboration. One former senior technology director of a large oil company recalls going to SAP's European headquarters in Walldorf, Germany with his fellow executives early on in their relationship and telling the enterprise applications vendor its demands. "We expected to have direct input into their product strategy. The answer came back quite clearly: 'No'. We were just another customer to them," he says.

So what can you do to get vendors to listen to your point of view and incorporate your designs into their product specs, and what are the barriers that sometimes stand between a collaborative relationship between supplier and buyer?

"First of all, you've got to have a degree of realism about the scale of the vendor and the amount of business you're providing to it," says Andy Hayler, former senior technology consultant at Shell International and now CEO at master data management consultancy The Information Difference.

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