Websites, email marketing, membership software, and online event registration are the bricks that pave the road to Internet success for most associations. Members expect to be served online, and your staff relies on being connected to headquarters from virtually anywhere.
Of course, as your technology needs grow, so does the reliance on your technology vendor. And if your technology vendor isn't responsive or isn't speaking your language, that road to success can go from smooth to bumpy in a hurry.
If you've found your organization struggling to sync up with your technology supplier, fear not: There is good news. Below are five key success factors to help you build or renew a positive relationship with your technology vendor.
1. Discuss Your Business Objectives
Expect your vendor to discuss how his or her product or service will help your business directly. It's easy to get caught up in the latest trends like podcasts and online video, but don't be sold on sizzle alone. All of your technology initiatives should map to your strategic plan. Whether it's a new project or an upgrade to an existing tool, keep your organization's vision in mind—and make sure your vendor does the same. Our client Kristin Prine, operations manager for the International Special Events Society says, "Ultimately, we have to answer to our board. If our technology supplier is in line with our vision, things go much smoother when volunteers propose new technology projects."
2. Ask More Questions
No doubt you've had those moments when you feel yourself glazing over as your technology vendor tells you about SQL, .NET, Bootstrap, and other jargon that mean little to anyone but a techie. Stop them in their tracks. Refer to number one above and ask how what they're speaking about pertains to your big-picture goals. Don't be afraid to say you don't understand. Many times IT people assume everyone is cut from their cloth. Ask questions until you have a complete understanding of the work they are proposing.
On the flip side, because the broad use of technology is a reality for associations today, as a nonprofit professional you do have an obligation to know the basics. If you're calling the help desk to ask where the "any" key is, you may not be as up-to-speed as you should be. A working knowledge of technology will improve communication with your vendor and save you money in the long run.
"It's not a matter of knowing the difference between all the programming languages as much as it is knowing if something is a website issue or a database issue," adds Prine. "A little homework and experience go a long way in understanding those things. Of course, nine times out of 10, it's a user error, and I can spot those a mile away."
Help your technology vendor understand exactly what you need and when you need it by. This technique bodes well for both parties because expectations are set in advance. It's surprising how many associations pass multiple projects on to their technology vendor without a clear idea of how they relate to each other and how that relation affects turnaround.
Nothing spreads the true landscape of a project out in front of you better than a little documentation. Choose to spend more time on the front end of your projects and you'll not only receive better work from your vendor, you'll also save costs on testing and the last minute, "Oh-yeah-we-forgot-to-tell-you," moments. For your next project try creating a flowchart of the business rules around which the technology will operate; consider all assumptions and exceptions. You'll unknowingly be taking a quick peek into the mind of a computer programmer who makes these judgment calls all day long for undocumented projects.
"It does take us much more time to get a project off the ground when we document what we want," says Prine, "but we've found that it does create a common ground of communication with our vendor and has even helped us realize that some projects had a much larger scope than we originally thought, so we decided not to do them."
5. Be Accountable
Always a moving target, accountability is a difficult thing to put your finger on—but communicating expectations is the first step in avoiding a session of finger pointing later on. Vendors have an obligation to provide technology with enthusiasm and professionalism, and associations will reap greater rewards and increased returns on investment if they devote time to learning about the technology that runs their business.
As you reflect on these five key success factors and how they can be applied to your vendor relationship, remember that everyone wins when a strong business alliance is established. Sometimes switching vendors becomes unavoidable, but by practicing some of these strategies you may be able to steer clear of a difficult decision and make your existing vendor relationship work.
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