Case study: Working with an IT services provider

Choosing a company to develop and maintain your Web site doesn't mean an end to your worries. One nonprofit group shares what it learned when it hired an IT services company to put its message online.

Educating people about preventing global warming is a tremendous challenge. As a not-for-profit agency charged with this mission, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change needed a Web site that would give users quick and easy access to a vast array of information.

“We didn’t want to box ourselves in. We knew we would be adding an extraordinary amount of information and that it was important for us to be able to build out the site,” said Katie Mandes, the organization's director of communication.

While all client/vendor relationships have their challenges, Mandes was able to form a constructive working relationship with the IT service provider AppNet and avoid some of the potential hassles that can accompany a major IT project.

In this article, Mandes shares what she learned about using an IT service provider.
In an earlier article , Giga Information Group analyst Stephanie Moore provided a list of valuable questions that companies should ask when selecting an IT services company. She said companies need a provider that can build the technology to support an e-business strategy—one that also has the skill to advise the company on the operational transformation needed to run an e-business.
Know the client company
“I can’t stress enough the importance of making sure that the IT provider spends the time that is needed to get to know the organization,” said Mandes.

Mandes added that she was impressed when AppNet was recently involved in developing a site for its sister company. AppNet invested a significant amount of time getting to know the needs and preferences of this client as well. Members of the Web development teams from both companies explored other Web sites to get a feel for what the client liked and didn't like. Mandes cautions IT managers to make sure that the provider is asking the right questions, not just about color and graphics preferences, but about what the company’s objectives for the site will be two years from now and beyond.

During this process, it's important to keep end users in mind. For example, Pew wanted to select the best format for reports so their audience could easily download them. AppNet worked with Pew to find a format that would meet the technical capabilities of their audience, which includes middle- to lower-class residents of countries such as Russia and China.

Communication is key
Mandes said one key to the ongoing success of her organization’s Web site is an extranet, which allows every player involved in the project to see the work that is being done, as well as to post materials, comments, and questions about the project.

Extranets are being used by many IT service providers to enhance communication on projects and make sure that client expectations are met.

“We upload information each step of the way on the extranet. Clients can comment and give real-time input. Changes can be made on the spot,” said John Berry, vice president of marketing for AppNet.

Mandes recently used the extranet to check a banner advertisement and found that part of one of the logos was incorrect.

“The change was made quickly and efficiently without playing phone tag,” said Mandes.

Mandes noted that the extranet is also used as an online memo, listing goals set in meetings, which are removed from the extranet as they are accomplished and archived. “It really facilitates our communication and keeps us all on the same page.”

Recognize limitations
Pew spends approximately $60,000 a year on its Web site, a sum that translates into 30 hours a month in labor. The organization has a year-to-year contract with AppNet that contains a clause allowing either party to be released from the contract with 30 days notice.

Mandes said that even with a significant investment in the upkeep of the site, she occasionally runs out of allocated hours and has to prioritize projects. At times, some projects must be delayed for a few months.

“When you are negotiating a contract, try to be aware of how many hours you will use and figure that the estimate will probably be low,” said Mandes.

Pew periodically requests a written breakdown of the hours, and AppNet usually updates them when the hours are running low in order to avoid cost overruns. Cost isn’t the only factor when planning changes. Mandes said when dealing with a service provider, IT managers need to remember to factor in lead time.

“It is not like having someone in-house working on it. Ask how many technical and creative people will be working on this and how much lead time the company will need to make changes to your home page,” said Mandes.

Pew has benefited from AppNet’s suggestions, including the creation of an e-mail list that is used to send out alerts. “We have around 1,000 names, and when we send out an e-mail alert, there is a real spike in traffic to the site,” said Mandes.

Mandes is in contact with AppNet by phone or face-to-face at least 10 times a week.

“They have a clear understanding of who we are and where we hope to go,” said Mandes.
When working with an IT services provider, what’s the biggest pitfall that companies overlook? Post a comment below or send us a suggestion for a future article.

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