Tech & Work

If you're updating a system, you'd better be able to reach your vendors

Can you, at a moment's notice, pick up the phone and contact any of your vendors? If not, heed this lesson and you'll sleep better at night.


Have you seen IBM's television commercial where the system is down and the vendors are all blaming each other for the problem? In that fictional scenario, no one can reach the developers—they're off snowboarding. It's a hilarious commercial, but as I found out during the Memorial Day weekend, that story hits too close to reality in some IT shops.

Software shops should always be open!
It's not just stereotypical Web developers in TV commercials who make themselves scarce. I have a friend who manages a retail center that annually does over 10 million dollars in sales. The Thursday before the big Memorial Day weekend, the company rolled out a major upgrade to the cash register system, a change that affected around 50 locations scattered across the United States. (Never mind whether they couldn't have picked a worse weekend to implement a major upgrade.)

A software glitch crashed the cash register systems in my friend's store and in two others. "They couldn't reach the software guys," my friend said.

I said, "You're kidding! You mean your company hired some kids to write the cash register upgrade, and they went off snowboarding?? That's like in that IBM commercial!"

It turns out that the software company that produced the cash register software was a substantial company, one big enough that you'd expect them to answer the phone Monday through Friday, at least during normal business hours. But no.

They done gone
On the Thursday before Memorial Day, however, no one answered the phone at that software company. My friend's company had to deal with a crisis without the benefit of the advice of a key vendor.

The reason I'm sharing this story is because my friend's company failed to protect themselves. They had a number for the software vendor's main switchboard and extensions for a couple of key contacts but didn't have any emergency pager, cell phone, or other contact information. So the hard lesson learned here is that you can't assume you'll always be able to contact a business partner, unless you ask for the right numbers.

Let common sense rule
Here's the deal. You need a database of vendor contact information. At any given moment, anyone in your IT department needs to be able to pick up the phone and contact any of your key vendors. So what do you need to store?
  • Vendor name
  • Description of services or systems supported
  • Main business telephone line for voicemail messages
  • Business fax number
  • Vendor business URL
  • Important human contact names, direct-dial numbers, pager numbers, cell phone numbers, and e-mail addresses

Whether it's the company that sells you floppy disks or the agency that provides your contract Java developers, make sure you have emergency contact data on hand. If you don't ask for that information, your vendors may not volunteer it. So ask for it.

Epilogue
Here's how my friend's story ended. My friend's IT guys undid the cash register software upgrade for the three stores where the upgrade had failed. Someone from the software company finally called back, and on the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, the director of IT services for my friend's company and the "software guys" conducted conference calls to walk each of the store managers through the upgrade process, and (thankfully) the changes were completed before the holiday shopping weekend.

Is your contact data complete?
Have you ever been caught in an emergency, unable to reach a key vendor? Or do you have a strategy for avoiding those uncomfortable moments? Please share your experiences by posting a comment below or by dropping us a note.
Each Tuesday, Jeff Davis tells it like he sees it from the trenches of the IT battle. And you can get his report from the frontlines delivered straight to your e-mail front door. Subscribe to Jeff's View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you'll get a bonus of Jeff's picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for our TechMail subscribers.

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