Six steps to hiring an implementation company

While implementation companies are more alike than different, a wrong choice could literally be a multi-million dollar mistake. Here are six tips on how to engage the right company.

Hiring an implementation company can be one of the biggest and most painful vendor selection processes you will ever go through as a CIO. For a large enterprise software implementation, this could be a company you will spend years with and write checks for hundreds of millions of dollars to. While these companies are more alike than different, a wrong choice could literally be a multimillion dollar mistake. Here are six tips on how to engage the right company.

1. Understand the nature of the relationship

Most of the implementation firms are quick to tout the word "partner." They will partner with you on this, and be your partner in that, so much so that you may get tired of hearing this word midway through the selection process. While personnel from the company you select will indeed be spending long days in the trenches with your staff and likely become an extension of your company, it is worthwhile to remember that your relationship will always be fundamentally adversarial. Each moment that your project drags on, your revenue goes down to pay to continue the project, while the implementation company's increases. This should not make you second guess every move the implementation company makes, but rather serve as a reminder that critical decisions, especially around scope, may reflect this biased relationship.

2. Maintain control of the scope

As I mentioned in a recent column, scope is usually the only control you have over a project, and each nudge of the scope has cost and timeline impacts. Leave critical scoping decisions to an implementation company at your own peril. While part of the reason you hire implementation companies is to get project management and decision-making experience, letting them have full control without minimal input from your staff is akin to giving them a handful of blank checks.

3. Don't fall in love with a methodology

Every firm that walks though your doors will likely spend a great deal of time touting their "proprietary" methodology and all the tools they have that will save you months of time. The truth is that most are based on the old-fashioned waterfall methodology and some variant of design, build, implement, and test. Often all those wonderful templates will be tailored to your company and rebuilt anyway, and I have yet to see the "magical methodology" that otherwise saves a project.

4. Buy the people

If you like the people that an implementation company wheels in for its presentations, ensure that their participation is guaranteed as part of your contract. Many of these companies will bring out their big guns for the sales pitch and then replace them with the B-team when the papers are signed. It is obviously unfair to expect a vendor to hold people in reserve for months while you make a decision, but several weeks should not be out of the question for key players.

5. Do your own reference checks

It is easy for most implementation companies to come up with a pile of reference clients, case studies, and testimonials. While these should be factored into your decision making, there's no harm ringing CIOs at noncompeting companies (or even competitors where you have a good relationship) and getting their thoughts. A thirty-minute conversation will likely tell you far more than the polished marketing pitch from a "marquee" client featured on an airport billboard.

6. Don't be afraid to get help

These can literally be million-dollar decisions, so a few bucks spent bringing in outside expertise to aid in the decision-making process can be money well spent. I have personally been on the giving and receiving end of implementation company pitches and seen relationships where one plus one became three and also implementation "partners" that happily ran up hundreds of millions in fees chasing the whims of every junior manager they came in contact with. Obviously you should avoid seeking this advice from a firm that sells implementation services.

While embarking on a long-term relationship with an implementation partner can be unnerving and seemingly more stressful than the project itself, an appropriate amount of time, due diligence, and consideration of the factors above can help make your project successful and save money.