Friday, 20 January 2017

The Challenges of Outsourcing Part Three: Supplier selection (top tips 1-5)

photo Lorraine Ellery Matthews
In this post, part three of the Challenges of Outsourcing, Lorraine Ellery continues to share feedback from leading scholarly publishing professionals focusing on practical advice and tips to consider when selecting a supplier to outsource your product or service.

This follows the first post in the series identifying 10 key drivers to outsource and the second post outlining Stakeholder Engagement.

1. What impressions do you have of a supplier?

You may have already undertaken an early RFI (request for information) from a supplier, carried out your own research or commissioned a competitor analysis of the supplier landscape. However, to really get a good impression of the supplier, you need to consider how they are positioned and what they can bring to your business. You may find you need to engage in a more formal RFP (request for proposal) or tender process.

The RFP/Tender process should provide a framework that allows you to obtain a clear impression of the supplier; the product and service offering they provide; how they will address and meet your requirements and a clear indication of how they stand out from their competitors. The following key questions need to be answered before reaching an outsourcing agreement with a supplier:
  • Can they understand my business? 
  • Can they meet my requirements? 
  • Can they offer service reliability? 
  • Customer service, can they carry through on their promises?
  • Budget and ongoing costs, are these visible and agreeable? 
  • Have we agreed on critical value objectives
  • What is their value proposition, is this measurable?
  • What is their track record in servicing similar organizations?
  • How will their location affect me and my organization? (onshore or offshore) 
  • Do they have the ability to communicate effectively? 
  • Will I have Insight into their product/service roadmap? 
  • Are there signs of instability? 
  • Will our external auditors accept them?

If you are happy with your current supplier then you may not wish to spend time in going out to tender (unless you are obliged to do so) or in progressing with a formal RFP process. It is, therefore, advisable to first consider the opportunity cost involved!

2. Ensure effective communication

It is very important to mitigate against misunderstanding and incorrect interpretation usually caused by poor communication.
Cartoon illustrating importance of effective communication


I asked "is stakeholder engagement key to effective communication?" in my last post and wish to add that it is advisable to ensure you have agreed a clear project scope and selection criteria with relevant stakeholders before you reach out to suppliers. Whether this is before embarking on an informal or formal tender process, the preparation will take time, but this investment will ensure your objectives, goals and requirements are clear, assist you in managing expectations, provide a frame of reference and help take the emotion out of the supplier selection decision.

Clear expectations
Caroline Burley, Journals Operations Manager, Publishing Services & Production at the Royal Society of Chemistry shares her thoughts:

"Suppliers may say “yes we can do that” straight away without taking the time to fully understand what we are asking them to do. To ensure the supplier fully appreciates our requirements we try to make the documentation we provide as clear as possible and work through examples with them, providing feedback so that they can understand exactly what we are asking for.

If everyone is clear on the expectations and in agreement, then you should be able to work with the supplier to agree a realistic timeline to deliver the service. If they are not clear on what you are asking them to do, they may have to do additional last minute work that they were not anticipating which may affect the delivery time. Or if, as the customer, you are pushing for a fast delivery, it may be the case that they can't do all of the preparatory work before you go live.

You may need to be accommodating in terms of what you expect of the new supplier if you have a tight deadline, but be aware this may cause longer term problems once the motivation to finish the preparative work is removed.”

Agree to a SOW (statement of work)
The Head of the Journal program for a large medical society which completed several transitions to new vendors in 2016 recommends:

"Publishers and the selected vendor should agree in a SOW (and in great detail) what will be delivered and when with compensation or penalties for non-delivery. This is especially important for key workflow processes and functionalities.

Ideally, the consultant and client staff should document or record meetings with vendors during the RFP process and make sure that all parties are in agreement on what was presented and discussed to minimize disagreements and differences in interpretation at agreement and transition stage."


3. Forge positive relationships

"There is a lot to say for a relationship that is a positive one, and where you and the supplier are clear about your expectations both ways. Not just in a contract or agreement, but in terms of the actual interaction with the people you are working with. As the sales cliché suggests 'people buy from people first', there will be relationships that are particular to the organization and not every publisher is looking for the same thing." Director of Publishing, leading UK society publisher

4. Engage in early collaboration

Collaborating with consultants:
Collaborate with consultants to help distill information and facilitate discussion to allow stakeholders to talk through their frustrations - this feedback can strengthen the value of the final offering.

A consultant can ensure you select and retain the partners that best fit your organizational goals, provide advice and manage all or specific components of the RFP/Tender process, including the following:
  • Early research e.g. Competitor analysis 
  • Project management and advice
  • Support and assist in management of the selection process including creation of the RFP/tender documentation; evaluation of responses received, selection and brokering of agreements
  • Create and manage the implementation of contracts and SLA’s 
Matthew Cianfarani, Director International Business Development, Mark Allen Group collaborated with a consultant when outsourcing their hosting platform. Matthew suggests
"Use a consultant early to shape the whole thing – if you don’t have a large IT team who understand academic publishing you need an outside view of what you do, to communicate to potential vendors."

Early involvement of technical experts  
Sometimes you will find that you are dealing mainly with the commercial staff at the supplier end and it is not until an agreement is signed that the hand over to technical experts begins.

"Involvement of a technical person earlier in discussion provides continuity." Helen King, Digital Strategy Lead at BMJ

4) Look under the hood

Cartoon illustrating Look under the Hood


Before buying a car, you would look under the hood, before buying a new outfit you would preferably try it on. Therefore, why not apply this common sense when outsourcing?

It can take commitment of both time and finance to try a service before you buy, however, it can certainly be worth the investment as Helen King, BMJ found: "Working with a potential supplier to test their services before you decide to move platform can provide you with a large amount of qualitative information about the service and if it will be a good fit."

Sign up using your email to receive blog posts in this series, post four will highlight a further 6-10 tops tips to consider.

Lorraine will be chairing the Outsourcing Challenges workshop at the forthcoming Research to Reader Conference in London on 20-21 February 2017: Which aspects of the scholarly communications process can be outsourced, how can risks be mitigated and how can outsourcing be most effectively managed?

Register here for the 2017 Research to Reader Conference

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