Be a Bulldog IT Buyer

Believe only half of what you hear and assume that much may not be true.

Im a CIO, but I might as well be an investigative reporter.

Why? Running an IT operation is about much more than just getting products to work as promised. Increasingly, its about finding things out, such as whether your vendors will still be in business tomorrow. Concern about vendor reliability isnt new, but, nowadays, you may have to be pretty tenacious to get the real story.

Recently, I was reviewing the products of a new telecommunications provider as a potential replacement for an existing supplier. I spent more time in conference calls discussing the financial strength of the vendor than I did the technical strengths of its offerings. I also spent plenty of time grilling the provider about deliverables. I needed to know what was ready and available, not what was on the agenda for the future.

Take it from me, believe only half of what you hear and assume that much may not be true. Ask questions and read the fine print. When it comes time to sign, insist on extending the warranty period and hold back part of the payment if you want to ensure responsiveness to outstanding problems.

Here are more best practices that work for me. First, whenever possible, dont answer your telephone. Chances are that some vendor on the other end of the line is trying to sell a product or service that will, the vendor will claim, make your IT environment into nirvana. Wouldnt it be nice if the caller had some clue of what your organization actually did as a business? If you do answer the phone, be prepared to say no when asked about getting together for a meeting. Some callers actually think that CIOs are just hanging by the phone, waiting to schedule a meeting with an unknown vendor trying to sell an obscure product that doesnt work in their environments.

Second, if you must meet vendors, spend time with those that are at the core of your technical infrastructure. Ask tough questions and demand evidence that your vendor considers your business really important—important enough to modify terms, conditions, licensing and maintenance expenses. Find out whos the boss and ask if there are any financial surprises in the works that could interrupt the quality of services. If the answers dont add up, look for a replacement.

Finally, select vendors with the help of other senior execs in your organization.

Its your responsibility to do no less. IT vendor choices are part of the corporate fabric these days, and those running the organization should be aware of the trade-offs. You might be surprised that for many executives, awe with "gee whiz" functionality has been replaced by a healthy respect for stuff thats simple but works.

When products fail miserably, its IT that will be held accountable for choosing the vendor that sold them. If you dont ask the tough questions, expect that youll have to answer them.

Paul C. Tinnirello is a CIO in the insurance financial industry. He can be reached at