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Three Conversations Customers Must Have with Their Digital Solutions Vendor - Part 1

February 5, 2021

The Scope and Scale of Today's Digital Transformation Capabilities Have Resulted in a Seismic Shift in How Customers Evaluate and Deploy These Solutions

By Jamie Flerlage, Cornerstone Controls

The next two posts are not a treatise on healthy vendor-customer relationships, nor will they cover every aspect of the sales/discovery process. Instead, I intended to provide high-level examples of how customers can engage their vendors by structuring their digital solutions discovery into methodical productive conversations (and avoid insufferable stacks of PowerPoint slides).

For the next two posts, we are going to break down this discovery approach into three conversations:

1) The Technical Discovery
2) The Technical Briefing
3) The Executive Briefing
Why a Digital Solutions Discovery Process Is Critical to Success
Evaluating digital transformation solutions can be a complicated process. Customers are not procuring a commodity; they are procuring products and services to gain a business advantage. Customers should not start these conversations by asking for product overviews, demos, sales presentations, or proposal requests, nor should they ask their vendors to do so. Treat the discovery process as a strategic, mission-critical component to gathering the right information for decision-making. Proconex recommends starting your vendor conversations with a Technical Discovery.
Conversation #1: The Technical Discovery
During the Technical Discovery, customers should expect an old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation with pens, pads, and notebooks. Treat it as an investigative meeting, based on Q&A and driven by both parties; it is a conversation that helps the vendor (and sometimes the customer) gain a holistic understanding of the operation and the challenges. First, divide the technical discovery into five parts:
  1. Introductions (roles, responsibilities, what is each party seeking from the conversation)
  2. Situation Summary (customer-led conversation about the problem and present-state)
  3. Technical Review (vendor-led Q&A session with the customer)
  4. Technical Visioning (led by customer or vendor, about what the future-state could look like)
  5. Action Items (mutually agreed-upon homework or next steps for follow-up workshop)

The vendor will likely have, at minimum, a sales and subject matter expert in attendance. The customer should have all the appropriate technical stakeholders and at least one (if not more) business influencers or sponsors present. (It is okay if the customer's team is larger than the vendor's.)

The types of questions and topics in these discoveries will vary by the kinds of problems you are trying to solve. The customer and vendor should agree to an agenda ahead of time, with time limits for each topic area. The following bullets highlight the types of topics and questions customers might encounter, along with insights as to what vendor might be thinking (in parentheses):
  • Tell us about your systems architecture. (Where will our solution interface with their existing systems; how will our solution get data from their data repositories; what possible systems interoperability issues exist; is the customer potentially missing data?)
  • How do you address cybersecurity at the site? (Is the customer's current security plan broad enough to encompass the future solution, and if not, what is needed to close the gaps?)
  • Which software systems do you use for plant operations? (Are the existing software systems, such as historians, CMMS, DCS, ERP, MRP, MES, compatible with ours; are they currently under support or outdated; will our solution interface or interoperate with these systems?)
  • How and where is data stored? (What does the customer do with the data they hold today; are they struggling with stranded data; should they consolidate these data silos into a single source?)
  • How do you monitor assets today, and what improvements are you seeking? (Is the reliability program manual, route-based, or a hybrid of digital and manual; what does the customer monitor, report, collect, and how does the site interact with reporting tools and act on the data. Is the site ready for new tools or new ways of measuring, analyzing, and reporting readings and KPIs?)
  • What key performance indicators do you track, which operational costs do you want to eliminate, and what does a down situation cost the site in product or revenue? (We will need KPIs, metrics, equipment maintenance and inventory costs, lost product/revenue estimates, and any other financial impacts to help the customer build a business case.)
Customers will usually ask about the vendors' solutions, and the vendors should be ready to answer those questions briefly. However, the technical discovery's purpose is to ensure both the customer and vendor share a complete understanding of the site's operations, processes, technologies, personnel, and challenges. Technical visioning might begin in this conversation but continued in the Technical Briefing. In Part 2, I will address Conversations 2-3.