Solution provider takeaway: Storage solution providers should follow these best practices for storage RFPs and the subsequent selection process.
In the final quarter of 2008, Storage Switzerland had the opportunity to work with a large financial institution as it went through the selection process on storage equipment worth approximately $2 million. The project was a learning experience for all involved -- the customer, the vendors and the resellers. Mistakes were made, and from those mistakes come best practices for you -- lessons on what you should do and what you shouldn't do during the storage RFP and selection process.
While the lessons in this particular project can be traced more to vendor actions than to the actions of the resellers, any project you bid on can benefit by following the same principles. Ironically, one key problem for the resellers in this project is that the vendors they represented were allowed to drive the selection process and commit most of the errors I explain below.
Before we dive into the lessons, here's a little background on the storage RFP: The customer needed additional capacity, but its primary motivation was to increase overall performance. Specifically, it had a set of Microsoft SQL Server databases across 14 servers that were critical to the day-to-day operations and had a tremendous appetite for bandwidth. The customer needed two systems -- one for their primary site and one for their DR site -- totaling about 50TB in capacity. The RFP process involved both vendors and reseller partners.
Now for the lessons …
Lesson 1: Stop watching the news; go make your own.
The first -- and possibly the most important -- takeaway from this project was its timing: in the fourth quarter of 2008, long after the bad news about the economy was out. It's also important to note that the customer was a financial services company, the most distressed sector in the country in the second half of 2008. Despite these conditions, I've seen the evidence that there's still business out there. Rather than focusing on all the bad news, concentrate on working harder to find the companies that do have money to spend
Lesson 2: They have to know you exist.
As you would expect, when the customer created the storage RFP, it was sent to companies that the customer had been in recent contact with. This emphasizes the importance of staying in front of your prospects and customers. The customer sent the RFP to the companies that were top of mind. Of the four finalists, two were "big" vendors with brand name recognition, one was a newer vendor that had been calling and emailing the customer constantly, and the fourth was the incumbent vendor. Other storage RFP recipients were resellers whose seminars the customer had attended or salespeople they had spoken to or who were referred by other suppliers. The common denominator among all RFP recipients is that they were on the customer's radar in some way. Make sure you stay on the radar.
Lesson 3: The RFP may not represent exactly what the customer buys.
Don't assume that you have to meet 100% of the RFP's requirements or that you have to stop where the storage RFP leaves off. Three of the four vendor finalists provided alternate configurations that went well beyond the initial specification. Their goal was to show that they were thinking outside of the box, and this caught the customer's attention.
Lesson 4: Resellers make a difference.
Three of the four finalists in the selection process were represented by a reseller, and while the customer did not put much stock in the resellers at first, they became a key differentiator as the project developed.
Lesson 5: It is better to be a pest than to disappear.
When working a project like this, there is a delicate balance between staying in touch and being accessible vs. being invisible. None of the final vendors struck that balance very well. Interestingly, two of the four were pests, calling three times a day, sending emails, having other people call, etc. Even more interesting is that while the pestering annoyed the customer, these two made it to the final round. While you won't win a project primarily based on the accessibility/communication factor, given a choice, it is better to be on the customer's mind rather than to be forgotten.
Lesson 6: Relationships don't matter.
The customer found most of the people that were involved in the project likable, but the person that the customer liked the least was from the vendor that won the deal. While garnering only a "pass" from a people skill perspective, this company was the supplier that could best articulate how the solution and doing business with that supplier would benefit that customer. While it certainly won't hurt your business to partner with likable vendors -- and it is important that you are yourself likable -- remember that likability will never be a bottom-line consideration in a multimillion-dollar project.
Lesson 7: It's not over until the PO is cut.
This best practice could also be titled "The last one standing wins." As the selection process progressed, before the final two were selected, one of the resellers said they were not making any more configuration changes because they thought the customer was purposely wasting their time. In actuality, the customer was trying to see how much more storage they could buy. The reseller was kicked out of the running. To avoid a similar fate, if you're suspicious of a customer's motivations, don't rush to conclusions. Investigate before making a move that can only push you out of the running.
Lesson 8: Be careful what you brag about.
As the final selection process was underway, a question came up about professional services. (You'll remember that the customer had a mission-critical Microsoft SQL Server environment.) One of the manufacturers actually claimed, "We don't have any professional services." What they should have and probably meant to say was, "Our system is so easy to use that we don't have or need a large services organization." They didn't know that their competition had 50 SQL-specific experts available around the country, three of whom were local. That may have been game over right there. When someone asks you a question, make sure you understand why they asked it before you blurt out a response.
Lesson 9: The cheapest does not always win.
Nor does the fastest always win. The winner of the project was the supplier that was able to convince the customer they could address the performance enough while providing superior service skills. Ironically, the ultimate winner was the most expensive. Aim to align yourself with a vendor that has great products and well as a great service organization that can back you up. Or make sure that you can fill in the vendor's gaps with great service of your own.
Lesson 10: Lose with dignity.
After the award was given, one of the losing suppliers, who was previously "sure they had won," then tried to protest the decision. Now this was not a government agency; there was no protest option, and there was no commitment to buy from the cheapest vendor in the selection process. The result was the vendor burnt the very bridges that they may have used to get in on the next storage RFP. But the consequences were even greater for the reseller. While it will be three years before the storage equipment aged enough for the manufacturer to sell again to that same customer, the reseller will feel the pain more immediately. They lose the opportunity to pitch other products and services to the customer right off the bat. So during the course of any project, it is always a good idea to weigh future opportunities when considering present actions.
About the author
George Crump is president and founder of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. With 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the United States, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland, George was chief technology officer at one of the nation's largest storage integrators, where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection. Find Storage Switzerland's disclosure statement here.