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business models, strategies and technologies

Rethinking vendor–supplier relationships

Is there a way to rethink one of the fundamentals in buyer–seller relationships? To get impartial advice in a know-how driven world?

The buyer–seller relationship – and how they adjust to each other – is one of the cornerstones of our society, and has been for centuries. The entire cornucopia of capitalist choice around which (most of) our society revolves is pretty much based on there being a selection of different (more or less) competing goods available from a selection of (more or less) competing suppliers. Good luck and caveat emptor.

Seeking impartiality in a world driven by know-how

I recently tried genning up on project management software prior to some investments that’ll be crucial for a new company I’m planning, and my experience made me think about all this. The point was then rammed home by discovering a company that sassily claims to be “the only technology consultancy that can offer complete independence from any supplier, management company or service provider.” More about that later.

I’m an expert in my own particular field. And much less so in other people’s fields of expertise – obviously. So when it comes to investing (small potatoes, but pivotal for the efficiency and user-friendliness of just about everything in my business) in things like software I need expert help to avoid a catastrophic sign-up with something that turns out to be a square peg for a round hole – or a developmental dead end. But who can I ask?

The question’s particularly pertinent in know-how driven/software-powered business and commercial environments – there’s no box to be returned if it doesn’t fit, or if you don’t like the colour. The consumer analogy based on traditional box-shifting mechanisms doesn’t quite work for processes, services and capabilities that are intangible, fluid and contextual.

The expertise conundrum

Expertise isn’t a neutral commodity. Seller-centric expertise is great, and it’s kinda´ what we pay for, as the actual hardware becomes less and less important in many products and processes. But customer-centric expertise – about which product or service best meets my actual needs – is a very different kettle of fishy stuff. Rare and precious …

In the same way that “bank advisers” in practice never have our best interests at heart, it’s usually pretty meaningless to try to get impartial advice from any particular supplier of a product or service. The company and its staff have invested loads of time, money and manpower in developing and becoming experts in certain specific solutions and products – and their perspectives are therefore often intrinsically backward-looking and historically rooted. They’ve got no reason or obvious capabilities to provide me with chunky, actionable advice about other solutions, or about future-compatible opportunities – it’d be intrinsically counter-productive to their best (short-term) interests.

The same problem exists in the flourishing world of the startup – great ideas abound in loads of small companies. But each company can only extoll the virtues of its own product/service, making pre-purchase clarity hard to come by in a world of software look-alikes and “me-too” products. At the same time, the best products are fairly likely to have only a limited life, before they got swallowed up by Google, Facebook or one of the many other gargantuan idea-guzzlers.

All in all, it’s a disconcerting paradox that in many cases the worst possible source of technology advice is a company claiming to be an expert. They’ve got too much invested in trying to sell you one particular solution regardless of your exact needs, based on a singularly non-transparent agenda. Iniquitous expertise, perhaps?

 Families of systems

Another difficulty is that in a modern technology-driven society things like software and systems rarely exist alone. Many advanced functionalities derive from a “family of systems” – discussion or selection of any one single element out of context doesn’t really hit the mark.

You simply can’t buy a Jaguar engine and put it in your Volvo, along with a Mercedes electronics interface that you prefer (and the hindrances are multí-layered – practical, commercial and legislative). Similarly, any assessment of the budget-busting J35 Joint Strike Fighter is fairly meaningless unless we understand that it’s not the individual aircraft and their number that matter – they’re part of hugely complex families of systems whose capabilities and costs are bundled, integrated and interdependent. Many systems and capabilities are also enmeshed in complex ecosystems of interlocking commercial agreements, all of which make unbiased information singularly unlikely.

This all means that traditional assessments like “best”, more cost-effective or most attractive involves a complex set of interdependent, dovetailing considerations and embedded compromises, even for something as simple as buying one of the staples of electronic existence – a modern TV. It’s a jungle out there.

Platforms and services

Nor do transparency and well-informed decisions get any easier with modern purchasing methods. Most kinds of aggregated online shopping – think multibrand fashion portals, FMCG and electronics retailers, Amazon and Hotels.com as mere examples – remove even the merest opportunity for direct contact with the actual developer or manufacturer.

You may be able to get comparative product information, but that doesn’t help much if you don’t really know what you want, which products are available or which products can match your exact need. Information in all its abundance ≠ useful information.

Know-how about know-how?

So where do we go to source know-how about applied know-how (rather than just information about products)? How can you get access to impartial, customer-centric advice?

Vendor-neutral advice isn’t easy to find. In all too many cases, companies, pundits and experts are revealed to be recipients of “hidden” influences, or to be a more or less blatant  “front” for particular interests and agendas.

Blessed art Google, but it ‘s rarely enough for business-critical decision-making in small agile, companies where any know-how-driven decision involves betting the shop on a successful outcome. And in the world of “free” know-how, are we willing to pay for such vendor-neutral advice? Even more to the point, are we willing to pay what it’d really cost to develop, maintain and deliver such nuggets of pre-digested know-how in reliable, actionable form?

I’m sure/I know there are specialist companies out there in certain special contexts – one example is here – but this kind of capability tends to exist more at the big-money end of the scale, where huge amounts are at stake. Realistically, they’re only likely to arise in commercial ecosystems where there’s sufficient volume to provide a basis for commercially viable revenue – and thus unlikely to emerge in big numbers in small countries like Denmark.

Role model?

So what would such a vendor-neutral know-how company look like? Happenstance made me stumble upon Smart Technology Advisors (UK) Ltd.

SMART is completely independent of any supplier or service provider. We do not accept any third party commissions or incentives for our work and never will.

SMART claims to be independent technology consultants, independent of any particular supplier or service provider as well as uninfluenced by things like profit margins, brand loyalties, promotional incentives or commercial affiliations.

Reading the SMART blurb, it turns out that their claim to be “the only truly independent technology consultants” is followed by a rider stating “within the super yacht and ultra high net worth residential market”. This is a market where serious moolah is at stake, and the snob stakes are high. Over $10 million in savings in a little over 3 years, they claim.

There seem to be two distinct strands of inquiry here – assessing the configuration of needs and assessing how best to deal with these. SMART isn’t an obvious role model for roll-out in the more plebian markets in which most of the rest of us operate, but there may be some ideas to be snaffled here.


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