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How vendor partnerships can impact system implementations

Stacey Harris, Sapient Insights Group
Stacey Harris
Stacey Harris is the chief research officer and managing partner of Sapient Insights Group, where she oversees their industry research work, including the esteemed Annual HR Systems Survey and White Paper, now in its 25th year. Results of the survey debut exclusively at the HR Technology Conference each year.

Over recent weeks, I’ve talked about RFPs in my regular column, as well as in an HRE article. Definitely, putting together carefully considered and comprehensive RFPs is a critical step in achieving successful implementations. If you don’t make a selection that fits your company’s needs, budget, available resources and expected outcomes, it’s a sure bet disappointment will follow.

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Those of you who follow our research know we spend a lot of time and ink on how to best approach implementation initiatives. In our latest report, we dedicate an entire chapter to the benefits of using adaptive change management for implementations, which clearly correlates to achieving higher business outcomes and a more strategic perception of HR.

For this column, I’m going to focus specifically on the importance of a strong vendor partnership in achieving a successful implementation. (Note: We define “success” as meeting or exceeding expectations regarding business outcomes and adoption while coming in at or under the expected timeline and budget.) Some of the factors covered here could and should be part of discussions before a system selection; others need to be hammered out after the selection is made but before the implementation work begins.

How vendor partnerships can impact system implementations 

Who does what in the vendor partnership?

Will you be working with the system’s vendor or with a certified implementation partner?  Many large system vendors rely on their partner networks to handle implementations in certain regions or for certain industry segments. Whoever works with you on your implementation—the vendor, a vendor partner or a third party of your choice—should have a solid track record working with companies like yours. Do your diligence to verify.

Of the 300 major system integrations we tracked in our latest research, buyers most often relied on vendors or vendor partners for configurations, integrations, report development, strategy and guidance, and system training. Work most commonly done by internal resources included change and project management, data input and setup, report development, and testing and validation. Whatever work you assign to a vendor or implementation partner, it’s important to ensure that internal teams are involved throughout the process and have the detailed knowledge needed to effectively run the application post-implementation. Last year, over 25% of system implementations fell short of expectations because of a lack of training and knowledge transfer.

We recommend developing a detailed responsibility breakdown or MOU that clearly outlines the responsibilities of all parties, including the people on your own internal—ideally cross-functional—team. I’ll remind you again that it is essential that HR takes a lead—or minimally, a major role—in the implementation of any system that touches HR or the workforce. Doing so is vital to the long-term success of the implementation and to the perception of your HR organization.

Review expectations and timeline

We also recommend reviewing the expected implementation outcomes, progress metrics, available resources and timeline before getting started. In order to avoid disappointment down the road, make sure these factors are grounded in reality and are in line with similar implementations your vendor or third-party implementation partner has successfully completed.

We also advise lengthening the timeline that you think you’ll need. You should count on setbacks and unanticipated problems, and you’ll want to add in time for training. Don’t jeopardize the project by trying to meet some arbitrary date, rather than setting a schedule realistic for all involved parties.

Learn how to strengthen your vendor partnerships at HRE‘s upcoming HR Tech Conference Europe, May 2-3 in Amsterdam. Click here to register.

How will you be supported?

Years ago, before tech moved to the cloud, the implementation of any major system meant that a team would actually come to your site to do the work. That is rarely the case these days. So, now is the time to nail down exactly how your implementation will be supported —and the kind of support you can expect in the long term.

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Do you have a designated account manager? If you are told you will have phone or email support, what is the promised turnaround time for an answer? We find that buyers who establish relationships with identified support representatives are much more satisfied with their vendors, even when the systems themselves fall short or have problems. Conversely, year after year, we see that less-than-optimal vendor support is one of the biggest causes for buyer dissatisfaction, no matter the product. Vendors that cut support staff resources almost always see an immediate downturn in satisfaction.

While a vendor can get by for a time by beating competitors on price or superior product quality, buyers don’t forget poor service and support. Typically, they won’t immediately go looking for a replacement—doing so is just too costly and time-consuming. However, dissatisfied customers won’t buy add-on offerings, making them less “sticky” and their relationships less valuable to the vendor (based on lower per-employee spending). When it finally comes time to consider replacements, our research shows a distinct connection between low customer satisfaction trends and higher percentages of buyers with open RFPs.

UX design and adoption

The ultimate success metric for any system implementation is adoption. If no one uses your newly installed system, there is no process improvement, and the investment is wasted. Therefore, I want to stress the importance of leveraging your vendor partnership to ensure the user experience for all audiences (employees, contingent workers, managers and HR administrators) is easy to navigate and efficient. I’ve seen too many HR systems that are primarily designed for a single user persona instead of addressing multiple audiences to respect everyone’s time.

We encourage setting up beta testing for different user audiences to get first-hand feedback on the system’s usability in advance of the official launch—early enough to make modifications if necessary. I liken a user’s experience with a new system to a first date: If a user has a terrible first impression of the system for whatever reason, that person will probably be reluctant to give it a second chance.

See also: Open for submissions: 2024 Top HR Tech Products of the Year

Don’t minimize training

One of the most frequent vendor complaints we see in our implementation research is the lack of knowledge transfer. Easily accessible and comprehensive user and administrator training (or help) is vital for a successful implementation. While user community groups are very useful, they are not replacements for educational resources designed for employees using and supporting the solution.

Develop a list of all known training and support resources before you start the implementation initiative. As you go through the implementation process, add to the list other tricky issues or complex areas that will require special knowledge or mastery.

While a superficial use of the new system might not require much initial training, the more sophisticated features and functionality will. Your vendor and implementation partners should make sure you and your team have all of the information you might need in the short- and long-term to get full value out of your technology investment.

Strive for a relationship, not a transaction

Our Voice of the Customer research, conducted now for 26 years, has given us amazing insight into what customers want and need from their vendor partners. Time and again, we’ve seen start-ups with amazing, innovative offerings bite the dust or get quickly acquired because they haven’t made the effort or the investments to adequately support their customers. Similarly, long-standing solution providers have rapidly lost market share after cutting back on support services.

When you select a new system, you are embarking on a relationship. You’ll want to know your vendor partner is in it for the long haul and can commit to supporting you in the months and years following implementation. That means keeping you fully informed of development roadmaps, product updates and bugs—as well as any business developments that could impact your investment.

I also want vendors to realize that customers are passionate about their vendor relationships. They will let a lot of things slide if they feel that have a genuine two-way partnership. That means being transparent about plans and problems, always thinking of ways to help them use their solutions more productively and being open to feedback.

A strong vendor partnership is always a win-win. Buyers maximize their tech investments and find new work efficiencies and vendors gain loyalty, goodwill and market share.