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How to Avoid Penalizing Yourself and the Competent Telecommunications Consultant.

I hear the same lament wherever i go: "There aren't many competent telecommunications consultants out there."

An attendee at one of my recent panel presentations made just this statement, and cited his frustration as a user seeking competent consulting experience. Yet many of these same people will turn around and select a telecom consultant in a manner that discourages the competent consultant and encourages the incompetent one.

These prospective clients do this in several ways: for larger projects, they write a poor request for proposal (RFP) for telecom consulting services; for smaller projects, they interview consultants using outdated criteria or else have several consultants write their own proposals based on too casual, verbal definition by clients.

This article will focus on the RFP, but the discussion pertains equally well to the above less formal approach to consultant selection. I recommend the RFP approach be used wherever possible, however.

Under these circumstances, the competent consultants are actually penalized for knowing their business--but so is the user penalized, it turns out.

This article introduces and formalizes an important new step for users in the process of selecting a good telecommunications system. Actually, it formally recognizes a step that some forwardthinking users have already applied, perhaps without thinking, because it is so logical. This step must precede the others. Specifically, I mean attracting a competent consultant. A user must attract one, before selecting one, before selecting a good system, before realizing financial improvement in the client company bottom line. Adjust to New World

I must say that lately I have seen competent consultants turned off too often by prospective user client who have not yet adjusted their consultant RFPs to the new realities of today's fastmoving, confusing telecom scene. Both parties get hurt--clients and competent consultants.

Here is an example of what happens all too often. The RFP is too short and is written in terms that are too general. Specifically, it is written for the telecom scene of five to 10 years ago, when Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) was common, and few users (clients) ventured forth seeking to set the stage for the future. Granted, some of today's RFPs may throw in a few modern buzzwords such as automated office, integrated voice/data and digital, but they do not acknowledge that the telecom consulting effort needed can be significantly greater than that needed by the older POTS projects. Modern technology has opened up many new avenues of opportunity beyond POTS, but exploration of these avenues and their implementation takes more time, and hence cost.

Incidentally, I considered using the more euphemistic term "less-competent," but users do not mince words. They say "incompetent," so I will reflect that.

This article applies across-the-board to all types of telecommunications projects: large and small; switching and transmission; hardware and software; voice and date. It really is a management article, hence it equally applies to data processing/MIS, automated office and other fastmoving areas where competent consulting services are sought to help users "keep up."

The basic problem of today's telecom consulting RFPs is that they inadequately define the scope of work. Today's wellwritten consultant RFP scope for projects in the new telecommunications scene should differ greatly from the old POTS projects. Here are some typical factors left out of today's RFPs that penalize both client and competent consultant. (Keep in mind these factors also pertain to consultant selection approaches for smaller projects not using an RFP.)

* Extent of client participation. The competent consultant wants the client to participate and do some of the work, get on the learning curve and become selfsufficient by cutover time. A non-participating client seeking a turnkey installation could require twice as much consulting effort. RFP phrases like "assist client during installation phase" is too openended. There is a big difference between a consultant taking the lead in supervision of vendor installation, which requires much consultant on-site presence, compared with the client taking the lead, with the consultant reviewing progress periodically.

* Extent of documentation desired by client. More clients are properly recognizing the importance of documentation. They want it and will invest in it, knowing that it is time/money well spent in these days of considerable confusion. Other clients still do not, because they never learned the importance of documentation in the past when the phone company took care of them. Clients who today are not document-oriented hopefully will quickly learn to be; if not now, later, at their next job. Competent consultants want to write, or at least review, their clients' strategic plans, specs/RFPs, evaluations and contracts, but this takes time.

* The way the telecom project fits into the client's organization. A properly organized telecom project team will enable a consultant to be more efficient with his/her time. The skids are greased, as opposed to political walls being encountered constantly. A competent consultant normally prefers to see telecom and DP/MIS merged, and a project team set up with members from telecom, DP/MIS, automated office, purchasing, finance, facilities management, legal and several operating departments.

* Extent of vendor evaluation effort. Competent consultants seek to do a good job here, to include detailed comparison tables, visit to local users, visits to finalists vendors' plants and the like. This all takes time, compared to parading vendors in, a half day each, and making a gut-feel evaluation based heavily on the salesperson's personality.

* Allowance for unexpected areas opening up. Fixed prices are too often required in RFPs. This may have sometimes been acceptable in years past when POTS was prevalent and a mass-production sameness was common. But especially in today's fast-moving telecommunications world, competent consultants consistently identify areas of interest casually mentioned in the RFP that can open up into major time-consuming areas. Therein lies a major dilemma for the consultant. When in the proposal stage, should the consultant bring these ancticipated areas out in the open, and charge for them? I personally "no-bid" or make these "options," but I lost several jobs when the decision-makers wrongfully added options into the total cost. Or if these areas open up after contract award, should the consultant mention them and run the risk of the client saying, "My Statement 9 covers that, so I deny a change of scope."

Statement 9 likely was too general, the competent consultant likely "no-bid" and the incompetent but survival-oriented consultant awardee purposely ignores or does not recognize the new area of client opportunity--thereby penalizing the client. Fortunately for the client staff that wrote the RFP and improperly selected the consultant, but unfortunately for the client company, this penalizing will usually never be recognized. Thus, the short-sighted client has unwittingly encouraged the incompetent consultant.

To protect both themselves and clients, competent consultants prefer "best-estimate, with not-to-exceed" pricing. I personally immediately "no-bid" a fixed price RFP unless the scope of work is written in great detail. Clients Should Take the Risk

There are some telecom projects that are so wide open that a "not-to-exceed" limitation must give way to the "per-diem" pricing approach. Here it becomes near-mandatory that competent consultants be attracted and selected, because the clients must make themselves more vulnerable in order to achieve their open-ended goals. That is, if the client cannot reasonably bound the project scope, the client should be expected to take the risk, not the consultant.

* Who will make decision to hire consultant? The writer of the RFP sometimes is nerely on a "fishing" expedition for information and has no intention of awarding a contract. Some require a detailed scope of work in the consultant's proposal with the intention of using it to do the work in-house. Such machinations are unprofessional. Sometimes the higher-up decision-maker is unaware of a well-intentioned telecom manager's RFP solicitation, and will later squelch it, or else ignore the telecom manager's recommendation and go with low price, as if buying soap.

The seasoned, desirable consultant wants to deal with the working level (versus "jumping over"), but must be given assurance that the RFP is for real.

* Other Factors. The above are typical factors too often left out of today's requests for proposals (and less formal requests), which penalize the competent consultant as well as the client. I am sure other competent consultants can add a factor or two, based on their own experiences. I suggest the RFP writer come right out and ask each consultant being considered what factors are important to him/her. This can be done informally, before the consultant RFP is written, say during initial contact.

If a client must narrow a large number of consultants down to something more manageable, the consultants' answers to the above could help in the client's preliminary filtering.

Even if a client considers all the above factors, he/she and the competent consultant are not yet home free. There are other obstacles to overcome, some being out of the telecom manager's hands.

The competent telecom consultants will recognize that good project management, documentation, training and other items greatly increase the likehood of success for a project, and will include them in their proposals.

There are still companies out there who mistakenly treat all purchases alike. They place sophisticated telecommunications consulting services in the same category as consumable commodities like soap, paper clips, rubber bands and the like.

I have seen instances where the telecom manager does properly sort out the oranges and apples, correctly weigh each consultant's proposed scope of work and list consultants in best order of evaluation--and then have the non-participating decision-maker (purchasing department or president) ignore everything and go with lowest cost. This is why consultants (and equipment vendors) ask, "who will make the final decision?

The advantages to a user company's budget of a low-cost contract can be temporary. Later, after the award, the low-priced consultant often comes back for more money, claiming change in scope of work, saying, "I assumed you would do part of work," I don't normally document so much" and "you want a more sophisticated system than I bargained for."

This is not to say competent consultants will always be higher priced. They can sometimes come in with low bid by understanding the project better and by being more efficient.

Clients managing to successfully address the issues discussed here very likely will end up with several competent consultant candidates responding to their RFPs. This alone makes the effort worthwhile. There likely will be some less-competents and maybe one or two incompetents also.

The next phase is consultant evaluation. I choose not to cover this formally here because there are so many articles already written on the subject. My goal here is to complement these articles with information not previously openly discussed, partly because today's telecom scene is rather new and partly because the subject (and acknowledgment) of incompetent consultants was shied away from. When to Award "Plus" Points

My advice to users (with whom my greatest concern lies), then, is to meld several of these previously published articles together, and then overlay this new one. This article's main thrust is to attract competent consultants to clients, but its issues can be extrapolated to add new consultant evaluation/selection criteria. For example, looking back at the list of factors left out of RFPs give "plus" points to the consultants who encourage client participation, want to document, want the correct project team, want a solid vendor evaluation, recognize and openly show concern about new areas blossoming out and, in general, are willing to ask good questions that others tend not to, which demostrates a good feel for the implications of the new telecommunications scene.

Over the years I have analyzed each non-award, and saw the patterns evolving which are discussed in this article. I had the least success where RFPs were too generally worded, or where the client would write the RFP well but evaluate responses using different criteria than advertised. It turns out that awards came mainly from the competent clients--the ones who at least understood the necessity for all the steps I listed. Raw price was secondary to them; value was primary. Another grouping of awards came from clients I was able to inform concerning today's changing telecom scene, especially stressing today's compexity compared to yesterday's POTS. This I did through my magazine articles, seminars and lengthy one-on-one discussions.

The client must keep in mind the considerable expense to consultants of proposals. Truly independent consultants offer time only, and hence get paid for time only. They cannot afford to crank out proposals non-selectively. They do not later make money on equipment sales. This sets them apart from equipment vendors and the non-independent consultants who also sell equipment, which somehow gets selected later on.

What has been my response to these and other consultants' experiences? I realized I could not go on investing strong efforts on all RFPs that come around. I had to eliminate weak prospects, I also realized that a poorly written RFP often reflects the client's general competence to manage a project.

I have since developed and now use a "client pre-qualification" list of questions. The list addresses quality of RFP, desire to do job right, desire for a modern system, who makes the decision, evaluation criteria, location of telecom department in company hierarchy, project organization, client participation, requirement for fixed price and other issues. It has turned out that both parties benefit from this up-front, informal, back-and-forth discussion. Poor risks stand out, which I "no-bid." On the other hand, good risks stand out, which I pursue with even greater enthusiasm.

Because of the nature of this article, I had it reviewed by two competent telecommunications consultants whom I have worked with respect highly. See inset discussions by George Durar and Jane Laino.

How should users respond to issues discussed herein? First, clients should recognize there are good and not-so-good telecom consultants. Further, clients should realize they can attract the good ones while simultaneouly discouraging the not-so-good. Recognize that consultants are qualifying you as you qualify them. Both good and not-so-good consultants do this but for opposing reasons.

The secret to success for a user client is to write a good consultant RFP. Spend time and thought. Pay attention to factors discussed in this article.

Competent consultants typically do not cost any more per hour than the incompetent, and they can put out more and better work per hour. Further, they will save clients more dollars down the road by preventing expensive problems and by getting the best, most cost-effective system for you.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Morgan, J.
Publication:Communications News
Date:Apr 1, 1984
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