Unless you know how to build your own computers from scratch and write your own software, you’ll have to talk with IT vendors sooner or later. Librarians have a lot of leverage when it comes to building and managing these relationships, but we don’t always know how to exercise our power. Getting the best service and the best price takes some thought and planning.
Here, we break down the process of working with vendors and recommend a few good online resources for each step along the way. We’ve used fairly vague, general language (“project,” “purchase,” “purchasing decision”) because our advice applies to a wide variety of situations. You may be looking to buy a workstation, a printer, a suite of productivity software, an ILS system or an operating system. On the other hand, you might be in the market for a consultant or a contractor to build a database or a Web site.
Why Pay Attention to Vendor Selection and Vendor Management?
- You get good strategic advice. Sales representatives and account managers at computer companies can be great allies for your library. If they’re knowledgeable and they’re willing to devote some time to understanding your situation, they can provide excellent advice about how to spend your technology dollars.
- All the reasons outlined under Why Plan Carefully for Major Purchases.
- Buy off state contracts. As we describe in our Ten Steps to Successfully Working Vendors tool, state contracts can save you huge amounts of time and lots of money. If you have access to any other consortial or regional buying cooperatives, look into those as well. There’s strength in numbers.
- Look at NPower’s overview. If you’re looking for a single document that describes the whole process of vendor selection from start to finish, we recommend Selecting the Right Technology Vendor from NPower. Should you move forward with this project in the first place? If so, how do you research vendors? How do you write a Request for Proposals (RFP)? How do you evaluate the responses to your RFP? Even if you don’t issue a formal RFP, this guide has a great list of criteria you can use when comparing different technology vendors.
- Check out TechSoup. It offers a similar overview of the process in the form of an RFP timeline.
Stories from the Field
I am probably known to have as few vendors as possible to keep things simple. After you’re their customer for a little bit, you get free stuff. The place we buy most of our hardware and software from, we get free shipping, free installation of extra parts. I had to have 10 extra serial ports put in for some of the touch screens we use on some PCs we bought for this building, and they put them in for free. There was no installation charge. I’ve gotten like tons and tons of free stuff from the guy [who is] my main vendor. In terms of networking, some people will have the cable company for this part or different Internet providers; I hate that. I’ve gotten stuck in situations before where it’s a he said/she said kind of thing, where one company says ‘Oh, no, it’s their fault. Oh, no it’s their fault.’ I hate that, and then you’re stuck in the middle. I’m good, but I’m not so good that I know every single thing in the world, so at some point, you need a person [who] really, really knows and is really, really specialized, and they can say ‘No, this is the problem and we will fix it.’ It’s nice to have one person to call to do that. I find that when you have multiple vendors, sometimes it’s really, really hard for someone to say ‘Yes, we’ll fix it.’Michelle Foster
Boone County Library, KY