Custom software development projects can be challenging. They tend to take on a life of their own with unique struggles and triumphs throughout the delivery cycle. Let’s be clear that just because a project runs into difficulties, it does not automatically suggest that the software development vendor is not up to the task, nor does it mean the project is doomed to fail. On the other hand, just because a project seems to be prodding along quietly, it does not imply the vendor is superb or the project is guaranteed to be successful.
As in a relationship, one does not typically bail after the first disagreement, nor does one stay just because there are no disagreements.
Therefore, we are not advocating the dismissal of your custom software vendor at the first sign of your project running into a rough patch. At the same time, you don’t want to wait until it is painfully and irrevocably obvious before you replace the vendor. Here are some subtle signs that could steer you clear of an undesirable vendor.
Sign #1: You Don’t Fit into Their Ideal Customer Profile
Every company has an ideal customer profile, explicitly defined or otherwise. It outlines the type of clients they prefer to work with over a host of compatibility factors such as industry vertical, values, project execution tempo, etc. When a development vendor takes on a less-than-ideal client, they could be “settling”, usually for the money and to keep their resources engaged while they search for clients with a better fit.
A mismatch could also foreshadow incompatibility in operating philosophy, communication, conflict resolution and more. When you are not a good match with a vendor’s ideal customer profile, you may be assigned second tier resources, or you may receive less attention and account investment from the vendor. The vendor is also less likely to stand by you if they have to choose between you and their ideal client.
Sign #2: They Avoid Uncomfortable Conversations
Uncomfortable conversations come in many shapes and sizes. They could be about critical topics such as design issues or “mundane” ones like delays and budget overruns.
What separates true consultants from mere “order takers” is the vendor’s willingness to interject with their expert opinion at the right time for the greater good of the project. Many less vested vendors often stand by and watch their project go off the cliff just to avoid confronting their client’s design or operational missteps. It takes deliberate effort, experience, and professionalism (and often courage) to contradict the client and steer them from certain disaster.
If the vendor is unable to deliver bad news, accept constructive criticism, own up to their blunders or point out your mistakes, then they cannot be relied on to do what is best for your company. A trusted partner should always speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable or unpopular to do so.
Sign #3: They Cannot Explain How They Are Spending Their Time (and, therefore, your money)
In the relationship with your vendor, absence does not make the heart grow fonder. Long silences and lack of progress reports not only erode confidence and trust, but they also make it impossible to apply early corrections when the project starts to go off course.
Question of accountability notwithstanding, this could also be an indication of a lack of rigour and precision in their project management methodology. As a client you should always be furnished with up-to-date project and sprint plans, and you should be able to check the vendor’s progress against them easily and independently.
You should also be kept abreast of the project’s performance metrics by your vendor, from development velocity, cost per story point and budget burn rate. Transparency is key to project success and relationship longevity.
Sign #4: They Do Not Improve Over Time
The accuracy of the vendor’s time and cost estimates should improve over time, especially on a larger project. The start of a project is always the most difficult time due to the abundance of unknowns and the need to build momentum. A desirable vendor should be adept at providing accurate estimates right from the start, and the fidelity of these estimates should improve from sprint to sprint as requirements are refined and unknowns are removed.
If your vendor is not delivering better value over time as they get to know you and your requirements, it could be a sign that they lack the necessary metrics, project delivery discipline, the right resources, or the commitment to your company’s success.
Sign #5: They Are Not Investing in a Long-Term Relationship with You
A vendor seeking a long-term relationship with you proactively listens and learns about your company. They should seek to understand your business objectives in order to anticipate your needs and provide better value to you over time. It is an investment of time and resources that is crucial to the success of the projects and relationship. Empathy is critical to designing solutions that truly meet the unique requirements of all your stakeholders.
If you find your vendor churning out generic applications with retread features that fall short of meeting your needs, it could be a sign of lack of commitment on their part. Your custom apps should fit your business like a glove; you should not have to contort your business to fit your apps. Your vendor should manage to the relationship and your success, not just to the contract.
You deserve a vendor that brings their energy, efforts, and insight to every task without exception everyday. You are best served when your vendor is vested in your success, operates as a true advisor and works to overcome your challenges as if they were their own. Don’t settle for mediocrity and familiarity. There is a vendor out there that always speaks the truth, listens to you, acts on your best interest, delivers on its commitments transparently, and is keen on developing a long-term relationship with a client just like you.