Monday, November 29, 2010

So you want to sell me stuff?

I recently had a sales team ask me for a reference and after thinking about it, I agreed, but they had to include the entire reference. After reading it they could decide if they wanted to use it or not. It was a fair critique and I highlighted many of the benefits or working with their company. I also pointed out what I didn’t like.  I don’t think they used it.

I work with a lot of vendors. In an average week I will get 25 calls to my desk phone. I would guess 90% or more, I let go to voice mail. People who I work with a lot and that I want to talk to, have my cell number. For a small few, I’d recognize their phone number and pick it up. Of course the ones I work with a lot also know to email me since I’m in meetings most of the day.

I’ve got all my emails organized. People and vendors, I work with a lot have their own folder, other vendors have a generic bucket. In theory I would search my generic vendor folder when I need to purchase something that I don’t need that often, or that I didn’t need then, but do now. In practice though, I could delete that folder with no impact, except a reduction in my inbox. The question you, as my account team should be wondering is, “Am I in the generic bucket, and if so how do I get out of it?”

A few questions to ask yourself.

When was the last time you found something wrong on my bill?
I have vendors, in fact most of the telecom vendors I work with, who have never gotten a bill correct. I guess they should get points for being consistent, I mean even a stopped clock is right twice a day, always being wrong seems to defy the law of averages. So I have someone whose job it is to review the bills and to then open disputes for the errors. I would have expected once in the last few years for my account team to have glanced at my bill and called to say “Hey, we noticed an incorrect number on your bill and opened a dispute on your behalf”. How cool would that be?

When I say the bill is wrong, I mean very wrong. We may have a contracted rate of $2500 per month, and some months it‘s $7800, the next month it may be almost right. I don’t expect them to review my bill in detail every month. The bills, if I were to get paper ones, would come in a box and get wheeled to me on a two wheeler. If it suddenly doubles or more though in cost, let me know.  How hard would it be to flag an account if the bill varies by more than 50% from previous months? Offer to review it with me, anything to let me know you are not asleep at the wheel.

When was the last roadmap discussion?
Did you just release the best product of the year? Did I know it was coming? Heck did I just buy 3000 from your competitor because I had no idea you guys were working on one?

Could I tell you what all of your products are?
I’ve had vendors that I never would have called for something because I had no idea that they did it. For example, did you know AT&T is more than phones? Did you know Dell does professional services and can help you move a data center? Many vendors, especially the larger ones, do more than what you think. If you don’t know they probably won’t get your business right? Likewise if your customer doesn’t know you do something, you probably won’t get a call either.

Is it a single account team, or one per product? Do I even know who my account team is? I recently made some change on my team and we ended up meeting with all of our telecom vendors again. One rep showed up and introduced himself as our account rep. “I’ve been your account rep for two years. This is a nice building. It took me a while to find it since I’d never been here before”. Anyone see an issue with this? No one had ever met the guy, but he was our rep for two years?

Is the mode of communication correct? I’m pretty much an email guy. I hate talking on the phone. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s easier for me to type than talk. Who knows? I recently built out our data center and none of the contractors were email people. If I didn’t call them or meet them in person I never would have gotten anything done. I had to adapt my communication mode to match theirs.

New technologies such as IM, Twitter, and Facebook are also available. In some cases they are a better way to communicate. I regularly read a blog post that a local recruiter has. She updates it weekly-ish, and has, of course, job openings, but also comments on the economy, hot skills, interviewing tips etc. Though we have never met in person, I read her blog religiously and when I have an opening, or know a good employee I always refer to her.

Did you get my name right? Calling me Mitch when my name is Rich is bad enough when it is a cold call. If I’ve been working with you for 2 months, it’s inexcusable. Heck if Chilis can get it right when I’m spending 15 bucks on a meal, an account executive should get it right when I’m spending a few thousand or more.

When my last order shipped, did you follow up? Why any sales person would pass up a chance to talk to a customer I would never know, but most times when I order something, I never get a follow up.  Something simple like an email asking if I got the order and was it correct, will go a long ways to getting the next order, and moving from the generic vendor bucket to a trusted partner bucket.

When something went wrong, did you call to see if it got resolved? Did you even know I had an issue? Hey issues are a part of life. I’m OK with things going wrong. When things happen though, it is a time to shine if you are in sales. Call me up and check to see if it got fixed, how it got fixed and how it can be avoided in the future. The worst case is if you don’t even know I’m having an issue.

I’ve actually had my phones turned off and the sales team from the telcom provider, never even knew, until we dropped the contract with them. Where I work our sales team gets notified any time a customer opens a ticket. This is 2009, integrating sales and support systems isn’t anything new.

Can you tell me when my contract is up, or if my products are under maintenance?
What a great opportunity to come back in and talk to me? “Hey I noticed your maintenance is up. Can we get together to go over what you need for maintenance, and what new features are included in upcoming releases?” Talk about a great excuse to upsell.

Have I ever sent your boss an email telling you what a great job you did? Would I even know who that was?
I actually make a point to do this for a few account teams that I truly think are good. In the past year I sent two. One was a linkedin recommendation and a cc to her CEO, the other was an email directly to the team’s manager. One of my account teams actually puts in their signatures “My manager is XXXX, please contact him with feedback on how I am doing”.

Are we connected?
Sites like or plaxo are a great way to stay in touch. Use them.
Being connected though is more than sending me an invite on facebook or linkedin. Try to know something about me. For example, though this may be blasphemy to some, I hate golf. If you come in every time asking me to go play golf when the last four times I said “I hate golf”, I could get the impression you aren’t listening to me.

My hairdresser manages to keep track of things I like and don’t like and never misses a chance to ask if I’ve been skiing, or boating, depending on the season. Granted I see her every six weeks or so, but I’m also not spending half a million on a haircut either. If she can remember a good sales team can too.

Have I ever called for something not directly related to you?
If so that’s a good sign that I trust and want to work with you. If I call you and you brush me off, that’s not a way to help yourself. If you can’t help me, refer me to someone else and then follow up to see if I got what I needed.

I was once talking to one of our vendors that we buy monitors from and happened to ask if they also sold TV’s. It turned out they don’t, but she called me back later that day and told me Best Buy was having a sale on 50” LCD televisions. Did she need to? Of course not, but that is what a good partner does.

Do I know what value you bring over your competitors? For that matter, do you even know?
Many vendors come in and assume because they are the biggest in the space, I should just go with them? Huh? Seriously does anyone ever do that? If you can’t explain why your product, solutions and company is better than your competition, don’t bother signing in. You’ll just waste my time and yours.

If you left your company and went to a competitor, or different technology, would I call you?  Would I even know you left?
I’m starting to think sales is as much about relationship as technology. Since I stay in touch with the really good sales people I’ve met, I often times call them at their new company to see if they can help me again.

Did you ever recommend I use one of my competitors? Do you even know who my competitors are?
I once had a recruiter call me trying to get me to work with them. He went on to explain how they worked closely with my direct competitor and that he could get me all sorts of people experienced in their product and then went on to explain how great my competitor’s products were.

After about 30 seconds I interrupted. “Do you even know what my company does?” His reply was priceless “Well, no. I was going to research it but didn’t want to waste my time so I figured I’d call you instead”.  Interesting, he’s OK wasting my time, just not his.

If I need to hear bad news, I should hear it from my sales team.
I have two stories, the first one was horrible. I actually received a letter from a vendor terminating my contract. It came from their legal department and gave me 45 days to move my data center. Needless to say I was annoyed and called my sales rep. His comment “Oh yeah I was supposed to call you last week and let you know that was coming.”. No kidding.

Another sales rep called me to let me know that the maintenance price was going to go up significantly. He worked with us to review our options, including upgrading our older gear, switching to 8 X 5 support instead of 24 X 7 and even suggested other lower cost competitors. We ended up staying with them and going to the lower tier service to keep the costs in line with our budget. His ability to work with us definitely put him in the “trusted advisor” role.
Do you know how my business is doing?
If you call me with a great solution to quickly bring new sites on line, the day after we announce we are closing 30% of our offices, I’m probably not going to be interested and I could think you are an idiot. Not that I expect you to know every detail of my company but you should have a basic feel of how we are doing. Probably if you are listening to me, you already know.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tips to build and move a data center

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to move our data center twice in six months, or three times in two years and learned a few things. The last two times it was back to an in-house data center so we were responsible for the build out as well. This includes working with contractors to build the walls, the power company to upgrade the service, inspectors and of course the in house facilities group.

If you haven’t experienced the fun of loading your entire company’s infrastructure on a truck in February in New England and watched it drive away, hoping the roads aren’t icy, you may be able to learn from some of the headaches I’ve gotten.

Building the data center
  1.  By assuming the risk of time and materials, you can save a significant amount of money, however unless you truly have the time to manage the project closely a fixed bid price may be best.
  2. Used equipment can be a good way to reduce costs, however for large ticket items, a professional inspection and service check is a good insurance policy.
  3. If a vendor promised something three times and for whatever reasons had to back out, cancel and go somewhere else. You’re getting the run around.
  4.  Don’t forget inspectors. If you are doing anything that requires an inspector to sign off, make sure to include them at the beginning of the project. It’s much easier to change the design on paper than when it is all built.
  5. Make sure you have time to test and resolve power and cooling issues, preferably not the same weekend you are moving.
  6. The last week is the worst. Everyone will be stressed out, trying to hit their deadlines. Part of the job is keeping everyone from getting on each other’s nerves.
  7. Don’t get oversold on “green”.  Super energy efficient is great, but not always worth the extra money. We had planned to design our data center retrofit to leverage a very efficient cooling layout, but to do so would have cost $150,000 in demolition and ductwork. The ROI just didn’t make sense.
  8. Meet often, but with the right people. We spent close to $5,000 because of people interrupting the  HVAC mechanics to ask when the cooling would be ready.  One person needs to be the point person and everyone goes to them. Otherwise you get rumors, distraction and all sorts of technical and political issues.
  9. Construction is disruptive. To avoid upsetting one group, make sure you annoy everyone equally.
  10. Plan for other damages and issues to crop up.  Something as simple as carrying piping materials can cause damage to the walls. It’s real easy to damage sheetrock walls with a 10’ long metal pipe. Expect to spend some money to fix these later, or make sure it is in the contract that the vendor will do it.
  11. Always get at least three bids. Unless it is so small it will cost more in internal labor to go through the bidding process, take the time. The easiest way to save money is to negotiate for it and the best time for that is before you assign the work. Plus different vendors may suggest ways to cut costs. If so suggest them to the other vendors to see if it makes sense.
  12.  If possible ask your vendors for the parts lists and comparison shop. Many times they work with a favorite supply house that may not always get the best price, especially if they just mark up the price and pass it along. By comparison shopping you show you are involved in the project, plus shows you are very serious about saving money. Typically contractors will mark up the materials 10% so if you find a better price and ask them to order it, expect a slight increase. 

Moving the data center
1.       Plan every detail of the move. When we plan we have it down to the minute on who is going to work on which cabinet, when each server will be shutdown, when it will be unracked, moved, racked, cabled, powered up etc. Be prepared though to throw the plan out. Things never go according to plan, so don’t get hung up when things slip. By having gone through the planning process you will be so familiar with what needs to happen you will be able to make good “heat of the moment” decisions.
2.       Make sure you order food. Not everyone likes the same thing, so make sure you get your order in, otherwise you could get stuck with nothing but cheese or Hawaiian pizza. No offense to the three people who actually prefer these foods, but seriously pineapple on pizza?
3.       Only have one copy of the documentation. If everyone has a different copy of the documentation, throw all of it out and go without it. You won’t be any worse off and at least then you can blame it on lack of documentation.
4.       Make sure the documentation isn’t on a server that is being moved. Trust me, if it’s on the server you are moving, it won’t do any good.
5.       Communicate outages clearly and often. One of the worst things that can happen is for one of the VP’s to call 10 minutes after the truck left claiming they didn’t know about it and need to ship a ten million dollar order.
6.       Plan for people downtime. I’ve heard the whole “Sleep is for the weak” argument, but at some point you cause more damage than you do work. Taking a break and getting some sleep will make you more effective.
7.       Double check the tools and other supplies (moving carts, paper, pencil, tape etc) are available. Typically when data centers are moving, no one else is around and all the stores are closed. Getting  a roll of tape Tuesday afternoon is easy, at 3:00AM on Saturday in the middle of nowhere is not.
8.       Go over the process ahead of time. A walkthrough the day before and again an hour before will make sure people don’t get confused and start putting servers back where they came from.
9.       Servers take 5 minutes to rack, and 5 minutes per cable with two people. Really. I questioned the time once and the team had me do a cabinet (pre move of course). It really does take that long. Also that is 5 minutes per cable. If you have a server with 8 Ethernet ports, 2 power supplies and an out of band management port it will really take an hour. Any less and it will look awful.
10.   When planning the schedule ensure that people aren’t all working on the same cabinet at the same time. It won’t work.
11.   Make sure everyone understands the port numbering. If the switches go 1-24 on the top row and some people think it is odd on the top and even on the bottom. You will have problems.
12.   Verify the documentation before you move. It’s much easier to write down which cable goes to which port when it is still plugged in, than it is to remember where it came from. Have it done once, then have someone else double check it. It really is that important.
13.   People environment. Servers don’t mind the noise and like 65 degree air, people not so much. If you can turn the temp up and the noise down.
14.   Separate application test teams. By the end of the weekend you will be tired and can get sloppy. If possible have a separate team to test the environment
15.   Startup order is important. If you try to bring up servers before the domain, or some applications before the database servers, you can cause issues. If there is an order, make sure the people racking and cabling the servers leave them off until they are ready to come up.
16.   Record issues and lessons learned. Keep track of every problem you run into and what you did to resolve it. This does two things, it reminds everyone how many hurdles the team overcame, and it helps down the road when you see the same problem.
17.   Setup a conference call and make sure everyone can dial in with cell phones, and mutes them (unless they are talking of course) to help troubleshoot issues.
18.   Always have a plan B. If the elevator breaks can you really carry the servers up the stairs?
19.   If you have redundancy or a DR site, use it, but only if it makes sense to. In our case we didn’t have a hot site, but if you do and it is truly redundant use it and move during the week. It will make the move less stressful and test your DR.
20.   Sometimes things just break. If you have something that is broken, don’t automatically assume it is move related. It probably is, but don’t assume it.
21.   If you can, reboot all the servers before the move. This helps find startup issues like patches that were downloaded but not installed.
22.   Have a priority list. You may run out of time, so make sure you know what applications and servers need to be up.
23.   All the teams are team members. Many times other departments, contractors or subcontractors will help. Treat them as if they were your own employees. The success of your project depends on them too.
24.   Celebrate after. Moving a data center is a huge undertaking. Take the time to recognize the team for a great job. You never know when you will have to do it again.

The last tip I’ve learned. If you are the manager for the project or team, be on site and involved in the move, not in the way, and don’t try to help, but get coffee, food, snacks, coil up the old cables, sweep the floor,  etc.

Let’s be honest, you probably aren’t that much help, but having you there emphasize how important the project is. Besides if it goes really bad at least you know you can sleep in late on Monday. I mean you’re probably going to get fired anyway, might as well be rested.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Contract clauses

A few posts ago I mentioned some clauses we add to our contracts to frankly make life easier. I mentioned one of them and agreed to post a few more.

If the sales team changes you have 90 days to decide if you want to stay

When it comes to contracts and vendors, the most important thing is the relationship. If it’s really that important, and I believe it is, why not emphasize that by putting language in the contract to give you a way out if you get a sales team that is below expectations.

 A good sales team is worth their weight in gold, even with the crazy high gold prices we have now. With a bad team, you are fighting a losing battle for any issue. You need someone at the vendor on your side and the people making commission off of you are the ones to be there for you.

We recently had a disagreement with a telecom vendor on a fraud charge. Our sales team went to bat for us and got the charge credited back. Arguably we never should have even seen the charge, and I have to wonder if I will have to fight every time, but without them getting the right people engaged I would have been stuck with the charges.

Billing needs to be correct or the vendor has penalties

If I underpay or miss an invoice I get hit with interest penalties, shouldn’t the same be true if the vendor overcharges me and had to credit me later? Maybe a little pressure on vendors to get their billing systems working properly will reduce all of our costs.

In the 10 years I have been working with telecom companies, I don’t think I’ve gotten more than a handful of bills that have been correct. Even worse is when you finally, after months of time, resolve an issue, it frequently magically re-appears.

I think billing needs to be correct out of the gate. In fact I think if billing mistakes keep showing up, the penalties should increase. Start at 1% and add a percent to the bill each month it is wrong. If you have a good sales team, they will start reviewing your bill for you, and a really good sales team will then find ways to reduce your costs even more in hopes that you will give them more business.


Chance to renegotiate pricing if market prices decrease

Telecom and networking changes fast; the technology changes and pricing drops every day. To protect yourself and your company, any multi-year contract should be able to be adjusted to cover market pricing drops and new technology.
I inherited a contract with a large telecom company right about the time that VPN started taking off. The performance was better and the costs were much better and it just made sense to change our frame relay links over to this. Unfortunately our contract didn’t allow us to do that and we ended up having to wait to take advantage of this change. We had planned to upgrade the bandwidth of our links, so the monthly recurring charge to the vendor would have been the same. We ended up switching vendors when the contract was up. A vendor with no flexibility isn’t one I want to do business with.


With the current economy many companies are merging or getting acquired. It’s important to have language in any contract that allows it to be transferred.
If you think there is a chance a competitor will buy the vendor you are working with, add a clause that lets you transfer out of that as well.

Business downturn

As companies enter and exit markets, ensure that your contracts allow this to happen. For example if you close an office in Brazil, make sure you can cancel the circuits without getting penalized for this. If you simply don’t like the vendor and want to change vendors, this won’t apply.

Terminate for convenience

It’s hard to tell what is going to happen in the future, so put in a termination for convenience clause. These usually include a pretty hefty termination fee along with them, but if you just need to get out of the contract for whatever reason, these are invaluable.
Often times these will not be a lot cheaper than paying the contract’s monthly fee, but even a 50% penalty is better than being stuck with a contract that you just can’t use.