In the first article of this new technology series, we discussed the challenges inherent in undertaking a clinical technology purchase and getting the selection process underway. In this article Larry Florin, president of LBF Biopharma Consulting, finishes discussing the finer points of the product selection process leading to the product implementation phase of the project.
The Proposal Defense Meeting
For any type of substantial product purchase, you cannot underestimate the importance of conducting face-to-face (or teleconference) proposal defense meetings. When setting up the meeting, it is important to set the agenda. This helps to avoid being confronted with a generic and scripted presentation. Florin recommends focusing on product demonstrations that address key requirements.
“Confirm the attendees and identify those participating in person versus via video teleconference or by phone,” he says. “Request that key personnel be present, particularly the project director/manager and the two or three key lieutenants, as they will be your primary contacts throughout the implementation process. You should also prepare a list of questions that can be shared with the vendor in advance of the meeting, including any sections of the proposal that require clarification. Finally, you can gain considerable insights by breaking up the meeting into several smaller groups to permit discussions between key personnel and relevant business and technical people. These breakout sessions can unmask inconsistencies and expose issues that may be glossed over in the group setting when more polished individuals make presentations and respond to questions. This can be achieved by asking similar questions and verifying the responses are not contradictory.”
Before the meetings begin, remind your team to listen actively and be wary of a few ‘tells’ that might indicate the product may not be well suited for your organization. When individuals introduce themselves, try to determine if they have prior ‘real’ business experience. This is also a good time to assess whether they possess the expertise necessary to engage stakeholders and subject matter experts, by asking a range of meaningful questions about the product. Examples include: How many successful product implementations has the project director led or supported? What does the project leader find to be the most challenging issues that often arise during an implementation? What can be done to avoid or at least mitigate these complications? What are the most common value measures the product affects?
“When you pose a question, focus on the response,” states Florin. “If you do not hear a simple and direct answer, or if someone repeatedly jumps in to answer questions posed to a colleague, your ‘double-talk’ warning system should be ringing. You may have uncovered a weakness in the system or a specific feature/functionality that doesn’t quite meet the specified requirements. It may also mean the person being asked the question exaggerated their expertise and experience.”
Spot The Fake SMEs
Unfortunately, there’s a chance you may encounter individuals who sell themselves as SMEs but aren’t. Florin warns to be careful of these individuals. They will throw out terms that make themselves seem knowledgeable, but they may only know enough to be dangerous. Conversely, you should also be wary of persons who confidently acknowledge their product’s shortcomings but equally confidently insist that any deficiencies will be addressed in future product update releases. Oftentimes they will become a bit fuzzy around the specifics of release dates and the functionality promised. On the other hand, Florin notes it is perfectly acceptable, and oftentimes refreshing, to meet someone who purports to be a SME but occasionally admits they do not know an answer. If that happens, ask that they follow-up with you in a specified period of time.
Still, he cautions that you always must be careful when evaluating a product’s roadmap. He believes that is an important component of the selection decision. While it is unlikely that any single product will satisfy all your wants and requirements, one way to boost your confidence in a vendor’s roadmap is to ask for a summary of all targeted, delivered, postponed, and/or modified roadmap items for the prior 18- to 24-month period. You should be wary if the salesperson cannot or refuses to provide that information. And, you can corroborate both the historical and future roadmap information when you conduct reference checks.
“If promised roadmap delivery is key to making the product selection, consider adding some form of penalty clause to the contract if promised releases are late or fail to deliver the promised features or functionalities,” advises Florin. “Not every vendor will agree to these terms, but by proposing it you may help your team avoid choosing a product that will disappoint in the future.”
Assess Your Implementation Team
If your team likes the product and is confident in its roadmap, you then need to assess the caliber of the implementation team. This is another overlooked but critical step in the selection process. During the proposal defense meeting and breakout sessions, assess the individuals’ experience and expertise. Try to get a feel for how these individuals will fit in with your larger organization. High performing individuals will share their experience and often provide information that may not be raised in a larger group setting. Sometimes these individuals will ask their own questions. By engaging them in discussion, you are bound to learn more about the product and their skillset. Building trust with the product team starts during the proposal defense meeting and will enhance your confidence in the technology.
Finally, remember the three straightforward questions, “You should always make certain the product can meet the value propositions that drove the market assessment product selection process,” says Florin. “Have the vendor provide case studies. If real data are not available, the value elements must be confirmed with real-world feedback from references.”
Immediately after each face-to-face meeting, schedule a debrief to review what was discussed. Pay attention to what was gleaned from the breakout meetings and compare answers, review new and/or updated information, and have the team make their final product assessments. Failing to conduct the debrief promptly can affect the team’s recall and muddle their assessments. It is also helpful to speak with references soon after the debrief to obtain input, ask questions, and better understand the challenges encountered and benefits accrued. This additional ‘hands on’ feedback, including confirmation of the roadmap and value propositions, is invaluable and may tip the scales for the selected product.
Florin acknowledges that it can sometimes be difficult to obtain references. Some organizations will prohibit or limit the sharing of this information externally. This is both unfortunate and a stumbling block in the industry. Nonetheless, make every effort to find ways to obtain the information, including reaching out to individuals that may no longer be with the organization or those who have used the product. Be careful to not breach confidentiality agreements.
Assemble Your Selection Team
After the proposal defense meetings and reference checks are completed, it is time to assemble the selection team. The team will review the assessments, evaluate any new information obtained, generate a final set of clarifying questions, and select the product. The selection team’s recommendation should be shared with senior management for endorsement. When that step is complete, the vendors can be notified of your decision.
“The selection decision initiates formal pricing and contract negotiations with the awardee,” says Florin. “Technology contract negotiations can sometimes be arduous. If the second-place vendor scored well, it may make sense, from a risk standpoint, to also negotiate with them in case you reach a contractual impasse with the selected vendor.”
Contract execution starts the implementation phase of the project. Everything that has been done to this point is forgotten as the product implementation team now will be interacting with the business and technical stakeholders. This is also where the naysayers begin to reappear. The day-to-day project management of the implementation phase will be a large determinant if the project is deemed a success. Remember, the product must deliver value and provide a satisfactory end-user experience. As Steve Jobs noted, You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology…” The product implementation phase will be discussed in the 3rd part of this series.