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A Match Made in Heaven: Fostering Culture Fit with a Technology Provider

If you’re in the market for new HR technology this year — whether it’s an ATS, workforce analytics platform, new LMS, or any other category of tech — you probably have a long list of current pain points and future requirements on your mind. You’re thinking about integrations, cost per seat, features, and implementation time. You’re comparing vendors’ pricing and contract terms.

But what about the culture fit of the relationship?

If you sign on the dotted line with a major vendor, you’re forming a long-term partnership that’s likely to last at least a few years. That relationship will consume your team’s time and energy, starting with implementation — the most challenging and stressful phase of most customer-provider relationships. If you agree to work with a vendor whose culture doesn’t mesh with yours, you could be setting your team up for headaches and frustration, not to mention missing out on promised ROI.

I’m not the only one thinking about culture fit between organizations. A prominent diagnostic measure of organizational culture, the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI), assesses culture based on four factors: internal focus versus external focus, and stability versus flexibility.

I’ve always believed that when it comes to choosing a provider, the relationship fit is at least as important as product features. I’m still fine-tuning my process as a business matchmaker, but here’s what I’ve learned about buying for fit.

Know Yourself First

Before you start vetting providers, make sure you understand your own internal culture. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What do we value? Are we a service-focused culture that rewards helping others, or do we measure success in terms of personal results?
  • How do we treat our customers? Are we a high-touch organization that delivers personal customer service, or does our product take priority?
  • How do we treat our providers? Do we see them as trusted partners? Vendors? A necessary evil?
  • How do we talk to each other? Are colleagues open and frank with each other in tough situations, or is it more likely that employees will dance around problems?
  • How do we feel about change? Do company leaders set an example by taking risks and looking for creative new ideas, or does the status quo reign supreme?
  • When do we work? Do employees burn the candle at both ends, working early in the morning and answering emails at night? Or do employees draw a firm line between work and life?

Ask Every Vendor Questions About Culture Before You Sign

When you’re talking to sales, you’re in the dating stage of your relationship. As you know, salespeople on the provider side are incentivized to get you to “to the altar.” The honeymoon stage, when you sign the contract, is short-lived, because you immediately jump into implementation — a time that we all know can be messy and stressful. Implementation is also the point when client-vendor relationships start breaking down if the match isn’t a good one.

Avoid jumping into a nasty provider relationship, and consider fit before you sign. Great salespeople are invaluable, but in some cases, you’ll never work with them again after the sale is finalized. So it’s usually up to you as the customer to ask the right questions about culture and fit and get to know the team you’ll be working with during implementation and beyond.

Include a cultural assessment as part of your selection assessment. Ask questions about the vendor’s internal culture and what it expects from customers. Insist on meeting and getting to know the implementation and ongoing support teams.

The best way to learn how a vendor treats its customers is to go to the source. Ask for references from the provider and from your peer groups. Have conversations with current customers, focusing on those whose cultures are most similar to yours. Ask why their relationship with the vendor has worked. Ask what’s missing and what they don’t like about the relationship. You can even try to talk to a couple of the provider’s “exes” — customers who have moved on — about what didn’t fit for them.

I’m always surprised at how many buyers don’t take the time to make calls to references. Talking to current customers might seem like an extra burden during a long assessment and procurement process, but it’s incredibly important. The lessons you can learn from references are gold, and will help you start your relationship with the provider with your eyes wide open to their strengths and weaknesses.

There’s no such thing as a perfect culture fit, but the best relationships start with open, honest discussions. Doing culture-fit research ahead of time will keep both you and the vendor out of the doghouse once the contract is signed.

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1 Comment

  1. Jennifer Wise on Feb 14, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    Chris, very interesting insight. I agree this is a critical component that is often overlooked and disappointment can do both ways. It is important for organizations to look at themselves, as you point out, and be honest about their style and expectations. Thanks for the fresh look!

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