Cleaning 03 large

13. Choose a reliable supplier

Choose a supplier who can handle a crisis

When your network is working well, the best supplier might seem to be the one offering the keenest prices, the swiftest delivery or the latest technology. Don't let the good times fool you, though: you may find that when problems arise, your supplier can't cope.

I've worked in the network industry for 13 years, so it's probably not surprising that I've seen several well-known names come and go. They've all either been swallowed up in large scale purchases – usually by larger manufacturers – or fallen by the wayside. Most of those that went out of business did so not for want of innovation or as a result of choosing the wrong technology direction. They failed because, either in their products or in their service, they didn't deliver that good, old-fashioned business essential: reliability.

Reliability is key

Back in the late 90s networks were moving from the then standard Thicknet to the new 'Fast Ethernet'. As is the case at the introduction of any new technology, for most network managers, slow but reliable was more far more desirable than quick but unreliable. There is, after all, no point in having the fastest car around if it's for ever breaking down.

Of course, no technology is ever one hundred percent reliable, but devices that fell over constantly or repeatedly needed patches or firmware upgrades were going to be unacceptably disruptive.

That was the case even ten years ago, when business was nothing like as reliant on communications technology as it is now. Today communications technology sits at the top of the business model tree, and it's likely to remain there until long after you and I have enjoyed our time here. If reliability in your network manufacturer and supplier was important ten years ago, then it's nothing short of vital today. I would rather have a Voice over IP system that reliably operates at 95% sound quality than one that delivers 100% quality most of the time but every so often fails completely. If I couldn’t get to my emails or take a phone call because this system or that was down it wouldn't be that long before you'd see me heading for the nearest travel agent out of sheer frustration. Like it or not, we are all dependent on reliable communications technology.

Swift solutions are vital

At the root of this is the simple fact that time is usually the most expensive commodity in any business. As soon as a network device fails, the clock starts ticking and the costs start building – costs relating not only directly to the failed network segment itself but also those relating to a host of other business areas whose normal operation is impacted by the failure. The knock-on effect is virtually unmeasurable.

The bottom line is that when a failure occurs, a solution needs to be designed and implemented as swiftly as possible. It's in such situations that network manufacturers and suppliers show their true colours.

The right manufacturer

It's all well and good having a network manufacturer show you their high speed, feature-rich goodies to tempt you into choosing their products. If they or their products don't have a track record of reliability, though, then specifying their products could well be storing up trouble for the future.

The nature and severity of that trouble will depend on exactly where in your network you install their products. Perhaps, in a non-critical area, such a risk may be worth taking in order to realise cost savings or some other benefit. Make sure you're clear on the risks before you take them, though. Plug the product name and keywords such as "faults", "problems" and "field notices" into your favourite search engine and see what comes up. The right supplier Identifying a good supplier or dealer is a much tougher job, so how do you go about it, if your current one isn't up to the job? Sadly, there are plenty of suppliers out there who take a rather short sighted view of their business, focusing purely on the bottom line. Happily, there are gems among the also-rans: suppliers who understand that the only way to build a business that's successful over the long term is to focus on outstanding customer service. The challenge, of course, is to find those gems.

It's very easy to accept second-best, claiming "Better the devil you know." The problem with that is that devils you know are still devils: if your supplier's service is mediocre when nothing's going wrong, there can little hope for a speedy and effective resolution when things do go awry. Of course, you can choose to wait until disaster strikes to find out how they'll perform, but that's certainly not a risk I'd like to take with my business.

Your network will fail

Benjamin Franklin famously said that there are two things of which we can be certain: death and taxes. In the Network world there is one more: at some point, your network will fall over. I've seen it happen many times, and it's always a time of mixed feelings for me. On the one hand, I'd much rather no one had to go through the stress of such a situation, but on the other, a crisis of this sort fires me up – I really get a buzz out of tracking the problem down and devising solutions that will get the customer back up and running, quickly and reliably.

In some walks of life there isn't always a solution to every problem. In the network world there always is – indeed there's almost always more than one. The tricky thing is finding the right solution for the situation at hand. It's that process of problem identification and resolution that really gives me a buzz. There may be a failed component for which there's no replacement available quickly enough, unexpected complications arising from a software upgrade or any of a hundred other possible causes for the failure. Whatever the problem, the right decisions need to be made fast.

A 'customer first' attitude

You need a supplier who can make those decisions quickly and effectively. That demands years of experience and a 'customer first' attitude. You'll get hints as to whether your current supplier has what it takes in the way they work with you from day to day. If it's apparent that you're just putting up with them, I'd strongly advise you not to do so for any longer than you absolutely must. That network disaster could strike at any time, and you want to be working with the best when it does.

Shop around. Read reviews. Ask your industry contacts for their recommendations and for feedback on specific suppliers.

See what's being said on the online forums.
You don't need to put all your eggs in one basket or commit yourself before you're sure of the right supplier to go with: you could bring in a new supplier alongside your current ones, to keep them on their toes, for example. But keep your eyes open and your ear to the ground: you might just meet the new networking love of your life and choose to move on.