Project Resources

July 28, 2009

In previous posts, we have talked about the importance of good project scheduling. Once the work breakdown is completed, you can construct a project schedule to complete the specified tasks and eventually the project. But, you should also assess and track your resource availability to meet the project schedule.

Ressource Availability

Just as important as managing the schedule is managing the resources. First of all, do you have a resource that is capable of doing the required work? When you are a smaller organization may be tribal knowledge, but as you grow you should develop a skill matrix to keep better track of your resources and their capabilities.

Even if you have a capable resource, how do you ensure that resource will be available when needed? What if someone decide to go on vacation? What if another project is delayed and creates a conflict for a key resource. Your project scheduling system should anticipate these issues and send proper notifications.

Don’t just think about people, but equipment and facilities. There may even be dependencies with these resources. Again, it becomes more complicated as you grow, so start tracking now.

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Project Communications

July 21, 2009

As much as 80% of project problems are due to a lack of proper communications between the client and the integrator, according to the results of a recent survey in which the 1800+ system integrators listed in Control Engineering‘s Automation Integrator Guide were asked to share their top tips for ensuring the success of an automation project.  For more information about the survey, see How Communications Help Integration Projects Succeed.

Communications Plan

CommunicationsSo consider creating a communication plan for each project. Who are the primary stakeholders of the project? What information do you need to provide on a regular basis? For instance, you must document and communicate those things that will impact the schedule or the client’s overall satisfaction. Your plan should include how often information is to be communicated and the preferred vehicle for that communication.

Communications Template

Speaking of customer communications, you should consider creating standards and a template for all communications. At a minimum, it should include the project ID, but may also require a confidentiality clause. And, remember any customer interaction is an opportunity to build your services brand. So, a well-designed template will not only improve your professional image with your clients, but also serve as a gentle reminder to your staff that they are always representing your company when communicating with your customer.


Project Planning – Set Up

July 13, 2009

Project Infrastructure

A few housekeeping items before starting a project.

Project DirectoryDo you create project IDs? It should be unique and never used again, to minimize confusion over projects. Some integrators create the project ID during the pre-sales process to provide a complete picture on total project expenses.

You should also have a consistent method for creating project binders and/or directories. Define what must be included, such as the proposal, specifications, code, diagrams, correspondences, change orders, …. In many cases, integrators will have an administration process to create the binder and directories. This process is also used to check-in/check-out project binders to eliminate the chance that project information is lost.

Project Kick-off

Take the time to define a standard process for kicking off a project. At a minimum, there should be a formal meeting transferring the opportunity from sales to engineering as a projects. There should be a standard agenda and the list of things that must be accomplished to kick-off the project.

The primary purpose of the meeting should be to reaffirm the scope and the requirements. At this point, you should be focusing on requirements for acceptance rather than the specific methods of implementation.

If at all possible, you should involve the customer in the kick-off meeting. What role and how much involvement do they want in the project? Clarify how much and how often would like updates and information on the project. It is also a good opportunity to review and agree to various milestones for the project. Explain the methods for testing and validating the system according to the requirements. And, establish your change management process – to avoid confusion and misunderstanding later on.

Finally, there should be an official commissioning of the project. Has the work been contractually authorized? Has an invoice been generated for the initial payment? I even know of one manager who generates a Commissioning Notice, to formally recognized the commencement of the project, the project leader, …. Maybe too much formality, but a nice touch?


Alliance Strategies – Conclusions

July 8, 2009

As we have discussed, different business models require different marketing and sales techniques. Tools-oriented businesses require mass marketing that leads to sales while services- and system-level businesses rely on more focused and proactive selling supported by marketing.

For most Alliance Partners, this means you should actually narrow your business development efforts, so you can better focus your sales and marketing efforts. It often seems counter-intuitive to limit your opportunities, but focusing can create more efficiency and success. Here is a hint – if you cannot define your market share, how can you expect to grow it?

Based on your specific business model, your engagement with NI can be quite different. Service-oriented businesses, especially generalists, rely almost exclusively on their relationship with our field sales organization rather than corporate marketing. On the other hand, tools-level product partners engage mostly in co-marketing activities. Ultimately, you are responsible for your marketing and sales effort, but NI will always do its best to help!


Alliance Strategies – Part 5 – Systems

July 6, 2009

Products – Systems

Some Alliance Partners produce solutions into standard systems. Note that NI still classifies these companies as “Solution Partners,” because they channel NI products, rather than “Product Partners” that co-market a complementary tool. The concept of turning repeat projects into standard products is definitely a good one, but you should avoid the temptation of creating generic systems. Saying that your system “Will Test Anything” is not credible or compelling to the user. Instead, consider marketing a series of specific systems. The series may rely on a common architecture, but the individual models are more compelling and actionable.

As opposed to a tools-level business that relies on mass marketing to generate numerous sales leads, a system-level business requires more market research to proactively target customers, rather than waiting for customers to contact you. Advertising and sending direct mail to large databases is often inefficient. It is quicker to simply identify your potential customers and contact them directly. Here is a hint – do not solely use the Web and search engines to market yourself, but rather, use them to proactively identify customers.

Also different than the tools-level business, the sales process is not typically transactional but rather a complex, long sales process. It is actually more similar to a services business. However, pricing strategy is quite different. Often, a services business builds a project on a time- and material-basis, but systems should be priced according to customer value and what the market can bear. Because specific customer requirements often differ, you may want quote standard system plus customization. Many skilled system suppliers often leverage the sales opportunity by offering a subscription component for ongoing maintenance and support.

Working with NI

As previously mentioned, the NI business model is optimized for mass marketing and selling tools. Therefore, while we both sell products, our processes may be completely different. It may be tempting to market to the NI database, but for the most part, our database is full of “do-it-yourself” engineers. That is not to say that NI is not interested in marketing, but we recognize our emphasis is typically about how your system is a great use of our tools, rather than solution-level marketing to end users. Still, any publicity is good publicity, so you should certainly pursue how NI marketing campaigns and activities can highlight your system. For example, NI seeks solution-level collateral for its Web site, vertical events, and the Alliance Partner news section of Instrumentation Newsletter.

Similarly, the field sales organization is primarily tasked with tools-level selling. Don’t expect an NI DSM to sell (or even know about) your system. However, please use DSMs as a resource, not as a sales channel. Rather than wait for them to call you, proactively contact DSMs regarding your target accounts. They can tell you if NI has already made end-roads into the account. You can offer to bring them along on your sales visits. They should likely be interested and can provide you with credibility and local backing.

In some instances, NI may have a business development manager dedicated to your industry area. If so, they can assist you in your marketing and sales efforts and act as a liaison for working with the NI sales and marketing organizations.


Alliance Strategies – Part 4 – Products

July 1, 2009

Products – Tools

The Alliance Partner program also includes “Product Partner” companies that offer tools-level products complementary to those from National Instruments, such as cameras, motors, stages, sensors, and more.

In addition, Alliance Partners package their expertise into National Instruments LabVIEW add-ons and toolkits. Often, the most successful Alliance Partners tend to be more vertical with significant value added, not generic routines. Besides, if your product is truly general purpose, NI is probably developing a similar product already. Before developing such a product, you may want to consider whether it is really something you want to produce or keep as a competitive advantage. Often, a toolkit can become a calling card to sell your services.

Another consideration is whether you are actually prepared for the product business model. Becoming a tools supplier requires a different approach to R&D, marketing, sales, and support. Selling tools requires mass marketing techniques. You need data sheets, demos, a Web presence, and more. Selling tools also requires a short sales cycle, so you need to invest in Web and tele-sales. Be sure to price your tools to include marketing and support costs.

Working with NI

The good news is that NI sells and markets at the tools-level, so it is easier to integrate and leverage our business development efforts. You can start with marketing your tool on ni.com. Your Alliance Partner profile should include your product description. If it is an NI LabVIEW add-on, it automatically shows up in the LabVIEW Tools Network. Third-party advisors, such as Motion Advisor and Camera Advisor, also may be applicable.

Product partners also can take advantage of marketing at NI events. For example, you can exhibit at NIWeek, NI Technical Symposium (NITS), and NIDays to interface with NI customers looking for the latest tools from NI and its partners.

For specialty tools, contact the product marketing manager whose product closely aligns with yours to discuss co-marketing plans. Recognize that the product marketing manager’s primary goal is generating leads for his or her products, so co-marketing should be a win-win situation. For example, use a direct mail campaign or Webinar that cross-markets to both your database and an NI database.

While it is tempting to think that the worldwide NI sales organization can become your virtual sales force, it is probably too much to expect sales to remember your product. NI district sales managers (DSMs) are busy trying to keep up with NI product releases. Rather than sending the DSMs your literature, make sure you are listed on ni.com. This way, the NI sales organization can find you too. You also can talk to your respective product marketing manager to learn how you can participate in his or her sales training and information as a way to get the attention of the NI sales force.