As a vendor, (i)Structure is gaining some real momentum in the information technology field. Lots of companies are starting to put faith, and more importantly contracts with the business, a subsidiary of Level 3 Communications. Its services are being used by the Bradford Exchange, Vlassic Foods Int. and most recently Corporate Express Inc., a world office supplier with 400 facilities and 15,000 employees.
This track record doesn't come as much of a surprise to Dave Martin, CIO of Farm Credit Services of America, of Omaha, Neb. The IT function of (i)Structure is a crucial ingredient for FCSAmerica and its network of 59 retail offices in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming. The company has been with (i)Structure since 1996 and has been providing data processing . After the initial contract, the outsourcer started to offer Internet presence and service to FCSAmerica. "(i)Structure has been very proactive and included me as part of a partnership," Martin said.
Changing vendors, mission
FCSAmerica isn't a stranger to the services provided by an IT process. Since 1992, the company had a vendor for its computer work. The company's information needs are great as FCSAmerica provides credit and financial needs of farmers and ranchers in the four-state area. It's a part of the Farm Credit System, an 80-year-old, $70 billion lending institution. The initial foray into the vending world was not totally pleasant for FCSAmerica.
"We needed something that was a bit more cost effective and provided better customer service," said Ann Finkner, FCSAmerica vice president. More than four years ago, (i)Structure, then known as PKS Information Services, Inc., put forth a contract proposal. The technical expertise offered in both Denver and, more importantly, in Omaha with FCSAmerica was enough to entice a contract signature. "I liked their service philosophy. They put the customer first and don't take a cookie cutter approach to it."
With the contract in place, Martin came aboard from Farm Credit Services of Mid-America in Louisville, Ken. in January 1998. His mission was to enhance the technology capabilities of the Omaha operation, to better serve the FCSAmerica members in the field. He's seen (i)Structure stub their toe, as he puts it, but the company's response has been immediate and has left a lasting impression. "They told me, 'It really doesn't matter what we think, it's what you think and what we can do to make it right,'" Martin recalled. "That just blew me away," he said. Contrast that with a telecommunications vendor Martin encountered. While doing work in Omaha, a backhoe operator hit a power line and effectively left FCSAmerica without communications for eight hours. No communication, meant no business and no customer contact. It was Martin's understanding there was supposed to be a backup plan with the lost contact. Trying to contact the vendor was no simple task either as he made call after call. "Meanwhile we'll be having to pay a bunch of people to work, who aren't able to work."
Martin suspects (i)Structure had to invest significant money on a hardware upgrade to fix one problem. Yet the company was still happy to serve, he said. Helping to serve FCSAmerica is account representative, Mike Marshall, whose job is to make sure FCSAmerica is getting the kind of IT help and ideas it needs to succeed. "We have a problem discipline solution set up to deal with any concerns," Marshall said. "Problems aren't the focus of our operation. We're there to provide service and solutions."
Becoming profitable partners
The benefits for FCSAmerica are noticeable. Officials say the bottom line has increased with implementation of improved technology. (i)Structure is looking for other ways to improve e-business functions and allow FCSAmerica and other clients to reach out and touch customers any time of the day. So far that relationship has worked out well, with the best mainframes boosting computer speed, Martin said. That web capability provides an interactive relationship with its 42,000 stockholders and customers. It gives them an opportunity to take advantage of competitive interest rates and unlimited amounts of capital to the agricultural sector. Omaha officials now believe its data warehouse can offer some of the most sophisticated portfolio management capabilities in the Farm Credit System.
Marshall, as a representative of (i)Structure, conducts monthly operational and strategic meetings with his client. Monthly reports on service are on Martin or Finkner's desk for evaluation. "Having them right here in Omaha is a real help," said Finkner. "They're there to understand our needs," she said. "They offer quality expertise." That is after all (i)Structure's overall mission, which calls for a vendor to focus on the fundamentals, internal mechanisms and operational standards to attract, win and retain clients.
To make other relationships succeed like this, both sides need to do the homework before the agreement, Martin said. "I would ask for references and would ask those people how the vendor responded when they made mistakes," Martin said. Finkner concurs somewhat. "It's absolutely necessary to know what you want and your needs and requirements."
Lessons From the Outsourcing Primer:
- How an outsourcer deals with a problem can speak volumes on its overall qualifications and abilities.
- If a vending contract isn't working out, look at the reasons why and know exactly what's needed when bidding time rolls around again.