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IT | John Tate | 30 Sep 2011

Down on his allotment, John Tate learns about business relationships.

Each month I receive hundreds of articles to read on technology – many via the internet – so I am aware that I am competing for your attention. To try and lure you into reading my blog this month I have devised a new strategy. First, I’ll cover something personal that could just possibly interest you and to provide a human side to the article. Second, I’ll then provide some pearls of wisdom on an IT-related issue – tying this in to my personal observations with a weak link. And finally I’ll close with a terrible pun.

So first, the personal bit.

As winter approaches I am enjoying the fruits of my allotment. Among the weeds my vegetables have had a pretty good year. The challenge is now consuming the large quantities of beans, tomatoes, sweetcorn, courgettes and cucumbers, and making sure I store my garlic, potatoes and shallots in the right conditions so they keep through the winter.

Now the pearls of wisdom, with the weak link.

Timeless lessons

There are some timeless lessons to learn from growing vegetables. One is that tender plants need treating with care. Put them in the ground too early and they either germinate poorly or get killed by the frost. Plant them too late and they miss the growing season. I grow my seedlings in an unheated polytunnel.

You can bypass some of these problems by purchasing tender young plants that have been grown in a heated greenhouse, but this is expensive compared to growing from seed. Also, some ‘tenders’ – such as aubergines and peppers – just do not work for me as my allotment conditions don’t give them enough protection. I have tried to grow them from seed many times but I always get poor results.

Working on the allotment gives me lots of time to think, and over recent weeks I have reflected on my last column regarding the poor service I received from RBS and BT. Large suppliers, in the main, do not deliver a good service so you need to have a back-up plan if things go wrong.

On a more optimistic note I do have some good suppliers I have worked with over the years. One example is the corporate lawyers I use. They are a mid-sized firm based in central London and I was introduced to them about 15 years ago. Since then they have done all my commercial legal work, including selling a company, dealing with customer and supplier-contracts, and the occasional employment issue.

Having worked with lawyers for over 30 years, my historic experience has been pretty mixed. Problems have included delays in getting help when you need it, and poor advice – often when the lawyer doesn’t really know their subject. These are very similar problems to those which many of us experience with IT suppliers.

However, my law firm has consistently delivered a great service. On the odd occasion when they feel they do not have the skills they refer me to other people, and they have a big enough team that they can deal with any short-term resource constraints.

So why has this relationship worked when my relationship with BT and RBS hasn’t?

Relationships

My lawyers are small enough to have the personal touch but big enough to have depth of expertise when required. I have taken time to ensure my team build relationships with them. We try and look after their interests by paying them promptly. We also thank their staff and the bosses when they really pull out the stops for us, and I tell my contacts about them when relevant.

I have stayed with the same lawyers for 15 years and have absolutely no intention of changing them as long as they continue to deliver a good service.

They are not the cheapest supplier, and have not always been perfect with their service. But fortunately for them, having had a history of dealing with other lawyers, I recognise good service when I receive it. There is an incentive for them to maintain the quality of their work as they know we will stick with them as long as they continue to do this.

With the current pressure on cost control in civil society organisations, this can be a challenging policy to maintain. However, one mistake by a new supplier could wipe out all the cost savings I might achieve from switching to a cheaper service.

So treat ‘tenders’ with care. Do not put them out when you have an established system that already works. And remember, it is sometimes best not to use them at all. By the way – in case you missed it – that was the terrible pun.

John Tate is MD of Changebase, IT adviser to the CFDG and a visiting lecturer at Cass Business School

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John Tate

John Tate is a qualified accountant and entrepreneur. He is a columnist for Charity Finance, a visiting lecturer at Cass Business School's Centre for Charity Effectiveness and Trustee of Eduserv. He also non executive chair of Civil Society Media.

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