Do You Need a Declaration of Independence?

Here's a look at the debate running among material handling consultants on independence and partnership as an approach to serving their customers.

Do You Need a Declaration of Independence

A vendor must be in a relationship to survive. At least that’s the latest business mantra. Thus, when it’s time to provide a customer with a new material handling system, it’s crucial to have relationships with control developers, software vendors and electromechanical equipment suppliers, among others.

The options are many: alliances, partnerships, systems integrators, consultants, dealers, collaborators, and members of exchanges and supply chains. All these are based on some type of relationship, usually viewed as "I’ll represent your product if you represent mine."

We in the media plow through hundreds of press releases telling us that so-and-so is forming one of the above relationships with so-and-so, with the key point being that such arrangements are good for everyone.

A few people are taking exception to that claim. "We see a conflict of interest," said Robert Silverman, president of Gross & Associates, a material handling consultants firm in Woodbridge, New Jersey, "when people calling themselves ‘independent consultants’ engage in strategic alliances with companies whose products they’re evaluating for their clients. These companies have become systems integrators rather than independent consultants. Customers have the right to know whether a consultant is totally free of bias, and is not going to recommend a particular solution because he has a vested interest in that solution."

Gross & Associates makes the point about being able to objectively determine what is in the customer’s best interest.

The company without formal relationships is the exception today. Depending on where a company stands, this can be the key differentiator from the competition.

But there’s also the question of informal relationships. These consist of companies, suppliers and vendors who have worked together before and so have some idea of each other’s abilities. It’s easier to continue to work with each other, because they know what they can do, than to seek out new talent.

The key question for you as a customer, though, is "do you care?" Is it important to you to know whether there’s bias? Is it important to know whether your consultant or integrator has a vested interest in a proposed solution? Does a solution provider’s vested interest necessarily mean the solution is not in your best interests?

The only good answer to such questions is that it depends on the application, now and in the future. You, as the customer, must know what it is you really need. If that material handling system is planned to operate for only three or four years, it may not matter to you that you have the best system. Fast payback and reliable operation may matter more. If the system will last longer, then your concerns may focus on flexibility and how easy it is to upgrade the system. In this case, you may want to know who’s representing what, and how compatible their systems are with others.

Regardless of how you answer these questions, awareness — of your operations, your needs and your suppliers — is crucial. There’s no substitute for a thorough understanding of your operations and system needs. A biased approach may work just fine. On the other hand, you may really need an unbiased solution. You’re the one writing the check.

Leslie Langnau

senior technical editor

[email protected]

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