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Services processes in tactical purchasing is a challenge because not all services are alike.  Services require flexibility to deal with the unknowns, but control to manage spend for what accounts for more than half the spend in most companies.   Moreover, the processes change based on a company’s need to balance speed and control for each service category.  Multiple processes becomes daunting for end users who need to understand the right policy to procure the service they need.   In previous blogs we discussed how catalogs can be used to guide users (ie: Guided Buying). Accordingly, we will make the case that the catalog will not only be used to guide users to the right process and policy for services procurement, but will also guide users to input a well-defined service specification. 

Services in the Catalog

The stereotype for catalogs is that catalog entries need to have pre-defined product descriptions with prices.  We know that for services only a few categories can be pre-defined and presented as a typical catalog entry.  As such, catalogs are often thought of as rigid and not flexible for services.  However, catalog solutions today feature configurable items and forms that can guide users through a set of questions, relevant for the service or category, to determine the right service specification.  The catalog can ask the user the information she needs to provide based on her requirements, and infer information based on attributes, such as organization, location, search terms, etc.  Ultimately, the catalog remains a tool to help users make decisions and determine the right price given the requirements.

Balancing speed and control

Every company has a different way of running a process for the same service or category.  The difference stems from the preference for speed versus control.  In some cases, companies demand more expedited processes and will sacrifice some control to quickly procure the service. By contrast, there are companies that want strict controls on their services spending and will implement a process that manages the spend through multiple approvals and checkpoints.  We know one size does not fit all, so a best practice will be a hybrid of expedited processes and tight controls. A great example from a utility, which spends a great deal on services, presented a categorization model that maps a service category to the process.  The categorization was a great way for the company to balance speed versus control for each service type, but, as we mentioned above, resulted in a new challenge for users to follow the right process.  In the absence of any guided buying for users, the utility endured widespread non-compliance with stated processes.   The following is general classification for services processes.


  • Blanket/Limit items
  • PO with 2-way match
  • Non-PO and Expense


  • PO with 3-way match
  • “3 bids and a buy”
  • Blanket/Limit items with contract
  • Invoice against contract
  • Statements of Work

Which process does the user use?  They don't need to know.  When a user performs a search and selects the item they need, the catalog content does the work to map the service to the right process, gather information from the user, and initiate the process.

Support decision-making

Users need to make decisions when they specify services – how much are we willing to spend, how long do we need resources, what skills does the service provider need to have, are there materials that we need to procure, etc.  As we noted above, the parameters are different for every service occasion and service type.  The catalog, as an aid in user decision-making, can prompt the user with the right questions to solicit a full and accurate service specification for the service needed. In addition, the catalog will use the terms that make sense for that service and the organization.  For instance, I’ve seen users get confused when creating limit items, particularly with the terms “order value” and “expected value”.  For a company that uses limit items for maintenance services, the catalog can prompt the user with “what is the estimate to change the oil?” and “what is the most you will spend to change the oil?”.    The familiarity in addition to the data provided in the catalog content will guide the user to specify the service accurately and completely, including the right accounting, categorization, or complementary/bundled products and services. Companies can ask users what they need (ie: define the requirements) and the system can imply other objects based on prompts, attributes, and items selected. 

Examples of services in the catalog

The following are a few examples that I’ve seen in the catalog to guide users for services.

  • Limit items – the catalog prompts the user for terms like “expected value” and “order value” by using category- or item-relevant questions. The system then maps the fields to the system terms.  Users do not need to know the system terminology. 
  • Rate cards – where users need to select roles and job codes, the catalog can capture the information in a configurable item.  Information in the catalog content can help map the qualifications to the requirements.  When the user selects the job code, the system will determine the appropriate price based on the contract information or supplier rate information in the catalog.
  • Service hierarchies or bundled services - Often multiple services and materials are grouped together to define the complete service specification.  For instance, an office setup may require the cubicle construction, the IT setup, and telecommunications.  Catalog content can be grouped so that the services and items that are needed for the complete end-to-end setup can be configured altogether, including multiple providers that may be needed to fully complete the project.
  • Policies or How Tos – Following the Google search paradigm, users can search on all the procurement procedures and policies in the catalog based on the context. The search results will display the policies and procedures under the context provided by the search term(s). The search result then guides the user to the next step in the process.