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2/2/2012
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4 Things SMBs Should Demand From Vendor Pitches

Skip the sales and marketing fireworks in favor of vendors that show you how you'll get real results.

10 Important Cloud Apps For SMBs
10 Important Cloud Apps For SMBs
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Smart vendor selection for small and midsize businesses (SMBs) starts with a finely tuned ear. Knowing what to listen for in a potential vendor's sales pitch can help prevent long-term pain and foster real results. SMBs, after all, can't typically afford the financial fallout from making the wrong choices.

(Be sure to also check out the common sales lingo used to target SMBs--and why you should treat such spiels with a reasonable dose of skepticism.)

SMBs often face the challenge of a lack of leverage---Google's not declaring bankruptcy tomorrow if your small business doesn't sign up for Google Apps today. But not every vendor is massive, and in most matters SMBs benefit from choice. Sticking with the aforementioned example, Google's far from the only option for productivity and collaboration applications.

[ Want to learn how to play with the big guys? See 5 SMB Tips For Partnering With Big Business. ]

They say the devil's in the details, so make sure to read the fine print. If you find too many potential devils, it's time to reassess. Skip the sales and marketing fireworks in favor of vendors that show you how you'll get real results. The underlying theme here is transparency, particularly in these four areas.

1. No-nonsense pricing. Words and phrases like "affordable," "budget-friendly," and "low-cost" are good for marketing, but bad for real-world business--they mean different things to different SMBs. Look for companies that skip the window dressing in favor of confident, clear pricing. Choice can be a good thing, so long as it's abundantly clear what you get for what price.

2. Straightforward support. Before signing on the dotted line, know the terms for product support and customer service. An SMB's criteria will vary widely based on its needs, the technology it's acquiring, and so forth. In some scenarios, bare-bones self-service support might do just fine. In others, you need a real person picking up the phone if there's a problem--and fast. Don't wait until there's an issue to understand how various support scenarios work. A related note: If your deal includes service hours for implementation or ongoing help, know what those cover versus what those cost. One SMB exec pointed out to me a lesson learned from her firm's software-as-a-service makeover: Post-implementation, she realized the company paid for service hours that covered things they could have done in-house. In some cases, such as open source platforms, the service and support up-sell might come with the territory. In others, it starts to smell like wasted dollars.

3. Clear contract terms. You shouldn't need an armada of attorneys to understand a contract with, say, an online backup provider. (Of course, I'm not in any way qualified to give legal advice--if in doubt, call counsel.) Certainly, you want your vendor contracts to pass a solid legal review. But even then, if you can't understand the terms and conditions you're signing without a translator, something should feel off. Opt for providers that spell out very clearly matters of service-level agreements, security, duration, and so forth. A good one to look for--and ask about if you if you can't find it: How does the vendor make your business whole if they screw up?

4. The vendor pre-nup. Good, trustworthy vendors should be comfortable discussing what happens if you part ways with them at some point down the line. It doesn't have to be a bad break-up, and you don't have to decide who gets the bone china or the vintage furniture. You might simply outgrow the vendor, or they might be acquired or otherwise materially change their business. (Or it could indeed be an ugly divorce.) You need to know what happens to your company's data if you move on to greener pastures, particularly when working with cloud platforms. How do you get your data back? What does the vendor do with its copy? If a vendor can't or won't answer those kinds of questions, think long about why.

As enterprises ramp up cloud adoption, service-level agreements play a major role in ensuring quality enterprise application performance. Follow our four-step process to ensure providers live up to their end of the deal. It's all in our Cloud SLA report. (Free registration required.)

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