Beware the Objection Removers

Is that sales pitch flying in the face of conventional wisdom? Start asking questions now.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

August 2, 2005

13 Min Read

An objection remover is a claim made during the sales cycle intended to counter a fear or concern that you have. Objection removers occupy a gray zone in between legitimate benefits and outright misrepresentations. While an objection remover may be "technically" true, it's a distraction intended to make you close the door on your concern and move forward in the sales process without careful thinking.

Objection removers crop up in every kind of business, but more often than not, the more complex and expensive your problem is, the more likely objection removers will play a role. In the data warehouse world, classic objection removers include:

  • You don't need a data warehouse, now you can query the source systems directly. (Whew! That data warehouse was expensive and complicated. Now I don't need it.)

  • You can leave the data in a normalized structure all the way to the end-user query tools because our system is so powerful that it easily handles the most complex queries. (Whew! Now I can eliminate the step of preparing so-called queryable schemas. That gets rid of a whole layer of application specialists and my end users can sort out the data however they want. And since I don't need to transform the source data, I can run my whole shop with one DBA!)

  • Our "applications integrator" makes incompatible legacy systems smoothly function together. (Whew! Now I don't have to face the issues of upgrading my legacy systems or resolving their incompatibilities.)

  • Centralizing your customer management within our system makes your customer matching problems go away and provides one place where all customer information resides. (Whew! Now I don't need a system for deduplication or merge-purge, and this new system will feed all my business processes.)

  • You don't need to build aggregates to make your data warehouse queries run fast. (Whew! I can eliminate a whole layer of administration and all those extra tables.)

  • Leave all your security concerns to the IT security team and their LDAP server. (Whew! Security is a big distraction, and I don't like dealing with all those personnel issues.)

  • Centralizing all IT functions lets you establish control over the parts of your data warehouse. (Whew! By centralizing, I'll have everything under my control, and I won't have to deal with remote organizations that do their own thing.)

  • Leave your backup worries behind you with our comprehensive solution. (Whew! I didn't really have a comprehensive plan for backup, and I have no idea what to do about long-term archiving.)

  • Build your data warehouse in 15 minutes. (Whew! Every data warehouse development plan I've reviewed recently has proposed months of development!)

Objection removers are tricky because they are true—at least if you look at your problem narrowly. And objection removers are crafted to erase your most tangible headaches. The relief you feel when you suddenly imagine that a big problem has gone away is so overwhelming that you feel the impulse to rush to the finish line and sign the contract. That is the purpose of an objection remover in its purest form. It doesn't add lasting value: it makes you close the deal.

So, what to do about objection removers? We don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Showing the salesperson to the door is an overreaction. Somehow we have to stifle the impulse to sign the contract and step back to see the larger picture. Here are four steps you should keep in mind when you encounter an objection remover:

1. Recognize the objection remover. When your radar is working, spotting objection removers is easy. A startling claim that flies in the face of conventional practice is almost always too good to be true. A sudden feeling of exhilaration or relief means that you have listened to an objection remover. In some cases, the claim is written in black and white and is sitting in plain view on your desk. In other cases, you need to do a little self-analysis and be honest about why you're suddenly feeling so good.

2. Frame the larger problem. Objection removers work because they narrow the problem to one specific pain, which they decisively nail, but they often ignore the larger complexity of the problem or transfer the hard work to another stage of the process. Once you recognize an objection remover, count to 10 before signing the contract and force yourself to think about the larger context of your problem. This is the key step. You'll be shocked by how these claims lose their luster, if only they are placed in the proper context. Let's take a second look at the objection removers listed earlier.

You don't need a data warehouse, you can query the source systems directly. This is an old and venerable objection remover that has been around since the earliest days of data warehousing. Originally, it was easy to disqualify this objection remover because the source transaction systems didn't have the computing capacity to respond to complex end-user queries. But with the recent technical advances in grid computing and in powerful, parallel-processing hardware, a good salesperson can argue that the source systems do have the capacity to do the double duty of processing transactions and serving end-user queries. But in this case there's a larger issue: The data warehouse is the comprehensive historical repository for perhaps your most important company asset—your data. The data warehouse is purpose-built to house, protect and expose your historical data. Certainly these issues have come sharply into focus with the recent emphasis on compliance and business transparency. Transaction processing (legacy) systems are virtually never built with the goal of maintaining an accurate historical perspective on your data. For instance, if the transaction system ever modifies a data element by destructively overwriting it, you've lost historical context. You must have a copy of the transaction system because the historical context is structurally different from the volatile data in a transaction system. Thus, you must have a data warehouse.

You can leave your data in a normalized structure all the way to the end users. The larger issue: Support systems will only work if they seem simple to the end users. Building a simple view is hard work that requires very specific design steps. In many ways, the delivery of data to the end users and their BI tools is analogous to the final delivery made by a restaurant chef from the kitchen through the door to the customers in the dining room. We all recognize the contribution made by the chef in making sure the food is perfect just as it's being taken from the kitchen. The transfer of an (uncooked) complex database schema to end users and their immediate application support specialists is in some ways worse than an objection remover: It's a snare and a delusion. To make this work, all the transformations necessary to create a simple view of the data are still required, but the work has been transferred out of IT to the end user. Finally, if the simple data views are implemented as relational database "views," then the simple queries all devolve into extremely complex SQL that requires an oversized machine to process!

Applications integrators make incompatible legacy systems smoothly function together. The larger issue: Incompatibilities don't come from deficiencies in any technology, but rather from the underlying business practices and business rules that create the incompatible data in the first place. For any application integration technology to work, a lot of hard work must take place up front, defining new business practices and business rules. This hard work is mostly people sitting around a table hammering out those practices and rules, getting executive support for the "business process reengineering" that must be adopted across the organization and then manually creating the database links and transformations that make an integrated system work.

A centralized customer management system makes your customer data issues go away. This is a subtle objection remover that's not as blatant as the first three. Probably every company would benefit from a rational single view of their customers. But only a core part of the customer identity should be centralized. Once a single customer ID has been created and deployed through all customer-facing processes, and selected customer attributes have been standardized, there remain many aspects of the customer that should be collected and maintained by individual systems. In most cases, these systems are located remotely from a centralized site. For example, in a bank, specific behavior scores for credit-card usage are rarely good candidates for transferring to the central customer repository.

You don't need to build aggregates. The larger issue: Data warehouse queries typically summarize large amounts of data, which implies a lot of disk activity. Supporting a data warehouse requires that you constantly monitor patterns of queries and respond with all the technical tools possible to improve performance. The best ways to improve query performance in data warehouse applications, in order of effectiveness, have proven to be 1) clever software techniques building indexes on the data, 2) aggregates and aggregate navigation, 3) large amounts of RAM, 4) fast disk drives and 5) hardware parallelism. Software beats hardware every time. The vendors that talk down aggregates are hardware vendors that want you to improve the performance of slow queries on their massive, expensive hardware. Aggregates, including materialized views, occupy an important place in the overall portfolio of techniques for improving performance of long-running queries. They should be used in combination with all the software and hardware techniques to improve performance.

Leave all your security concerns to the IT security team. The larger issue: Data warehouse security can only be administered by simultaneously being aware of data content and the appropriate user roles entitled to use that data. The only staff who understands both these domains is the data warehouse staff. Controlling data security is a fundamental and unavoidable responsibility of the data warehouse team.

Centralizing all IT functions lets you establish control over the parts of your data warehouse. This objection remover is a cousin of the earlier application integration claim. But this general claim of centralization is more dangerous because it is less specific and therefore harder to measure. Strong centralization has always appealed to the IT mentality, but in the largest organizations, centralizing all IT functions through a single point of control has about as much chance of succeeding as a centrally planned economy. The grand experiment of centrally planned economies in eastern Europe lasted most of the 20th century and was a spectacular failure. The arguments for centralization have a certain consistency, but the problem is that it's too expensive and too time consuming to do fully centralized planning, and these idealistically motivated designs are too insular to be in touch with dynamic, real-world environments. These plans assume perfect information and perfect control, and are too often designs of what we'd like to have, not designs reflecting what we actually have. Every data architect in charge of a monolithic enterprise data model should be forced to do end-user support.

Leave your backup worries behind you. Developing a good backup-and-recovery strategy is a complex task that depends on the content of your data and the scenarios under which you must recover that data from the backup media. There are at least three independent scenarios: 1) immediate restart or resumption of a halted process such as a data warehouse load job, 2) recovery of a dataset from a stable starting point within the past few hours or days, as when a physical storage medium fails, and 3) very long-term recovery of data when the original application or software environment that handles the data may not be available. The larger picture for this objection remover, obviously, is that each of these scenarios is highly dependent on your data content, your technical environment and the legal requirements, such as compliance, that mandate how you maintain "custody" of your data. A good backup strategy requires thoughtful planning and a multipronged approach.

Build your data warehouse in 15 minutes. I've saved the best one for last! The only way you can build a data warehouse in 15 minutes is to narrow the scope of the data warehouse so drastically that there's no extraction, no transformation and no loading of data in a format meant for consumption by your BI tools. In other words, the definition of a 15-minute data warehouse is one that is already present in some form. Too bad this objection remover is so transparent.... It doesn't even offer a temporary feeling of relief.

There's always a letdown after shining a bright light on these objection removers by examining their larger context. Life is complex, after all.

Let's finish our list of four steps:

3. Create the counterargument.Remember, most objection removers aren't patently fraudulent, but by creating a good counterargument, you'll remove the impulse factor and understand the full context of your problem. This is also an interesting point at which you'll see if the salesperson has a textured, reasonable view of a product or service.

4. Make your decision. It's perfectly reasonable to buy a product or service even when you've detected an objection remover. If you've placed it in an objective context or dismissed it altogether yet are still feeling good about the product, then go for it!

Required Reading

This article is about critical thinking. A wonderful Web site is devoted to the best links to critical thinking resources:

Ralph Kimball, founder of the Kimball Group, teaches dimensional data warehouse and ETL design through Kimball University and reviews large warehouses. He has four best-selling data warehousing books in print, including The Data Warehouse ETL Toolkit (Wiley, 2004). Write to him at [email protected].

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