This Just In: Customers Hate Their Software Vendors

There's no love lost between software vendors and customers.

Joshua GreenbaumBeing the pack rat that I am, my digital archive is replete with the old, the outdated and the obsolete. But every once in a while there's something truly worth a second look, as in the old survey of Oracle applications customers I unearthed recently. The report, dated January 2002, was written by none other than Charles Philips, once the dean of enterprise software analysts and now the Duke of Oracle. In it, Charles offers the following observation on behalf of Oracle's customers: "Customers need to see the love—now."

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

To be fair, Oracle customers aren't the only ones who need to see the love. You can find the disgruntled, the annoyed, the furious and the beleaguered in every vendors' customer base. In fact, love is one hell of a scarce commodity in the world of enterprise software. It's hard to survey a customer base and find anything even remotely approaching universal love. In fact, customers often hate their software vendors more than they love them. Surprised? Then you just haven't been listening hard enough.

How do customers hate thee, o software vendor? Let me count the ways:

The software is too expensive. This isn't just about being cheap, it's also about perceived value. Vendors and customers are both guilty of not working hard enough on understanding the value of software, and in designing and implementing toward that goal. And many customers feel trapped by the do-or-die aspect to owning expensive enterprise software: damned to expensive maintenance and upgrades if you do, noncompetitive (and out of business) if you don't. The result is the same loathing reserved for oil companies, mass transit providers and other monopolists. Hate and desperate need often go hand in hand.

Of course, to be fair to vendors, all customers secretly wish their enterprise software were free. Greed is all too often a two-way street.

The last implementation was a total disaster. Of course, it was the implementer's fault, but let's not cloud the issue with facts. Anyway, it really is the vendor's responsibility to make sure that its partners are doing a good job. Being an enterprise software vendor means having to sell against the sins of the past every day. And the past was pretty sinful—software was expensive and hard to implement. And often still is.

Service and support suck. That's putting it mildly. I spent a couple of weeks talking to customers about their ERP vendors' service and support, and there weren't a lot of kind words. Of course, the corollary to "the customer wants the software for free" is that the service should be intuitive, proactive, instantaneous and, by the way, free. And never necessary. I guess it doesn't hurt to dream.

Upgrades are expensive and too frequent. Another legitimate beef: Keeping up with vendor upgrade cycles can be like breeding mice. Before you've even begun to wean the latest litter, mommy is in the family way again. Sound familiar? Maybe in this case a little less frequency might be a good thing.

TCO and ROI numbers are misleading. You know what the number-one gripe of Hummer owners was in a recent J.D. Powers survey? Gas mileage. Even the king of the gas guzzlers posts misleading miles-per-gallon figures. Same thing with software: Even the best-intentioned vendors have trouble providing real TCO and ROI numbers.

So what's the vendor and the customer to do about all this dysfunction? If this were a marriage, we would all be in therapy or divorce court. If this were the United Nations, all of us would be at war. It's sad that two groups—users and vendors—can be so intertwined and yet so far apart. A lot of this problem starts with the adversarial nature of the sales and contracting process, and it goes downhill from there. At a minimum, that problem needs to be fixed—now.

How about making the contract free of gotchas and tricky language, basing the salesperson's compensation more on satisfaction than total license cost and keeping marketing hyperbole from getting in the way of the truth? Maybe love is too strong a term, but how about some respect, a little honesty and an understanding of the power of mutual self-interest? Why can't vendors and customers just get along?

Joshua Greenbaum is a principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting and has been covering the software industry for more than 20 years. Write to him at [email protected].