Politicians rely on poll numbers to see if constituents are happy with their performance. Now we've polled nearly 350 IT professionals to find out what they think of their tech vendors. The results are mixed.
Respondents are quite positive when talking about some vendors--virtualization and smartphone providers, for instance. And follow-up interviews reveal that business technology professionals often develop strong working relationships with vendors, particularly ones that shoot straight and pay close attention to their needs.
But it's also clear that vendors disappoint their constituents in key areas. We got an earful about their annoying, disappointing, and irresponsible practices. Promised features don't show up in products, the hype doesn't match reality, phrases like "ease of use" and "simple integration" are bandied about like campaign promises.
There's enough blame to go around, but there also are ways both sides can help make the vendor-buyer relationship work better. While we can't stop some vendors from driving their customers crazy, we can provide steps for building more constructive relationships.
Those Empty Promises
The warning "caveat emptor" certainly applies to IT. Only 28% of the IT pros responding to our survey say key features a salesperson promised were actually available in their last major product rollout (see chart, "Key Features Promised In Your Organizations Last Major Product Rollout Were ..."). Another 24% say key features turned out to be fictitious. Twenty percent say promised features showed up within two quarters. Clearly, these aren't statistics vendors can be proud of.
Where is all the misinformation coming from? Salespeople appear to be the major culprits.
"What sales told the higher-ups vs. what I'm truly able to deliver are two entirely different balls of wax," says a senior IT analyst at a multibillion-dollar financial services company. She's been struggling with governance, risk, and compliance software her company bought around the time she was hired. "There are things that don't work as advertised," she says.
The vendor said "we'd never need a developer, but we're getting a developer," the senior analyst says. "And I'm doing coding that was never part of my job description."The GRC product isn't her only experience with vendors that bend the truth. Another vendor "completely lied" about its database monitoring software, she says. "They said it would monitor Microsoft SQL Server databases. It does no such thing," she says. "It's designed for Unix, and anything else is a mind-blowing concept for its CPU."
Other tech pros tell similar stories. "We get a lot of salespeople who don't know their own products and technology," says Kim Tracy, executive director of university computing services at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. He oversees a $10 million IT budget and about 80 full-time staff. "If I know more about their technology than they do, I'm ready to kick them out."
The analyst at the financial services company shares that frustration. The GRC vendor she worked with tried to force a match between the product's capabilities and her company's requirements. "They were trying to make us fit the cookie cutter they use," she says, "but we're as far off their cookie cutter as we can get."
That's a key concern for Stephen Hultquist, CIO at Firefly Energy, which develops lead-acid batteries for trucks and other vehicles. The 50-person company's IT operations are 100% outsourced, Hultquist says. Applications are delivered via software as a service, and infrastructure support comes from local IT services companies.
Because critical business apps are delivered as a service, Hultquist will work only with vendors that can meet his requirements. It helps that he used to run an application service provider, so he knows "the right questions to ask and the places to look for weaknesses in the architecture," he says. "They're forced to be clear with me because I know what goes on behind the curtain."
Firefly focuses on developing long-term relationships with SaaS providers over which Hultquist can have some influence. He's willing to change his own business processes to match the provider's capabilities, as long as that doesn't add complexity or create problems for users.
Desperately Seeking Support
The best way to win a customer's heart is through solid tech support, according to 37% of survey respondents (see chart, "What Qualities Do You Want In Your Most Trusted Vendor?"). Product reliability is a close second, at 28%, followed by having a knowledgeable professional services teams and honest pre-sales engagements, both at 27%.
To get a picture of what respondents think of pre-sales and post-sales technical support, we asked if they agree that their three largest vendors provide top-quality responses to technical questions within hours during the pre-sales period, with post-sales responses taking days. Sixty-one percent say they somewhat agree with that statement, and 27% completely agree; only 12% disagree.
The analyst at the financial services company says she generally gets good service when she has a contract that lets her deal with vendor engineers directly. Things can get tenuous when she has to deal with general tech support. "If things get too complex for tech support, they'll tell you to get another service contract or they bill you," she says. But when a company promises a certain functionality, and it takes hours to get it working, she thinks the vendor should swallow that support cost.
Doug Williams, IT director for Peconic Landing, a New York retirement community, knows firsthand about support nightmares. He spent a year trying to get a vendor to resolve a problem with four wireless access points that kept dropping connections for residents and employees. The vendor's tech support group suggested various fixes, including new software, Williams says, but nothing worked. Six months in with no success, Williams says he asked if he could return the APs, but the company declined. The support team eventually stopped trying to help. "They kept wanting to close the ticket," says Williams. "I wouldn't let them."
About a year after he had purchased the APs, he came across a beta copy of a new version of the software. When he called tech support to ask about it, they said if he installed the beta, it would void the warranty. But since Williams was stuck with the product regardless, he loaded the beta, and it fixed the problem.
"It shouldn't have taken a year," he says. "It almost feels like their products are in perpetual beta, and I'm paying support to be a guinea pig. I don't think that's right."
Internal politics also plays a role. IT has to work hard to make a case for getting rid of a product that's already been purchased, the analyst at the financial services company says. "You have to prove it's actually aggravating the situation," she says. Junking a product makes the leaders who backed it look bad. "Once upper management has gotten approval, we'll roll it out if it kills us," she says.
The company's chief security officer signed off on the GRC product soon after he joined the company in part because his previous employer had used the same software. "He should've had people who were closer to the issues come to the dog-and-pony show," says the analyst.
With the financial services company's problematic database monitoring product, IT put together a strong case against it, she says, and it will be replaced once the company has completed an audit.
But IT isn't completely at the mercy of its vendors. One IT director who requested anonymity says his organization withheld a million-dollar payment to its ERP vendor because it wasn't living up to its contractual obligations. That got the attention of the vendor's CEO, who promised to address the issue, the IT director says.
Firefly's Hultquist, who works primarily with SaaS vendors, says his most extreme option is to simply take his data and leave. "One of the things I negotiate early is that the data is mine, and the data format is my definition," he says. However, he says a service provider would have to cause severe problems before he would take that step.
It's possible for IT and tech vendors to develop strong working relationships, and in hard economic times like these, business technology teams lean more on their closest and most effective vendors. But the obligation is mostly on the IT group to build those tight ties.
IT has to do its homework when investigating a product or service. Hultquist says that when he was searching for an ERP vendor, he hired consultants to help him understand the technology and ask highly technical questions of the vendors. It's this sort of up-front preparation that can save IT from becoming entangled with a vendor that's the wrong fit.
IT also has to commit the appropriate resources to choosing a product or technology and making it work. The analyst at the financial services company admits that part of the problem she's had with the GRC product was inadequate staffing on her end. "This product typically has three to seven full-time employees, and we just have me and a third of another person," she says.
Vendors also can help build beneficial working relationships. Most important, they should listen to customers' needs. That means not just nodding their heads now and then, but active listening. Hultquist says he can tell vendors are paying attention when they ask hard questions and can process the answers. "The good ones turn the question into language that reflects a benefit to my business," he says.
The analyst at the financial company was impressed by a vendor that let her test data deduplication software in her lab. "People willing to let you test in your own environment--that gets my attention," she says.
Our survey demonstrates that tech vendors must make significant changes to some business practices to earn IT's trust. And the message from our follow-up interviews is clear: IT wants and needs trustworthy partners to help them run their businesses. IT and tech vendors will always clash over time, money, and technology, but vendors that respond honestly to their customers' needs will forge the strongest--and most profitable--relationships.
Photo illustration by Ryan Etter