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A few good vendors: Is that asking too much?

By Paul Tinnirello, PC Week Vendor exaggeration of Y2K ills has been outlandish, technology stocks have been on a roller coaster, and Web wannabes have been gripped by IPO fever. Fun times if you are a vendor.

By Paul Tinnirello, PC Week

Vendor exaggeration of Y2K ills has been outlandish, technology stocks have been on a roller coaster, and Web wannabes have been gripped by IPO fever. Fun times if you are a vendor. But not if you are an IT exec like me.

I'm sick of picking up the phone and hearing, "We've got something really different that can help your organization get more leverage from technology." I know perfectly well they don't. At the end of the day, I don't ask much: products and services that work as expected, proven reliability, strong support, and the confidence that there's more to a vendor's existence than feeding at the options trough. Is that unreasonable?

Sure, we badly need new tools in the fast-paced world of e-business, but many vendors have been introducing flashy new products only to wow stockholders and analysts, rather than to solve the day-to-day problems of IT departments. And it's getting worse. Each day, more and more entrepreneurial startups are entering the technology sweepstakes, hoping to cash in on the windfall of loot ready to be spent by the big corporations. Go for it, I say, but don't put my business at risk. My organization works hard for its profit, and I'm not about to waste money on reckless experimentation with an unknown from East Startup-Land.

Listen up, you vendors. If you want my attention during 2000, here are a few tips:

First, do the homework and find out about my industry and organization. Look at our Web site. I can't believe how many times I ask a vendor, "Do you know what we do?" Usually the answer is, "Not really."

Second, tell me more in the first few seconds than "We're different" and "Can we arrange a meeting?" Spell out the story with a 25-word summary that's focused on my business. Third, make sure you have more than one customer.

Fourth, don't bother selling on price alone. I know perfectly well that the cost of the product is often only a small fraction of the customization and training that will be needed. And oh, yes, how about a pricing scheme that doesn't encompass your next trip to Hawaii? Better yet, work with the size of my organization and budget. No, one price/one size does not fit all!

Here's a hint: Try offering "ramp" pricing for support. This way, I pay less in the first years of a contract—when usage and support needs are light.

Fifth, provide real support, not just a voice mailbox or a cheesy Web page. I hate having to search for fixes for known problems or make calls that take hours. Does anyone appreciate how frustrating it can be to look for a problem and solution amid a mountain of trouble tickets? How about intelligent updates that are sent to my organization based on users' profiles? Above all, own up to the problems and help customers get the info!

Finally, convince me that our mutual relationship is based on the need to solve my business problems, not your need for funds for an IPO. I want vendors that are willing to stick around long enough to see the positive benefits of their product or service. That can take a year or more.

This year, my organization is looking over its vendors very closely. Some will stay; others will go. I recommend you do the same. Picking a vendor could cost much more than Y2K did—if you pick the wrong one.

Tell me how you can tell who's for real and who's not.