Enterprise vendors: in pursuit of reality

Michael Hickins at BNet cracks open the customer/vendor relationship kimono, using Ray Wang's most recent post as the backdrop. As we enter the conference season, the timing could not be better:Indeed, most customers have a love-hate relationship with their vendors that is heavily weighted towards hate.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Michael Hickins at BNet cracks open the customer/vendor relationship kimono, using Ray Wang's most recent post as the backdrop. As we enter the conference season, the timing could not be better:

Indeed, most customers have a love-hate relationship with their vendors that is heavily weighted towards hate. One reason many customers give for switching from traditional enterprise software products to software-as-a-service (SaaS) is that they believe it gives them a way around so-called vendor lock-in, which occurs when customers have so much money and resources tied up with one vendor that they have no choice but to keep doing business with them.

The incidents described in Michael's post are all too familiar. Dirty tricks, short changing, misleading...you name it. If there's a way to squeeze another dime out of YOU Mr Customer, you can bet that Microsoft, IBM, SAP and Oracle (MISO in Irregulars' parlance) will be there with the 'cuffs out and the equivalent of the extortionist's baton.

None of them will like being characterized this way: "What us? It's not true!" I can hear them declaring with just the right tone of righteous indignation. The vendors will hate me for saying it but while we're all trying desperately to be nice to one another the unvarnished truth is that Michael is correct. Behind the scenes in our private discussion group, the Irregulars talk about this or that 'problem' but rarely if ever air what we say amongst ourselves in the  public domain.

In part that's because we want to continue receiving the kind of access we've been privileged to enjoy with at least some MISO execs. To simply regurgitate some of those discussions would mislead without full context or without formal right of reply although experience suggests that replies are unsatisfactory.

I also sense that as a general class of commenter, we have been subtly drawn into the broadcaster's dilemma. By this I mean the unwritten code that exists between commenter and target company that ultimately we don't let the company spokesperson look bad.

It's not that we should be deliberately brutal to our MISO counterparts although at times the temptation is great. It's that we know the answers are going to be unsatisfactory. But then I recall Ray Wang and I chortling that we had not been blackballed from an upcoming user conference so maybe it's not as bad as I presume. Even so I think there comes a point when the gloves have to come off.

It's a fact of our naked 21st century lives that sooner or later, someone is going to stand up and yell: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more." Or more to the point, an employee, customer or partner is going to call up spilling the beans about the latest muck up or annoyed at the latest wrangling. You can see by the growing crescendo of noise around SAP maintenance, recently culminating in the USF cartoon, that customers are deeply unhappy. There's a certain irony that when I pointed this out, one SAPer said: "For every one customer you can call up that way, I'm sure we can call up two that are happy." If that was meant to be a serious remark then 1/3 of some 50,000 is large number who are not happy. It's no different at Oracle.

When the vendors see these stories it often leads to the: "Why didn't you check it with us first?" call. Why should we when we get first hand information that will likely be denied anyway - as it has on several occasions. When will MISO start acting transparently? More to the point, when will it acknowledge its deficiencies? Hasn't it dawned on them that their public posturing and the customer experience when reported together look like two people who are occupying parallel universes of light and shade?

MISO PR wants to massage, control, dumb down or just ignore but when you've got fearless analysts like Ray in play what can they realistically do to combat the ever increasing stream of criticism coming their way? The usual answer is to summon up the vendor/analyst/journalist/blogger relationship but that's starting to wear thin as a veiled threat. There are just too many sources prepared to spill their guts.

Those that read Vinnie Mirchandani, might have noticed that he is becoming more strident in his examples:

“I am still looking for proof that the 200 or so major acquisitions in the software industry over the last 15 years has been good for consumers.  I would like to see more commitment from acquirers how they would flow merger synergies to consumers. And I would love to see investors quit threatening target companies with lawsuits and more if they resist an offer.

M&A is not the only way to create shareholder value. And it certainly has not shown it creates customer value.”

Frankly, we should be asking IBM the tough questions. As I wrote here “IBM has a track record of buying past-prime companies (often like PwC IBM picked up at 1/6th the value HP had discussed paying but wisely decided against), then continuing to milk them, rather than innovating around them.”

Fact of the matter is we do ask the tough questions. Unfortunately the lack of credible answers is becoming increasingly difficult to comprehend. That may change.

Reading Paul Carr's wickedly amusing account of the Qik and MAXRoam launch in the presence of Mary Coughlan, the Irish deputy prime minister made me think that we may be moving towards a different style of engagement:

In a flash, one of Couglan's aides materialised from nowhere, like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn. "Let me hold your drink for you," he said, yanking the bottle of Guinness out of my hand, and out of the photograph. It was a smart move - national drink or not, we can't have the folks back home thinking she's flown half way around the world for a piss-up. "Nicely handled," I said as the photographer snapped away. "Thanks," replied the aide. A job well done. Meanwhile, two feet away, three people filmed the scene - drink and all - on their mobile phones and broadcast it live on the internet, using Qik. Thanks to the internet, handling your personal image - or someone else's - has got a lot tougher.

Carr is talking in the context of evaporating privacy but does anyone remember this from Larry Dignan:

"I don't give a s**t if it's Accenture or IBM. I care about the customer. I find it shocking people are walking around talking to customers and have no experience on (SAP). (Consultants) get hired of people and have no clue. It's annoying but that's a fact."

At the time, SAP got somewhat agitated because of the s**t reference from co-CEO Leo Apotheker. I can't understand why. This is a man of passion expressing himself in the way that comes most naturally during the course of what Larry described as:

...an animated--and sometimes tense--conversation

I'll bet it was. I'm also betting they'll be none too pleased to see this re-riffed but it seems to me we are heading for a showdown where the 'rules of engagement' get re-written in the pursuit of credibility. In this case, SAP says it wants to engage with us unruly bloggers and in fairness it has provided access and facilities for the blogger community that others cannot match. And when senior execs blurt these statements you know they're saying what they believe rather than the canned, PR driven legally toned stuff they save for keynotes. Which is more refreshing?

Having cracked open the door, it's hellish difficult to shut. If invitations are withdrawn or onerous conditions imposed then we're not going to shut up but likely shrug, turn attention elsewhere but still make a noise, finding other sources along the way. That seems a poor way to proceed. Far better to acknowledge that our points are well made when they are and demonstrate a willingness to deal with the matters at hand. So far that has not happened. Tin ear syndrome isn't restricted to one or two, it is endemic. The biggest disconnect is between what execs and marketers say and what people on the gournd experience. Ever it was so but those 'do-ers' are becoming ever more vocal to the point where the disconnect is embarrassingly obvious.

2009 is going to be a watershed year on many front. Is this one of those moments where the reality we see meets the MISO public face?

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