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Network Computing magazine published the results of a reader survey in their November 9, 2006 edition. The article is called "Customer Satisfaction {Guaranteed}". The survey results show that IT managers are not happy with their vendors and why. There's no news there. We all know that technology vendors tend to exaggerate.

So how can you keep your technology vendors honest? There are steps you can take to minimize your risk and improve the odds that what you buy will perform as "guaranteed".

The core problems referenced in the survey relate to promised features that are not in the software, inadequate customer support, and lack of vendor accountability. Sound familiar?

Let's dig into these problems and discuss ways of avoiding them.

Problem 1: The over promise

Sales people often promise or at least imply that features and capabilities exist in the software when in fact they are obscure or nonexistent.

There are many reasons for this problem beyond outright lies.

Sales people often do not fully understand the customer situation and how the software applies to it. Sometimes, inadequate sales training and documentation can result in miscommunication.

To avoid being caught in this trap, be clear about what capabilities you require. For example, if you need a monthly report showing your top ten products, you need to fully define what "top ten" means. Are you looking at revenues, profits or units? Are you considering production volume or actual sales? Are you factoring in returned goods? How will the report be distributed and to whom?

Once you've defined precisely what you want, insist on a custom demonstration. This is not a canned demo or a screenshot presentation. It is a walk-through showing how the software solves your business problem.

Unfortunately, trial versions of software and customer references simply do not work well. Trial versions are either too limiting or require a major effort on your part. Customer references can be helpful but every situation is unique. Unless the other company is quite similar to yours, the reference is not going to help you much.

If you decide to check references, insist on a lengthy list of accounts. Research them to uncover situations close to your own. If they are small and you're not, forget it. If they have a large IT staff and you don't, move on.

Problem 2: Customer support - or not

Dealing with front-line customer support people can be frustrating. They usually receive minimal training and the burnout rate is high. Many of the calls they receive are for trivial problems that customers could easily have resolved on their own. When software is shipped with blatant defects, the support center gets pounded and unjustly blamed for lack of support.

When a knowledgeable person calls with a complex problem, the support people often struggle. First, they have to eliminate the obvious ("Is it plugged in?") then they have to search the database for similar calls. These steps take time and callers get frustrated.

Another troublesome scenario occurs when multiple products are interacting poorly and the vendors point fingers at each other. This is becoming more commonplace as technology becomes more invasive.

There are steps you can take to get better support.

Start by being prepared. Have serial numbers and configuration information ready. Provide specific steps for re-creating the problem. If it happens at random, provide as much information as possible such as the frequency, time of day, and the recovery steps. Be polite and persistent. Take notes.

If the person you're dealing with cannot resolve the issue, ask for escalation to a second tier analyst. Every vendor has more knowledgeable (i.e. more expensive) people behind the scenes. The help is there but you may have to ask for it.

When vendors point fingers at each other, get them together at your facility or on a conference call. Obtain commitment from each vendor as to what they will do to help solve the problem. The "there's nothing we can do" response is not acceptable. Pin them down.

Problem 3: Not our fault

Lack of accountability - how often have you heard that phrase? Vendors will tell you whatever you want to hear to make the sale and then leave you to figure it out. When the software doesn't work as advertised, you'll get denials, techno-babble and the famous "it will be included in the next release".

Doing your homework up front minimizes the risk of getting into this situation but it can still happen. The standard advice to get it in writing is a good starting point. Vendor contracts and guarantees are heavily slanted in their favor. Consider writing your own contract and including specific benchmarks that the software must meet. Get a senior representative of the vendor to sign it.

You'll surely meet resistance to this strategy. Listen carefully to the vendor's objections. If they can pinpoint specific technical reasons why the benchmarks cannot be guaranteed, work with them to adjust the criteria. If they simply refuse to sign due to "company policy" or a similar weak excuse, you're not dealing with a reputable vendor. Move on.

If problems arise despite your best efforts, get angry and ratchet up the pressure quickly. Escalate the issue to your senior management and have them contact senior managers at the vendor. Avoid legal intervention as long as you can. It only creates animosity when invoked too early.

Managing vendor relationships is not easy - for either party. Be proactive in your own defense and when you find a vendor you like and trust, send more business their way.

Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO™. He is an expert in IT Business Continuity Planning, Network Security Policies, and Freelance Writing focused on white papers, case studies, and handbooks. DAMICON services firms worldwide.

This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in December 2006.

To learn more about how DAMICON can help your business, please take a look at our service programs.

Virtual Business

Virtual Business

This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.