Are Your Vendors On Your Side?
By definition vendors are on the other side of a contract. They have a business to run, products to support and clients other than you. This does not mean, however, that vendors should be on a different side than one that facilitates and supports your company’s business objectives.
This article is about the client-vendor relationship concerning software, but many of the concepts apply to other products or services. Clearly, the relationship is going to change as it moves from pre-sale, to implementation, to ownership and sometimes termination.
Key Point #1. The client-vendor relationship should not change radically as it moves through its phases. You most likely expect that the sales person is not going to be the installation technician, who may not be the support person. You also have a right to expect that if during pre-sale the product is represented as flexible and customizable, it does not turn out to be a rigidly controlled black box after implementation. Or vice-versa. Pre-sale the discussion is about a stable product to perform specific tasks, but after implementation there is a new release every couple of months. Predictability in the client-vendor relationship means that over time expectations for both sides will match up more closely.
Evaluation means evaluating the software and evaluating the vendor. Vendors are also evaluating prospective clients, though most vendors will complete a sale even if they have concerns about the client. Purchasing software is often a significant financial commitment and almost always a long term commitment. In those ways it is like buying a car. Most people will not purchase a car without some kind of test drive. Buying software based on static screen snips is like buying a car from a picture on the web. Buying software based only on a demo is like only the salesperson getting to drive during the test drive.
Packaged software now commonly offers a free trial. Taking software that requires implementation for a test drive is more complicated, but don’t give up on the idea too quickly. All software companies have development and test systems, and many have demo systems that sales people use. If it cannot be arranged to test drive one of those, perhaps a web meeting can be arranged with a reference user. Some software is too complex to be used without significant training or the vendor co-driving, but it is important to get a feel for that too. Key Point #2. Any software vendor that wants to allow prospective clients to test drive software, can figure out a way to do so. If they do not it is because they consciously have chosen not to or because it has never been enough of a priority to figure it out. You have to decide how important that is, but your employees are going to live with the way it looks and feels for a long time.
The objective of implementation is the same for both the client and vendor. Complete a successful implementation as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is true whether it is simply running an installation program once for packaged software, a few hours of work by a technician, or a multi-month project with hundreds of tasks to do a core system conversion. Key Point #3. Successful implementation is based on both client and vendor effectively communicating their requirements and capabilities. Mismatched understanding of either requirements or capabilities puts even simple implementations at serious risk.
Ownership is the, hopefully, long-term phase where the client gains the benefit of the product and the vendor gains the benefit of the client’s business.
Key Point #4. Clients should expect stable, functional software that does what it is supposed to do within expected performance standards, but should not expect perfection. All software that is functional or flexible is not 100% bug free. Clients should report issues and expect timely responses to substantive issues. Vendors should welcome all input and be prepared to provide timely and reasonable responses to substantive issues. Small issues should be kept in context, but they still have value. For example, when a spelling error was fixed in a software release an amused client took the time to tell us they noticed the corrected spelling. They had been aware of the error for years, but never reported it.
Key Point #5. Don’t force a solution to do what it was not designed to do. Both client and vendor will regret forcing a square peg into a round hole. It ruins the peg and does collateral damage to the board and hole. This warning applies equally to clients and vendors. Having a constructive client-vendor relationship during Evaluation and Implementation goes a long way towards avoiding this pitfall. If it crops up later as needs change, clients and vendors should discuss the possibilities. There may be viable customizations, workarounds or add-ons. Ultimately, however, it is a mistake to force a system to do what it was not designed to do.
Key Point #6. It’s your data. You have a right to access and use it. Over many years it has never ceased to amaze how many vendors make it difficult, expensive or virtually impossible for clients to access their own information. Roadblocks include: not providing read-only database access except through the licensed product; excessive interface fees; long elapsed times to create interfaces; outright refusal. Vendors have a legitimate interest to protect copyright, trademarks and proprietary techniques. These are generally covered under license and confidentiality agreements. Vendors have no legitimate interest in preventing a client from having access to the data they are generating in the normal use of a product.
Key Point #7. Clients and vendors have different interests, but they overlap. Clients license a system to solve one or more business needs. Unless they hired someone to develop a completely custom solution as a “Works for Hire”, it is not exclusively theirs. Vendors develop and must maintain products for many clients, but the solution as installed within a specific client’s business environment is exclusively that client’s implementation. In a successful client-vendor relationship, both sides fulfill their own business requirements while maintaining respect for what the other party needs to accomplish.
At Point Enterprises we take pride in never saying “No” to a question or idea. We may discuss how the product could address an issue, or suggest a customization, or for something outside the normal scope the response is, “Hmmmmmm, what if . . . .” Our products are designed to be configurable and to support creative customization without harming the long-term maintainability of the system.