The lies we tell each other

Former information technology manager-turned analyst William Peterson says that if software suppliers and IT buyers started telling each other the truth, they might mend an increasingly rocky relationship.

4 min read
I just bought a car, and I am miserable.

I'm not one of those individuals that enjoy the car-buying process. I have no patience for the inevitable "let me run that by my sales manager" dance. I don't want to discuss extended warranties, undercoating, security systems, or floor mats. I need a car; it's really that simple.

We live in an age and a country where an automobile is very often a necessity rather than a convenience. Fine, I have to have one; I just don't want to deal with the nuisances of the purchasing process.

So why am I miserable? I am miserable because I've bought the car and now I'm worried that I've made a huge mistake. Don't get me wrong, I am really into cars: I'll talk endlessly about cars that I've seen and want to own; I subscribe to two car magazines; I can't keep a car for more than two years, and I will regularly pull in to a car dealership for a test drive. I'm a salesperson's worst nightmare: A market research geek who has completely researched a car that he has no intention of buying.

Why do I tell you this? Back in the day, I labored away as an IT manager for a major university in the Northeast. I would buy software--daily, it seemed--and I was miserable. The parallels between purchasing a car and purchasing software are frightening: I talked about software I wanted to buy, I read all the IT magazines, I ran through demos--yet how much software did I keep for more than two years?

But the difference is I needed the software. It really was that simple.

Universities are voracious devourers of software, and my job was to provide it. But I worried that we'd have integration problems, revision issues, security lapses, and maybe, just maybe, the software wouldn't work as advertised.

We've all made bad decisions. Through this downturn in the economy, and the dot-bomb implosion, we've become jaded. Just as I do not trust--or listen to, for that matter--the slick car salesperson, IT departments often do not trust or listen to software vendors, and vice versa.

The parallels between purchasing a car and purchasing software are frightening.
It has become a tenuous relationship, and something needs to change.

Herein lies the heart of the matter: We make these big-ticket purchases with a level of expectation that has been fostered by our experiences. I suggest a radical change that speaks directly to this expectation level and goes a long way toward improving the IT/vendor experience. I suggest that we tell each other the truth.

Now don't misunderstand me. This suggestion is in no way targeted at vendors alone (poor vendors, always being compared to used-car salesmen). Remember, I too was an IT contributor for a long time. I did my fair share of bending the truth to get another point or two removed from a proposal or to get favorable delivery or payment terms.

Nor is this suggestion a why-can't-we-all-just-get-along treatise. Rather, I am speaking directly to the positioning that the parties take in the software sales dance.

How refreshing would it be for a vendor to speak directly to the return on investment that an organization could expect from a software purchase? Wouldn't it level the playing field if the IT buyer stated the budget, competition and pricing requirements to each vendor upfront?

We could go on for quite some time on the "nice-to-haves" that would improve the relationships and the process. I've taken the liberty of creating what I think are three groundbreaking promises that could improve the way we all conduct this business.

IT buyer promises to software vendors
• I will confirm that I have a budget for this project. (Details not required, just confirmation so the vendor's sales team is not wasting time chasing something that doesn't exist.)

Just as I do not trust...the slick car salesperson, IT departments often do not trust or listen to software vendors, and vice versa.
• I will make the right personnel available to review technology and approve the purchase. (Crucial--IT departments make sure that everyone is on board and ready to go so we can get to the next promise.)

• I will make a purchase decision as rapidly as possible. (Nothing worse for a vendor than having the above two promises met, having the organization placed in the pipeline, and then hearing nothing for six months. This kills pipelines and the salesperson's credibility. IT departments, be sure to call and tell a vendor if it has lost the business and why.)

Vendor promises to IT buyers
• I will provide a proposal that meets the organization's defined needs. (Vendors must speak to the point. Irrational exuberance and the kooky spending that went with it are long over. Tight, rational, margin-friendly proposals only.)

• I will meet delivery promises. (Crucial--whether the delivery promise is the product, consulting services, or training, nothing kills a vendor's credibility and extends implementation more than missed delivery.)

• I will follow up on everything. (One-off sales are a thing of the past. Customer service and attention to detail are keys to retained business.)

Though nothing will change overnight, and the above promises may not work in all situations, the goal is to reduce the worry level on both sides. Vendors will try to sell as much software to an organization at as high a margin as possible. IT buyers will shop around for the best deal possible. At the end of the month, vendors worry about the pipeline.

At the end of the year, IT departments wonder when they'll get that training course they were promised. Some level of trust and honesty between the IT and vendor community would not be a bad thing. Trust me, it's okay; let's give it a try. If it doesn't work, you can blame me. In the meantime, I saw this really cool Mustang. I'm going to go check it out at lunch.