Getting around gagging vendors

When any of us is contemplating buying anything, one of the most decisive factors in our choice can be a word-of-mouth recommendation.

When any of us is contemplating buying anything, one of the most decisive factors in our choice can be a word-of-mouth recommendation.

If it’s a car or fridge or even a book, and you’re teetering on the brink of a decision, there’s nothing like a first-hand report from someone you trust to help make up your mind. The more expensive the purchase, the greater the feeling of reassurance that comes from talking to existing satisfied customers.

For most of what we buy there’s no shortage of customer experiences to tap into. In the world of big-ticket IT systems, though, finding happy users who are able to give an account of how it was for them can be a challenge. Often, it seems, vendors will place restrictions on what their customers can and can’t say publicly about the product or service they paid good money for.

Such a defensive attitude is extraordinary and says little about the track record of those vendors. What other industry is so lacking in confidence of its ability to deliver that it preemptively gags its customers?

In trying to understand why the practice might be so common -- and from speaking to IT buyers, it is -- some mitigating factors suggest themselves. Implementing an ERP system, for example, is immensely complex. No two organisations are alike, and therefore no two implementations are wholly comparable. Usually, as well, implementations will be undertaken by different project teams, with varying levels of expertise and experience. And, typically, major projects will involve more than one supplier, and the need to integrate a number of suppliers’ products.

Those things make it understandable that ERP system suppliers might be nervous of casual assessments of customer satisfaction. The CIO at a manufacturing company talks to the IT boss at a distribution outfit that struggled to implement the system in question. A superficial judgement of the project might lay blame for the problems at the ERP supplier’s door. But the real issue might have been a second suppplier’s failure to meet commitments.

Rather than attempt to stifle such -- completely natural -- exchanges, suppliers need to have faith in their future and existing customers that they are aware of the complexities and won’t rush to hasty conclusions. Using restrictive contracts to stop them talking to each other will just make a supplier hard to do business with. On the other hand, openness suggests the supplier is confident of product quality, and deserves to be rewarded with lots of business.

So much for the ideal world. Computerworld knows, in the real one, how hard it can be to find reference sites (we call them case studies), even if we don’t have as much at stake as you. Your purpose is to hear other users’ experiences with a particular product so there are no nasty surprises after you sign on the dotted line. Ours is to act as an independent source of information for you as you make up your mind.

User groups are an excellent phenomenon, not just for learning what was left out of the sales pitch, but also for trading tips on how to solve obscure problems. They’re also useful job marts.

There’s another medium for finding out what vendors might not have wanted you to know about their products. That’s the internet. It’s surprising what information it will yield up without too much searching (local government sites, for example, often contain detailed accounts of IT projects buried within committee reports). Newsgroups are another unfiltered information source. We’d never suggest that you take what you read on the web as gospel. It could, however, trigger a pointed question you might put to the ERP salesperson.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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