from School CIO
Courtesy of Network Computing
IT managers are deeply dissatisfied with the way the vendor community does business. That's the bottom line of our 2007 Reader Survey, in which the response data and true-life anecdotes chart just how and where IT vendors are failing their customers.
Vendors are overpromising and underdelivering on features and capabilities and failing to support their customers. IT pros know how to take vendor promises with a grain of salt, but when 72 percent of respondents say products aren't shipped with promised features, we've got a problem. And customer support is only mildly better. Many survey participants said first-line customer support is inadequate and vendors aren't willing to take responsibility for technical problems.
This isn't the Top 10 worst vendor list, though. The largest tech companies tend to get the blame because they're the easy targets. Individual experiences with a particular company will vary widely; for every person who blasted Dell or Symantec for poor equipment or lousy service, someone else sang their praises. Instead, we find it more worthwhile to identify key areas where technology vendors as a whole aren't living up to their own boilerplate marketing.
Some of the vendors contacted for their reactions to this story explained that today's enterprise networks are bewildering complex and run a vast number of OSs, applications and protocols. They all defined customer support as a top priority, but recognized that problems can't be solved by first-level support.
Whether you consume or sell technology products, read on for an unvarnished look at what 755 IT decision-makers want--and don't want. You might just come away with new strategies for dealing with your vendors or serving your customers.
Everyone knows vendors routinely overstate the capabilities of products and services, but the extent of this practice is disturbingly widespread. Only 28 percent of respondents said key features promised by a salesperson were actually present in a major product rollout.
This practice may win accounts, but it sure doesn't lead to satisfied customers. When asked, "If you could stop vendors from doing one thing ..." the top answer was "promising capabilities that aren't there." A comment from a disgruntled reader sums it up best: "Vendors need to reality-check their salesweasels."
And the blame seems to be spread around evenly. When we asked which technology sector is most guilty of making claims that don't hold up, the majority (nearly 29 percent) said, "They all lie." Security software and operating system software vendors tied for second, at just over 10 percent each, and CRM (customer-relationship management) earned third in this ignominious race with 9.4 percent.
"Salespeople are one or two tech cycles ahead of the product being delivered," says the technical adviser for a state court system in the Northeast. While it might seem like a harmless delay from the sales perspective, it has repercussions for the enterprise. "As a customer, we have to delay the project until the product is ready, or go forward and use different business processes to make it work," he says. "And we've done both."
For example, one application was supposed to create a virtual database so that multiple agencies within the court system could enter and update information on the same court cases. In actuality, changes can be made by only a single agency, which means the other agencies that need to make additions must send paper records, and those changes must be entered manually.
The technical adviser has dealt with this issue from two different perspectives: as a network manager who's been burned by unkept promises, and as an engineer for a software company that had to deal with customers who found the features they paid for weren't available. "Salespeople would sell something that was conceivable but not currently feasible," he says. "Then I'd have to go deal with the client dissatisfaction and find ways to make it work for them."
Other practices that readers want to see stopped also revolve around vendor dishonesty, including misrepresenting integration issues and low-balling the time and complexity of technology deployments.
The best ways to combat mendacious salespeople are a healthy dose of skepticism and good professional judgment. "Some vendors provide excellent service, all the time. Other vendors make false claims and provide lousy after-sale support," a survey respondent said. "I believe it's my job, as an IT director, to make sure we select vendors that fall into the first group."
One tried-and-true way to choose good vendors is to speak to reference customers, though you can be sure vendors will try to stack the deck. William Kyrouz, network services manager at the law firm Goodwin Procter, says a managed security vendor he was evaluating offered a reference customer--but only if the vendor could be on the reference call.
In another case, Kyrouz says a vendor pitching him on a product claimed to have sold the same product to another law firm. "So I called that other law firm and they, in fact, hadn't bought it," he says.
So it's up to IT professionals to break out of the circle of preapproved reference customers. "When a vendor gives you a reference list, it's customers that they think they know what they will say," the state court technical adviser says. "I ask a happy customer if they know others using the product, and I call those people to find out the good, the bad and the ugly."
Kyrouz also has other techniques for getting information on a potential vendor, such as calling the vendor's tech support group. "You tell them you're not a customer but you have questions, and sometimes you can get them to talk," he says. "I make under-the-radar reference checks whenever I can."
A product demo--or lack of one--also can provide insight into a product's true capabilities. "I want to see something live, not just PowerPoint slides. If they just have PowerPoint, that's a huge red flag," Kyrouz says.
Finally, doing a test run is a popular option--assuming you can get your hands on the product. "We don't always get that cooperation," the technical adviser says. "The bigger the company, the less likely they are to do that." He notes that smaller vendors have been more willing to provide trial licenses.
The size of the customer also plays a role. "Vendors put a lot of resources to get into our company and sell to us, so they aren't going to do anything stupid to jeopardize that cycle," says Ed Wachowicz, a technical consultant at Verizon. "And we have the resources to vet whatever claims they make. We test and test and field test. Any discrepancies would come out."
But for companies without the clout of a Baby Bell, there are options if a product doesn't function as advertised. "I go back to the vendor and ask them to make good on their promises, which I should have in writing," the technical adviser says. "If it's six months from now, that's a reasonable time and I can wait. As long as they tell us when something can be done and it's reasonable, we can live with it."
But he's also resorted to harsher measures. For instance, the court system sued a vendor whose major application failed, causing a replacement with a competing product. "Their vaporware didn't materialize," the technical adviser says, "and our lawsuit is still pending.
Thank You For Your Support (Not!)
Support organizations also face sharp criticism from our readers. When asked what one thing they'd like vendors to start doing, the majority (28.6 percent) chose "Getting someone on the phone who knows what they are talking about."
We also identified a high prevalence of bait-and-switch practices when it comes to providing support. More than 91 percent agreed or somewhat agreed that they can get top-quality assistance with presales technical questions in a few hours, but postsales support takes a few days. "Just about any vendor's first-line support personnel drive you nuts trying to resolve a problem," a survey respondent said.
These findings point to a deep dissatisfaction with the vendor community's willingness or ability to help customers. It's particularly acute when it comes to resolving problems among multiple products. Only 8.3 percent said vendors make a conscientious effort to solve the problem as their first response to conflicts between two or more products. The great majority (70.6 percent) said the default response is to point the finger at someone else.
"I had a conflict with an antivirus program and a CD-burning program," a survey respondent said. "Both of them pointed to the other guy as the problem. When I finally got them on a three-way call, they both then stated it was my OS that was causing the trouble. I have not used them since."
"The worst is AT&T," another reader said. "It doesn't matter who the equipment vendor is, it is at fault, according to AT&T. I have had them blame a Cisco CallManager for a VoIP outage, only to have them open up a manhole and find it full of water with exposed cable everywhere."
Vendors do a little better resolving product conflicts if IT is persistent: 33.4 percent of respondents said if they pester the relevant parties, vendors will drag their feet but eventually provide a solution. A quarter of respondents said they must broker discussions among the disputing parties, who then make a reasonable attempt to solve the problem. Unfortunately, the top response (34.9 percent) indicates that vendors continue to insist they aren't at fault.
"We had Cisco and Websense integration issues," a reader said. Cisco said it was Websense, and vice versa. "After eight weeks of this, it ended up being problems with both vendors."
In some cases, IT must take the initiative by sniffing out the root cause. "I had a dickens of a time to get a tape backup vendor to come clean with a problem it had with a hardware product," one survey respondent said. "For two straight weeks, all they did was try to place blame on my open-source OS--until I found the problem for them."
Others have resorted to more extreme tactics--including kidnapping. One respondent said the vendor's own hardware and software engineers disagreed on the problem's source. "I kept them in a conference room and didn't let them leave until they mutually found a solution," he said.
Resellers aren't any more well-loved than vendors. The majority of respondents (28.8 percent) agreed that resellers push products that best serve their own profit margins. A close second (28.5 percent) said resellers go with products they know, not what will best serve a customer. Only 15 percent find that resellers will take the time to figure out solutions that best meet IT's needs.
The Three Marketeers
We also wanted to track reader attitudes about marketing and technology hype. Vendor product descriptions are like personal ads: Everyone is slim, good-looking and rich. But as we've seen from this survey, reality tends to have warts.
When we asked readers what marketing phrase they most despised, it was a tie between seamless integration (29.1 percent) and empowers (29 percent). These words offend because integration is rarely without seams, and IT professionals don't want to be empowered--they just want things to work.
Other marketing jargon that rings hollow included market-leading and next-generation, which tied for second at 13.2 percent. Enable, visibility and streamlines fared somewhat better.
There's also a clear trend of marketing departments jumping on the compliance bandwagon: 60.6 percent of respondents said that 50 percent or more of product pitches in the past year touted a compliance angle.
Part of the blame for the compliance gold rush can be laid at the feet of regulators that issue broad and/or vague mandates regarding processes and controls. This creates FUD that marketing departments are only too happy to exploit.
Still, it's true that IT professionals are looking for assistance in meeting compliance goals. More than 44 percent of respondents said products play an important role, but policies and procedures carry greater weight. Only 7.6 percent agreed that products are an essential component of their compliance strategies.
Hype also can be a problem for IT when trying to discern the true capabilities and business value of a technology. When asked which technology buzzword they most despise, SOA and virtualization claimed the top two spots, at 20.6 and 19.3 percent, respectively.
SOA is one of the hottest acronyms in press releases and among tech pundits, who tout its transformative ability to broker communications among disparate applications built on incompatible platforms. But it's still not resonating with our readers: When asked about SOA, 30.4 percent of respondents asked, "What does that stand for again?"
The second most popular response? A tie between "gives me a headache" and "is useful but still too complex and expensive."
Virtualization doesn't fare much better. In the top response, 26 percent said they'd like to punch the next salesperson who mentions it (don't say we didn't warn you). Not everyone was so hostile; while 19.5 percent of respondents declared that virtualization hadn't provided the level of benefits they expected, they did not threaten violence.
We had some fun with follow-up questions on a variety of technologies being deployed in today's IT organizations, such as open-source software (OSS), VoIP, NAC (network access control) and SIM (security information management).
There's broad support among survey respondents for OSS: 44.2 percent agreed that it provides valuable alternatives to commercial software. An additional 21.2 percent selected "all of the above," which further indicates the positive opinion toward OSS.
As for VoIP, those enterprises currently running VoIP systems gave mixed reviews. More than 25 percent of respondents said VoIP is an expensive and complicated replacement for telephone systems that work just fine. However, nearly 20 percent said their VoIP deployments run as well or better than a conventional phone system.
NAC is another hyped topic, but our readers seem to be approaching it with caution--if not downright apathy. More than 51 percent of respondents chose, "What does that stand for again?" when asked about NAC. The next most popular response: "NAC is useful but too complex and expensive." We're seeing some interest in the technology, but it still has a way to go.
SIM products are another hot technology, but again the marketing pitch--that a SIM product can streamline security operations--runs aground against the reality. A majority of respondents (37.4 percent) agreed that SIM products are useful ... if you have seven full-time staff members to monitor them.
The survey also did an attitude check of BlackBerrys, the ubiquitous communications devices that facilitate e-mail addiction. A clear majority (just over 32 percent) confirmed the device's unique mix of pros and cons by choosing "all of the above." But a close second think BlackBerrys create more work than value: 24.1 percent said the devices vastly increase the number of superfluous messages that must be treated by various scanning and filtering devices and then stored.
On a side note, Kyrouz, the network services manager at Goodwin Procter, conducted his interview with Network Computing at the same time he was troubleshooting the firm's Enterprise BlackBerry Server. A recent upgrade had changed some user settings, causing consternation among the attorneys.
"They can't live without them," he said with a sigh.
Most of this survey focused on vendor behaviors that drive IT professionals crazy. But IT's own constituency also can be a great source of frustration. Executives don't want to sign off on budgets, users don't cooperate with policies, and everyone in the organization expects 100 percent uptime.
As one respondent wrote: "Any major project in my organization, from VoIP to a 50,000-foot fiber install to a new CRM application, is seen as requiring no setup or planning and is expected to work when purchased, as if you are switching on a light."
This type of environment is bound to create conflicts inside the enterprise. When asked which internal organization IT butts heads with regularly, the majority (30.1 percent) picked "All of 'em." Rounding out the top three were end users (23 percent) and finance officers (12.2 percent).
Almost 100 survey respondents shared anecdotes of intramural conflict, and it's clear that IT feels burdened by expectations that aren't backed up with the proper budget or planning.
"Our finance group expects an Oracle upgrade 11.5.9 to 11.5.10 to go perfectly, appear on their screen exactly as it was before, make no changes to anything they do, and be done on a very limited budget," a respondent wrote. "When one report isn't printing the way it used to, it's obvious that IT doesn't know what it's doing and is wasting money."
Said another; "International IT comes to the home office with a project and design they claim will save money. We ask to see the cost analysis, and they finally admit that they guessed."
We asked about the underlying causes of respondents' last major IT failure (assuming they had one). The majority, nearly 30 percent, cited a combination of issues by choosing "All of the above." Scope creep was the second highest response, chosen by 20 percent of survey participants. And just over 16.4 percent chose insufficient budget.
However, several respondents were quick to remind their IT brethren that finger pointing at other departments is an untenable solution. "IT personnel forget they are a service organization and believe they run the company," wrote one survey participant. "If they don't change their attitudes, IT may end up going the same route as the MIS department."
Another described a more productive attitude, instead of regarding end users and executives as idiots. "My IT teams are the team builders within the company. We are there to serve and support the user community and to teach and train users. I eliminated the traditional IT silo model and built a user-centric model. I run IT like a production business, and happy users means more money, more staff, more toys."
About This Survey
This year, 755 Network Computing readers responded to our reader poll. These respondents represent a variety of IT roles, company sizes and industries.
A majority of respondents (28.8 percent) are IT staff, while 22.3 percent fill manager/supervisor roles. A combined 19 percent represent top executives, including CEOs, CIOs, CTOs and VPs.
Survey respondents run the gamut in terms of company size. The majority (27.8 percent) come from enterprises of 5,000 employees or more, while the second-highest total (13.5 percent) come from organizations of 10 or fewer people. These figures bookend a range of sizes. Nearly 10 percent belong to businesses with 1,000 to 2,499 employees, while 9.7 percent of respondents work at companies with 100 to 249 employees.
We also asked for size by total annual sales revenue. The majority (18.9 percent) represent organizations earning between $10 and $99.9 million, while 17.3 percent come from billion-dollar enterprises. At the low end, another 17.3 percent belong to companies earning less than $1 million. And 15.4 percent represented government and nonprofits.
We included 28 categories for an industry breakdown: 12.5 percent come from consulting and business services, 10.6 percent are in the education sector, 10.4 percent come from governmental organizations, 10.1 percent belong to the manufacturing sector, and 6.5 percent come from the health-care/medical industries.
Technology Editor Andrew Conry-Murray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.