When good vendors go bad

The most pervasive problem in running IT is not a specific technology issue at all. It's dealing with bad vendors. Even if you have been able to reduce your IT operation down to a pure open source environment on the software side, hardware still must be purchased through commercial channels. In the post-boom IT age, the power has supposedly shifted from vendor to buyer, but IT managers continue to be manipulated by vendors who don't always act in the customer's best interest. To keep vendors in line, IT managers need to stay on the ball -- and punish bad behaviour when it occurs by finding new suppliers.

In particular, watch out for vendors that try to push overblown solutions. Recently, I was ready to purchase a set of network devices and called a reseller for one of the leading vendors in the space. Our IT manager had done exhaustive research and we were ready to issue a purchase order so it would be charged to our soon-to-close fiscal year budget. We submitted our order for the equipment via the reseller with more than three weeks to spare -- no sweat.

But while we were waiting for shipping information, the vendor called to try to upsell us a higher-end version of the device we had ordered at double the price. He said he wanted to "make sure" we knew what we were getting and began pushing the features of the more expensive solution. Of course, good salespeople consult with customers and, in some cases, upselling to a more expensive solution is completely reasonable -- particularly if an underpowered item might leave the customer dissatisfied.

But the salesperson in question left out the most essential part of the process: He never asked us how we were planning to use the device in production.

When I brought up that essential detail, it became clear that the upsell was in his interest, not mine. This unproductive upselling process delayed the order processing, and by the time the vendor agreed that our original purchase was the right one, our purchase window had passed. I cancelled the order, and the vendor will no longer get my business. Although this decision caused implementation delays and aggravated budget issues, I was willing to pay the price to send a message. That vendor lost my business forever.

Vendors that upsell compulsively are bad, but there's a worse variety: vendors with which you have an established relationship and that provide you with a key technology -- but that take your business for granted. These vendors might have been innovators years ago, but now they offer no credible roadmap for their product or service. Their product development is slow and unresponsive to your needs, but somehow their finance department manages to deliver the [usually high] bill for annual maintenance like clockwork. IT managers sigh and keep paying the maintenance bills because they fear the switching costs. Of course, salespeople exploit that fear while offering few compelling reasons to stick with the product. The overly conservative IT approach of hanging on to these vendors avoids short-term disruption in your business, but who wants to be the last customer standing beside a failing vendor?

If you have a vendor like this, it's time to come up with an exit strategy. I've got one in my sights right now and I can't wait to pull the plug.

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