It’s rare that I meet someone who doesn’t have at least one (usually several) frustrating stories about how a technology / software purchase went terribly wrong on them in one way or another. In almost every case, by the time they realized things had gone off the rails, it was too late to do anything about it.
You can’t control every cog of a complex purchase, big purchases are always going to come with some risk. But, there is a lot you can do as a savvy client to avoid the usual pitfalls and increase the chances your project’s success!
1. The sales process is the best customer service you will ever receive
When you're making a technology purchase (especially a mid to large one), the period directly before making the actual purchase is the best customer service you will ever receive from the vendor you end up hiring. Even if the company you hire is genuinely fantastic, and even if the drop in customer service is almost imperceptible, it will happen.
This is why lapses in the sales process are so important, they telegraph the customer service you can expect once you are a customer. Are you waiting forever to hear back on questions or information the vendor was supposed to send? Do agreed dates blow by without any update or explanation for the delay? Uh oh.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean a flawless sales process is an indication that your post sale support will be good. But, if poor customer service seeps into the sales process, that can signify an organizational culture that doesn’t value the customer, which almost certainly spells disaster post sale.
2. The Sales Team are liars
A big part of my job is sales, and selling ethically, honestly, and authentically is very important to me. That’s why this next one bothers me so much….but it’s a rampant problem in the industry that can’t be ignored. Anecdotally, this seems to happen more often at larger companies when two conditions are met:
- The sales team receives significant sales incentives via commission
- The sales team is no longer involved once you make a purchase
This is a dangerous combination. It creates an environment where the sales professional is highly motivated to sell since a good deal of their wage can come from it, and it is easier to misrepresent or outright lie about the software because after the contract is signed, they aren't the ones who have to stick around and deal with the fallout.
Couple this with a larger organization who’s focus is typically on customer growth vs. softer data points such as post-sale satisfaction, and you’ve got the potential for a perfect storm.
So while not all of us are dishonest, in many cases you won’t be able to tell the difference between the good ones and the bad ones. This makes it critical to adopt a "trust but verify” approach when discussing the functionality and features of your purchase.
It’s imperative that any critical features and requirements are, at a minimum, spelled out clearly in the contract. Better yet, you should insist (if possible) on seeing how any critical features will work prior to the purchase.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been told about a technology purchase where technically a promised feature was available, but the way it was implemented or made available to the customer made it essentially useless.
Again, you may be saying, "Dave, this seems like pretty straight forward common-sense stuff,” but I have been in technical sales for the better part of twenty years and I consistently hear horror stories that could’ve been avoided with just a little bit of extra due diligence.
3. Call the references, please!
I can’t believe this is one of the points, but I’ve been providing references for any quote I’ve done for as long as I can remember. I’ve also been regularly asking my references if they’ve been contacted by any of my potential customers for as I can remember.
I’ve found that my references get contacted by those who end up becoming customers about 30% of the time.
You might be thinking, that’s not too big of a deal, if the company provides references than that means they have happy clients that will talk about working with them! You’re forgetting rule number two. I have a long-time client who had one of their previous technology vendors list them as a reference. They got a call from one of the vendor’s prospective clients, but they happened to be profoundly unhappy with the service and product they had received but were stuck with it for several years due to the size of the purchase. Let's just say the endorsement they gave that company wasn't exactly ringing.
I’ve also seen many instances of references being just completely fabricated, offered on the assumption that they will never be contacted- this includes a time where I was called to give a reference for a company I had never heard of that listed us as a client!
4. The contract is NOT an afterthought
So you’ve gone through an exhaustive vetting process and you’ve settled on the perfect vendor. Time to take a quick look through the contract, make sure there isn’t anything objectionable, and then get this project going, right?
Wrong! While the contract signing phase is not a good time to negotiate price (unless you’ve been presented with something significantly different than what you discussed), just about everything else is on the table!
As your new vendor, we’ve got you on the finish line ready to cross, we can taste the sale and want to do everything we can to make it happen. This is your best time to negotiate terms that are advantageous to you as the client!
It’s important to be reasonable here, don’t make unfair or unreasonable requests as that can start the vendor / client relationship off on the wrong foot, but don’t’ be afraid to make requests. The worst thing that can happen is your new vendor says no. Don’t worry, they will still want your business!
If it’s a large purchase, make sure the total fee is split out into a reasonable amount of payments that are tied directly to deliverables provided by your vendor. This allows you to hold back funds if a project is running behind schedule (as they often do).
It can also be a good idea to ask for a holdback clause, 10 – 15% of the final budget that is held back for 30 or 60 days after final delivery for you to evaluate and ensure all the vendor’s obligations have been met.
You can also ask the vendor to split the project budget to spill over into the next fiscal year. This can make paying for a large purchase much easier as you can split it out over two budgets.
5. It’s not me, it’s you
Just about any technology project is going to involve responsibilities on both sides of the table. If you don’t start a new project prepared to invest the time and effort to make it a success on your end, or you’re approaching the project with the attitude that "I’ve hired this vendor, it’s their job to finish the project now.”, you are setting the stage for a failed project.
A successful project is the result of a partnership between you and your vendor. Sure, sometimes vendor’s fail in their responsibilities, but I have also seen firsthand many client driven failures. The worst part about those is that the client often fails to realize that their lack of participation caused the failure and this ultimately results in a string of failed projects and an organizational culture that views technology vendors as lousy bums who never deliver.
How to tell if you’re a bad client, and why you should care is a large topic that I’m going to cover in more detail in future post, but I’ll leave you with this thought. If it seems like your vendors are always failing you or that you just can’t seem to find a technology vendor who can actually deliver after many attempts, you should at least entertain the possibility that it might actually be your organization that is the problem, not the vendors.
I can’t promise that you’ll never have a technology purchase end in disaster again, but if you put these simple strategies into practice, I can guarantee you’ll increase the chances that you’ll have successful projects and successful client vendor relationships.
Hopefully you found this helpful, and if you have and feedback, or questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out!