Magazine Article | December 1, 2002

Promises Made, Promises Broken

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

Have you been burned by an overpromising, underdelivering vendor? You're the steward of your company's infrastructure. Don't take the job lightly.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, December 2002
Matt Pillar

If a vendor's service or support offering has burned you, don't be shy about it. You're not alone. These days, it seems every retail IT vendor - sellers of hardware and software alike - offers some kind of "value-added service" via a "professional services department" that's better than the next guy's. By all vendor accounts, these are the things that set one vendor company apart from its competition. These things include the technical expertise of off-hour support staff, for example, or seamless break/fix services (complete with promises that the front end of the store will never feel the bumps should a back office problem arise). When you really think about it, the intangibles, things like the way a vendor handles adversity and its ability to honor service and support contracts, are too often tested only after much time and money have been invested in a project. And, too often the vendor fails the test.

Perhaps the most unfortunate result of what we'll call a "vendor-sponsored letdown" is the bad taste it leaves in the mouths of retail IT buyers. You can probably name a time when your excitement about a new product was brought down to earth by a gun-shy buying committee or final decision maker. What can you do now, prior to your buying decision, to put your vendors to the test? I talk to retailers every day who admit to getting burned by overpromising and underdelivering vendors. Here are some things I've picked up in those conversations that might help you as you shop:

  • Assign an internal manager with core competencies to oversee your IT project and assume control of its mission-critical aspects. This way, when a C-level executive needs answers, he can find them within rather than having to sift through a vendor's multiple layers of help desks.
  • Study potential vendors' service offerings, get them in writing, and make them part of your contract. If the service isn't in the contract, don't expect it to be performed. If it is in the contract, don't let it go undone.
  • Look for a vendor that allots its service department a budget that's on a par with its product development and marketing funding. This is a barometer of the company's dedication to service, and a vendor that amply funds its service initiatives will likely stand by its contract.
  • Get references, but refuse to be spoon-fed referrals. Demand the vendor's complete customer list, and call whichever of those customers you wish. Establish a network of colleagues, including other retail CIOs and VPs, whom you can call for feedback on a certain vendor's products.
  • Become a "contract technician." Make sure the contracts you enter into with vendors are thorough and specific, yet offer you leverage to maximize the service you expect.
  • Check the vendor's financials. Financials speak volumes about a vendor's health and its ability to serve customers. If the company is private and you can't get a D&B (Dun & Bradstreet) report on them, call the CEO and talk to him personally. Tell him you're a potential customer and you want the company's background.

There's no foolproof way to hire a great vendor. Even the best have failed at times. But, making sure you've done your homework will help eliminate "vendor-sponsored letdowns."