Archive for 19 December 2011

Ten Things Your Vendor Wishes You Did Better

Before joining ESPN, I spent a little over five years at Adobe (formerly Omniture, prior to 2009 acquisition) as an enterprise software vendor. While I had four different titles during those five years, the overall theme of my time there was “customer relations,” as I moved from technical support to community management to product management. I gave a lot of thought to the different kinds of customers I worked with. What made some companies really successful in their interactions with us (and likely with other vendors), while others—using the same products/solutions—struggled to get value out of the relationship?

Anyway, I was honored to be invited to present at Web Analytics Demystified’s first ACCELERATE conference in San Francisco last month. The WAD team thought it might be nice to have me present on ten ways to get more value out of vendor relationships, and I tweaked that slightly, giving it the title “Ten Things Your Vendor Wishes You Did Better.” It was intended to be slightly edgy—hopefully we all realize that there are no perfect software vendors, but I wanted to be clear there are also no perfect clients, and (despite what some conversation out there may suggest) vendors are not actually evil, two-headed, fire-breathing monsters. My goal was to give listeners some points that they could use at they work with their vendors so that both sides of that relationship can benefit and improve together as partners. (As I said when I got to the podium, I am the Dr. Phil of ACCELERATE.)

So here are the ten things that your vendor wishes you did better, with some articulation on each. These are in no particular order, and while they were written to apply to digital analytics (and that is how I will speak of them), they likely carry weight in other types of enterprise software as well.

1. Teach your internal users that not all problems are the vendor’s fault. When I got to ESPN, we had an intern who had just finished doing a survey and holding focus groups to help us understand some of the problems that our internal analytics customers were facing in working with our software solution of choice. One of the themes that emerged was that they were having a hard time finding the reports they needed.

Don't just blame the vendor!It would have been easy for us to lay that on the vendor and complain about the non-intuitiveness of their interface. But my VP wisely pointed out that our vendor gave us the ability to customize the UI nearly five years ago; we simply haven’t taken advantage of that feature. So is that on them? Maybe partially. But it’s also partially on us, and if we make that clear to our users, they will be able to maintain a bit more trust and confidence in the tools that we are providing to them.

Similarly, if your analytics implementation is three years old, don’t immediately complain that your vendor “doesn’t understand your new business initiatives.” They are there to support you, but ultimately your company is responsible for updating your implementation as your strategy changes.

Take some responsibility and hold yourself partially accountable for implementing, maintaining, and supporting the vendor solution. Everyone will look better in the long run if you do so.

2. Don’t be “the client who cried wolf.” A few years ago I worked with a customer for whom every issue was more than critical—it was (they claimed) cause for termination. We ended up in a cycle where they would call in and demand an immediate resolution “or else.” That “or else” also included the promise to publicly embarrass us using social media or any other means available to them.

Your vendor is not your puppetIt is neither wise nor responsible for your vendor to react to every product complaint or feature request in the same way. In other words, if everything is nuclear, nothing is nuclear. And if you keep insisting that everything is nuclear, it becomes difficult for the vendor to discern which issues really are mission-critical, and which are merely important. As a result—somewhat paradoxically, it might seem—you actually risk getting worse service. In the case I just mentioned, I believe we maintained a high level of support, but we certainly did not shift around resources every time we got a phone call from this group. If you act like a bully, expect to be treated like a bully. It’s the only way for vendors to maintain some semblance of order and progress.

There are certainly scenarios where a relationship has deteriorated to the point where it might be time to look elsewhere. Maybe you’re not seeing the value you expect over a long period of time. Just make sure that you don’t play that card unless you really mean it. And if that remains your ace in the hole, it will carry some real weight when you play it, and your vendors will do whatever they can do to see you through to resolution.

3. Share your business with them. I spoke with one Account Manager who said that this was the most important thing that her clients do to help her serve them. A few years ago she was working with a food delivery business. In the course of her conversations with that team, they had explained what they do, and why they are passionate about their brand and their product. They had gotten her into their product catalog.

Your ideal account team on the vendor side—sales, account management, consulting, support, etc.—functions almost as an extension of your own team, right? They are more than just representatives—the people you call when something is broken or when you need to purchase a new product/feature. What better way is there to create an extension of your team than to share with them what you’re trying to do? Help them feel like a part of the team and they will do just that. So tell them what’s going on at your company. Tell them why what you’re doing is neat and how you’re changing the world.

When this Account Manager saw her client’s product catalog, she actually became a customer by purchasing some food for delivery from them. How is that for closing the loop? Now not only does she know what their business goals are, but she has been through their whole site experience, and she is uniquely qualified to offer strategic and tactical advice. That makes her happy, and it certainly helps her client get more out of the relationship.

4. Use the right resource for the question. What would happen if your vendor salesperson sent an important and time-sensitive question about your contract to your Network Operations team instead of to you? There are a few possible outcomes:

  1. Network Operations fumbles around trying to figure out who is the right person to answer the question. The e-mail finally makes it to you, but precious time is wasted.
  2. Network Operations wastes a bunch of their own time and resources to answer the question themselves, when you may have known the answer off the top of your head.
  3. Network Operations assumes they know the answer and fires off a quick (but incorrect) response, creating an awkward situation months later.

To some extent, the same outcomes are possible when you send to your one of your vendor’s product mangers a question that is really ideal for their support team, or when you submit a request for detailed consultation to your account manager instead of to your consultant. It is likely that your account team has specialized roles that are uniquely suited to serve your varying needs. Talk to your Account Manager and find out what resources are available to you all across their company. You can always rely on your Account Manager as a point person, but take advantage of access to people whose roles are uniquely designed to match your differing needs.

There certainly is a time to call product management as opposed to support or sales, but if you can learn whom to contact in various scenarios, you will get faster, more expert care and you will find yourself much less frustrated with the process of getting the answers you so desperately seek.

5. Participate in the community. I know I get a lot of value out of participating in my vendor’s community, but how does it help the vendor serve me?

Smiling community facesFirst, understand that by “community” in this case I am not referring solely to Twitter (although that may be a large part of it). This includes opportunities such as beta testing, customer advisory board participation, and more. When I was at Adobe we launched the Idea Exchange, which allowed customers to share their product enhancement ideas with one another. Not only did that give us, as a vendor, some phenomenal ideas (many of which we implemented), but customers frequently solved each others problems.

And that’s my point: even if all you do is sit on the sidelines and listen—you watch the tweets or the ideas or the forum posts—you will be exposed to some of the forward-thinking solutions that other customers are creating. You will be hip to all of the latest news coming out of your vendor’s headquarters. It’s also a great way to establish relationships outside of your account team. When I operated the @OmnitureCare account on Twitter, I was never part of anyone’s dedicated account team, but the relationships I established through the community allowed me to serve customers efficiently and, often, publicly—to the benefit of casual observers who may have had similar questions.

6. Don’t assume telepathy. My colleague at ESPN once told me, “People think that our vendor should be able to read our minds without us having to tell them what we expect and when we expect it.” What a recipe for disaster!

You hate when people do this to you:

  • “Hey Ben, can you tell me whether our campaign was successful?”
  • “How do our metrics look?”
  • “Did our change to the home page lead to more engagement?”

Vendors are not Dr. X.These are vague questions that are tremendously frustrating to serve. I know that a ton of analysts out there get these questions frequently from their colleagues, because I see the complaints on Twitter. Why do we think that our vendors are any better at reading our minds?

Be clear. You don’t just want an executive dashboard; you need one that has a specific set of KPIs and addresses specific business requirements, and perhaps it needs to look a certain way. Oh, and you need it by a specific date so that you can show it off at your next quarterly department meeting. Even this is too vague, but hopefully you get the point. Hopefully you have smart, talented vendor representatives working with you, but (thankfully?) they are not Miss Cleo. So be as clear with them as you wish people were with you, and they will amaze you a lot more frequently.

7. Hold that periodic call and make it count. This happened all the time: I would field an angry (sometimes borderline violent) complaint from a customer via Twitter. I would talk to the Account Manager to ask what is going with this client, and he or she would (often with a wistful sigh) respond some variation of:

  • “We have a weekly call scheduled, but he never shows up.”
  • “I want to meet with them, but they won’t accept my invites, e-mail, or phone calls.”

Even if you need to yell, hold the callFrankly, as a vendor, I had a hard time mustering up sympathy for an unhappy client who refused to get on the phone with the account team to discuss the relationship every so often. I hope that your vendors are offering some sort of regularly scheduled “check up,” be it weekly, monthly, or even quarterly. More importantly, I hope you are actually engaging with your vendor to make sure that you are both on the same page. If you need to yell at them during the call, so be it. Just make sure you’re having it. Anything is far, far better than nothing.

In an ideal world, this phone call is more than just a discussion about your complaints, product bugs, feature demands, etc. It’s a great opportunity to get your account team involved. Hold them accountable to provide strategic guidance in your use of their products and solutions. Tell them three items of priority to your business, and ask them how this relationship is going to help you achieve those goals during the coming quarter.

I worry that many of the clients I mentioned above—the ones who wouldn’t bother with that scheduled phone call—got in the habit of skipping the call because there were, at some point, no major complaints to address. If there are no showstoppers, why spend the time, right? Wrong. This is your time to really move forward. In most cases, the act of resolving support tickets is not going to change your business as quickly as huddling on your strategy is going to change your business.

8. Understand the reality of resource limitations. This is a true story. Once I was at a basketball game and I tweeted a photo of the court from my seats. I got a response a few minutes later from a client who said—and I know he was mostly kidding because there was a smiley emoticon attached to the tweet—”How dare you attend a basketball game while my bug, #XXXXX, is not resolved!” He may have been mostly kidding, but he was also partially serious.

It would be great if vendors could build everything that we need built, and fix everything that we need fixed, and do it yesterday. This Venn diagram speaks the truthThink 24/7 support, engineering, network, and product staffs spanning the globe and just building, building, building. But it isn’t so, and will never be so.

The reality is that vendors are tasked with looking out over their customer base and their market/industry and determining what needs to get done, and in what order it needs to happen. Sometimes this will be pleasing to you; sometimes it won’t. You will not love every product or feature that they release. That’s okay. Part of their job is to balance your voice with their own interpretation of the future.

It took me a full year in product management to realize that if vendors always build what exactly what their customers are demanding, those customers will never be happy.* The vendor will always end up a step behind because things change so rapidly. We, as customers, ask for the things will help us right now, not necessarily the things we are going to need in a year or two or three.

So do not be upset if a product manager goes to a basketball game. Understand that the world is more complex than the bug you reported, and that the vendor has its own vision and strategy that will hopefully impress you in the long run—even if there are sometimes point releases that make you yawn with boredom.

(* – Note that Cuban is going for high shock factor in the title of his blog post. In reality, listening to customers is critical, and is something that the best vendors do really well. My point is simply that there are also other sources of insight, vision, and innovation which help your vendor make the best decisions.)

9. Prioritize everything. And I do mean everything: support tickets, outstanding questions, bugs, feature requests, consulting projects, and more.

Prioritize everything!This is about expectations. Help your vendor understand what matters most to your business at any given time. This is critical because the list may change frequently. Something that mattered greatly two months ago may have been superseded by a new challenge. Don’t let your vendor go on thinking that the old assignment is still priority number one if it’s not.

This is actually a fantastic opportunity to use data. When I was preparing to move into product management, I asked a developer friend (not with my company) what successful product managers do to help developers. He said, “They bring data. If you can show that Feature X will generate $5 million in profit, or that 80% of customers are demanding Feature Y, it gives our work clear purpose.”

Applied to your interactions with vendors, consider how much easier it is for your account team to understand the priority of a bug fix if they know that you have $400,000 in revenue riding on it. That kind of data helps you prioritize your work, just as it helps your vendor understand just how much their services matter. That makes it much easier for a developer, support agent, or consultant to justify spending an extra few hours getting the issue resolved.

Where I have seen customers prioritize their needs, it has improved their level of service immensely. Account teams and clients are always on the same page, with both groups understanding what needs to be addressed first, and why.

10. Ask! This little list could easily be twice as long, but at 2,685 words and counting, I’ll stop on this point. Every company is different, every vendor is different, and every account team is different, so ask what you can do to help them serve you more effectively. I honestly do not know a single Account Manager who would not appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation, and to discuss how both vendor and customer can get more out of the relationship.

I have seen a number customers who, either intentionally or serendipitously, have applied some of the suggestions that I have discussed here. Are there still hiccups? Certainly. I said up front that no vendor is perfect! But I believe that these customers also understand partnership, and the concept of increasing returns.

So give it a shot; help your vendor help you. Simple concept, worth its weight in ROI.

All photos © ShutterStock

In which I defend the BCS (sort of)

Alabama-LSU

I’m not really defending the BCS, but I knew the title would grab some attention. Nobody defends the BCS.

I’m in favor of a playoff in college football. I also recognize that no system is ever perfect. March Madness snubs deserving teams every season, and some fan base is always up in arms over having to settle for the NIT. Major League Baseball just expanded its postseason field, either ruining the playoffs or suggesting that the previous format wasn’t quite right (depending on your preferences). Someone is always going to feel shafted, and championships don’t always tell us who the best team really is. I agree with my colleague, Mark, who said that the NBA is probably the closest to getting it right of any North American league.

Mad as hellLately, Twitter has been irate over the matchup in the BCS national championship this year. Undefeated LSU (13-0) is playing 11-1 (and SEC non-champion) Alabama. It’s not fair. It’s not fun. Suddenly, friends who hated Rick Reilly a few months ago consider him the peoples’ champion. I respect most of the arguments that I’ve heard against LSU-Alabama II, and I even understand most of them. But I don’t agree with any of them.

(NOTE: This has nothing to do with my feelings about Oklahoma State. I would love to have seen Oklahoma State have a crack at LSU, but not because they “deserve it” more than Alabama. Mostly, I just like Coach Gundy, I think it would be a good matchup, and I’m in favor of anything that might prevent the smug SEC from winning another title.)

What follows is a list of the most common points that I’ve heard against this national championship matchup, with some thoughts in counterpoint. Most of you are probably going to hate what you read. You will sit there foaming at the mouth and wondering how someone as stupid as I am is capable of enjoying sports. That’s fine. Please share your wrath in the comments and I will use them to enhance my self-disapproval. Here goes!

“BCS: Every game counts, except for LSU-Alabama on 11/5/11!”
This argument would make sense, if it weren’t the opposite of the truth. Think about it. It is because Alabama lost by three in overtime that we are even having this conversation. Do you think that we would be talking about the Crimson Tide if they had laid an egg against LSU and been blown out by 40 points? I certainly do not.

In college football, every loss is not created equal. Alabama proved that it belongs right up there with the best team in the nation by coming closer to beating LSU than anyone else. No, your real concern should be that round one of LSU-Alabama counted too much. If anything, people put too much stock in that game as a sign of Alabama’s superiority over everyone other than LSU. If you don’t want to see LSU-Alabama II, you should wish this game counted less.

And the coup de grace: If every game is supposed to count, shouldn’t Iowa State 37, Oklahoma State 31 a mere two weeks ago count, too? It’s easy to ignore that one when making this argument!

“We already saw this game, and it was boring.”
Look, you’re welcome to prefer a shootout, and Oklahoma State can definitely bring the offense. This is a matter of preference, though. Just because you didn’t like LSU-Alabama the first time around doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen again. It means that you didn’t like it. That’s as far as that goes.

Or maybe you just like variety. Variety is cute, but have I mentioned that we’re trying to decide a national championship? It seems backward to force a matchup in the name of variety when there is another matchup that ostensibly makes more sense (#1 versus #2).

I wasn’t bored, and I would watch that game again. That’s my prerogative, just as it is yours is to complain about a close game between the two best teams in the nation. (Sorry, I’ll tone down the passive-aggressiveness.)

“If Alabama wins, the ‘series’ with LSU will be tied, 1-1. We won’t have a clear champion!”
If you win the championship game, you are the champion. This really should not be disputable. You’re trying to say that it’s the entire body of work that makes a champion, which defeats the whole purpose of deciding the championship in a single game.

Rematches happen in championship games all the time in various sports. Why is college football the only one where a regular season game suddenly has the same efficacy as the championship game? To borrow an example that my friend Daniel Nielson used, if North Carolina beats Kentucky in the men’s basketball championship game this coming April, is anyone going to argue that they need a third game to determine which team is better? Absolutely not.

If we’re going to start insisting on tiebreakers, then I want to go back and play one for the 2008 Patriots, who beat the Giants to end their 16-0 regular season before losing to them a month later in the Super Bowl. (And don’t give me any “it’s-different-because-it’s-a-playoff” garbage. If you want to pretend that it’s a series, then be consistent. If “1-1″ isn’t decisive enough for you in college football, it isn’t decisive enough anywhere.)

If you win the rematch, you’re the champion. Whatever happens in the final game of the season is what counts.

“Alabama didn’t even win their conference!”
So what? The 2004 Red Sox didn’t even win their division. The 2009 North Carolina Tar Heels didn’t win the ACC tournament. In college football in 2011, is there a rule which stipulates that a national championship game participant must have won its conference? Oh, there isn’t?

“But it’s not fair!” Sure it is. It isn’t against the rules. Nowhere does it say that winning your conference gets you a leg up on the pile. I would be open to discussing just such a rule, but you can’t do it in the middle of the season.

Just be aware that if you institute this rule, it’s possible that you will have #1 playing #3 or even #4—what if the season had ended two weeks ago with LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas ranked #1, #2, and #3 respectively?—in the title game. Maybe you’re okay with that. Maybe you’re not. Either way, it’s something to consider.

Also, consider this: as conferences get larger, the odds of a legitimate contender not winning its conference increases. It simply becomes more likely that a single, massive body of teams making up a super-conference will contain more than one of the best teams in the nation. Maybe we aren’t headed toward the formation of super-conferences, but maybe we are. It’s a side note, but a compelling one.

“Did you even SEE what Oklahoma State did to Oklahoma?!”
I turned it off after Landry Jones’ second fumble, which made it 34-3 Oklahoma State. Yes, it was sheer domination. By my own logic (I weight late-season games far more heavily than early-season games), I have to agree that this outweighs Alabama’s trouncing of Arkansas in September. Oklahoma State was trying to send a message, and it sent one, loud and clear.

Unfortunately for OSU, also fresh in voters minds is a loss to an Iowa State team that finished below .500 in Big 12 play. I feel horrible for the kids at Oklahoma State, but you can’t blow a game (which you led 24-7 in the third quarter) against an utterly mediocre team on November 18 and expect to play for the national title just because you blew out a shaky Oklahoma team, which had been completely exposed by RGIII and Baylor two weeks earlier. The bottom line is that if voters had been sufficiently impressed by the last two weeks of Oklahoma State’s cumulative body of work, they could have voted Oklahoma State ahead of Alabama. They didn’t. In fact, 70% of coaches put Alabama ahead of Oklahoma State. 70%! And most of them had no skin in the game. Troy Calhoun put OSU fifth, and three coaches whose teams are not even remotely close to the championship race put them fourth (in addition to Nick Saban and David Shaw, both of whom obviously stand to benefit from their votes). Blame them if you’d like, but let’s not pretend their ambivalence makes no sense whatsoever.

Oklahoma State’s blowout of Oklahoma was impressive, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a major slip that only happened 15 days prior.

“Alabama had their chance and failed!”
So did Oklahoma State. They failed to Iowa State, and Alabama failed to LSU.

- – -

I’d also like to point out that I’m picking on Oklahoma State because I find them to be the only even remotely compelling alternative to Alabama. Here are two other teams that Rick Reilly suggested, along with reasons he is wrong:

Stanford: Laid the egg against Oregon that Alabama did NOT lay against LSU. Too injured to pose much of a challenge to LSU.

Boise State: To steal another point from Daniel, for how long are we going to allow Boise State to schedule one good-but-not-great big name team in week one and then use that as the only real arrow in their quiver in BCS discussions? It’s wonderful that they beat Georgia, but they really didn’t do anything else worth writing home about. You want to put that in the national championship game? Really?

Everyone else has two losses, except for Houston, and my contempt for Case Keenum and his wildly inflated numbers is well known.

Just so we’re clear, here is what I would like to see out of college football, in order of preference:

1.) Some sort of playoff. It’s time to settle this on the field, not because I believe we’ll ever be able to say conclusively “which team is better,” but to get as close as possible to that point.
2.) Revert to the pre-BCS days when you might have 2-3 bowl games that impact the national championship discussion but you’re often within a #1-versus-#2 matchup
3 through 1,390.) Anything else. Seriously.
1,391.) Stick with the current system.

But this year, we’re stuck with the current system, and the system did what it is supposed to do: it gave us #1 LSU and #2 Alabama.

(Now go ahead and tell me in the comments I’m an idiot. I can take it. To paraphrase Coach Gundy, “COME AFTER ME!! I’M A MAN!! I’M 30!!”)