Is it really possible to have a fulfilling, long-term relationship with a software vendor? I’m here to claim that the answer is “yes”. You may think I’m biased because I work for a software vendor but I’ve also been on the purchasing side often enough to speak confidently from that perspective, too. I’m here to offer you three very simple tips on choosing a software vendor that is more likely to bring you everlasting love.
- Choose a partner, not a vendor, and definitely not a product. Of course you have to evaluate the product, but make sure that is less than 50% of your buying criteria. You really need to choose a partner. What I mean when I say that is that you have to look much deeper than the product’s functionality. Don’t just choose the pretty girl, choose the one with whom you are most compatible and who will seek to know and understand you over the long term. In the world of software, this means that you need to evaluate the quality of the company and the leadership, in addition to the product.
Figure out which vendor is most likely to continue to address your ever-changing needs as you grow and business models change. This means they need to have a vision (not just a roadmap) and that vision should always include things you’ve never even thought of. That’s a sign that they will continue to stay ahead of your needs. If you think you might be leading them, instead of vice-versa, move on. That’s not the right partner. Keep reading for more on how to evaluate this.
- DNA is critical. This has been said and considered a million times before but it’s so important it needs to be repeated. And it’s too easily forgotten in the flashiness of a particular demo or the charisma of a selling CEO. Choose a partner who really does know your space. And I don’t mean intellectually. I mean they have scars they can show you from the wars that you are currently going through. Let’s say you are buying a financial application. No doubt every vendor will roll out someone during the sales cycle that can really speak the language of finance.
They may even have friends who are in finance. Maybe they even reported to a CFO once upon a time. But you want to know if there’s anyone, preferably several people, who have truly been in your shoes. Your goal has to be to find a partner who is in the business because of pain, not opportunity. Let’s consider two vendors – one is made up of brilliant engineers and now great sales people, too. They know your space cold.
They’ve studied it and interviewed and researched and built exactly what the community of potential users has told them they need. Vendor #2 was founded, and is being run by people who came out of the exact fires you are currently in every day. They know your space cold, not because they’ve studied and interviewed potential users, but because they’ve lived it.
Just as importantly, they know where the market is going, not just where it’s been. All of this leads to a company birthed by pain and empathy, not by opportunity. This may sound like a nuance but I assure you it’s not. It may very well be life or death. Figure out which type of vendor you are talking to, and choose the one with your DNA. You will never regret it.
- Make sure they use their own product. Now let’s be clear – everyone uses their own product. Maybe if I say it this way – make sure they USE their own product – it will make more sense. Because, as you know, there are users and then there are users. Treat this process like an interview and think about this question. “Tell me about your greatest accomplishment.” And let’s say the candidate answers “I grew sales from $500K to $50M.” Is that enough for you or do you have follow-on questions?
I’m guessing you have more questions. Do the same with your potential partners. “Tell me how you use your product.” “Tell me one way you use your product for which it was not intended.” “Show me five features that were built specifically based on internal feedback.” “Can I talk to one of the everyday users of your product at your company?” The vendor you are buying from will deliver a MUCH better product for you if they are truly using their own product every day, in every way. Make sure you know.
Most of the great learnings in our lives come from experience, not books. Many of these lessons I learned from my time at Marketo. Few would argue that Marketo has been the thought leader in the Marketing Automation space. They proved to me that the best way to lead a new market is through thought leadership, not product. If the thought leadership is there, the product will follow. The right DNA is also abundantly in evidence at Marketo.
The founders – Phil, Jon, and David – all came from E.piphany, which dabbled around the edges of Marketing Automation for years but never quite got it right. The pain of not having solved that problem drove them to do what they did at Marketo. Most importantly, Jon Miller was, and is, a Marketing guy. He’s the target audience for their product. He lived through the pain of marketing blindly, even in a digital world, prior to Marketo. He provided much of the thought leadership and a large dose of the necessary DNA. If the product could satisfy him, it would satisfy the world.
Lastly, they truly USED their own product. A new release of Marketo never reaches a single customer until the Marketo Marketing team has had it for two weeks. And, believe me, the Marketo Marketing team is THE most demanding marketing organization in the world. The best and worst customer all rolled into one. There’s very little a customer will ever try that hasn’t first been done inside Marketo. The result of these three elements, blended into one vendor, speak for themselves. $1.6B market cap as we speak.
Take these lessons to heart. Treat the selection process like an interview, not just a series of demos. Ask tough questions. Ask to speak to “the guy” if you want to. I bet Jon Miller talked to every one of the first 200 Marketo customers and you have the right to ask for the same, at least until the vendor has 200 references.
Most vendors will not meet all three criteria I’ve talked about in which case you may have to settle. If you don’t find someone with all three, you might consider waiting. It could mean that the market isn’t mature enough yet. But, if you do find a partner with all of these traits, don’t be afraid to commit. I’m convinced you will live happily ever after.