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How To Cut Through Vendor Hype

How To Cut Through Vendor Hype

There is no bigger waste of time than listening to a vendor herald the nonexistent virtues of a nonexistent product in an impossibly obtuse language called marketese. Read these tips - courtesy of two whistle-blowing PR reps (we'll call them John and Jane) - so that you don't squander another second of your valuable time.

FIRST OFF, DON'T BELIEVE WHAT YOU HEAR OR READ (UNLESS IT'S IN CIO). In high tech, everyone's on the take. At least that's the sense you get talking to John and Jane. There's so much back-scratching between allegedly objective information sources and vendors that not much of anything is worth investing time in.

"When we give analyst references, all those folks are pretty much on the dole these days," John says. Analysts have become aggressive about not providing vendors with reviews or insight unless there's a payoff involved (see "How to Analyse the Analysts", September, 2001).

To prove it, John shows off an e-mail from one analyst company, call it MegaAnalyse. His client company (call it Company X) asked for a briefing with MegaAnalyse. MegaAnalyse replied by asking: "Is Company X willing and able to commit at least $[X]/year for an ongoing relationship?" In other words, no cash, no chitchat.

White papers are often as bogus as the analyst opinions. Even if a white paper has "independent" authors, it could have been written - or heavily influenced - by the vendor's marketing department. Tech journalists, in fact, are often offered large sums of money to ghost-write white papers for vendors.

DON'T EVEN BELIEVE OTHER USERS. Well, at least there are user references, right?

Wrong. User references, which many CIOs rely on when evaluating vendor claims, can be equally dubious. Vendors have so much difficulty recruiting users for that purpose that they will offer kickbacks to users who play ball - free consulting on a project, for example, or a knock-off on price.

And second-hand references are completely worthless. "Sometimes you hear these stories from vendors: ‘We have this one customer who's getting all these benefits out of the product, but we can't tell you who they are.' Beware of that," Jane says. "Demand to speak to customers. If the vendor won't provide them, then that's a pretty good tip-off that the product doesn't work yet."

READ CROSSING THE CHASM BY GEOFFREY MOORE. Not because it's good but because it's the high-tech marketers' playbook.

A sample, from page 132: "How far must one go to serve one's customers? Well, in the case of crossing the chasm, one of the key things a pragmatist customer wants to see is strong competition. If you are fresh from developing a new value proposition . . . that competition is not likely to exist - at least not in a form that a pragmatist would appreciate. What you have to do then is create it." Create enough hype, Moore advises, and the hype becomes the reality.

Vendors eat this stuff up. "I was at a client site," says John, "and the guy actually said: ‘I assume you're all Chasm-enabled here', and I just agreed because at the time I didn't know what it was. Now I know."

Jane tells this story: One of her clients wanted to be considered a player in the security market. To do this, it entered a competitive evaluation with other vendors, even though it didn't have a product. The vendor built one copy of the product it intended to create and entered that into the evaluation against real products.

"I was hoping they'd fail miserably, to teach them a lesson," Jane says, recalling that as much time was spent fretting about what to name the product as to whether it would actually work. But the vendor faired decently, and customers and the press began believing it was, indeed, a player.

Obviously, a viable product was not necessary.

CONSULT A CONSUMER REPORT. Perhaps the best way to cut through vendor hype is to pay someone else to do it. Like Doculabs.

The 8-year-old Chicago company is the Consumer Reports of high-tech products. Doculabs takes no money from vendors; it charges end users for its analysis of the vendors' products.

Vendors submit to Doculabs' arduous evaluation - a two-day drain that includes interrogation, mock buying committees and, of course, lab tests to see if the products actually perform as advertised. All told, products are judged on up to 800 criteria.

Doculab executive vice president of research Jeetu Patel gives vendors (150 of them last year in all areas of technology, including CRM, ERP and Web-based commerce) credit for undergoing the evaluation, which he calls anxiety-provoking. He says the hype problem in the technology marketplace is huge, and it begins with vendors' inability to think critically or objectively.

"Whenever we do an evaluation, we tell vendors what we think their strengths and weaknesses are," Patel says. "We always get unanimous agreement from them when we tell them their strengths. And they always disagree with what we think are their weaknesses. You quickly realise that every vendor says their product is the most scalable, most reliable and will give you the lowest cost."

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