Users Leverage Vendors

Relationship building goes a long way toward better products and support, users say

October 29, 2005

4 Min Read
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When Ralph C. Barber, the CTO of Holland & Knight LLP, looks for high-priced IT advice, he doesn't hire consultants. Instead, he makes use of expertise he finds with his vendors.

"I can't afford a certain level of competence," he acknowledged in a presentation at Storage Networking World Thursday in Orlando. "And even if I chose to, I could only afford it for awhile. We rely on partnerships with... our vendors."

Barber says he gets a couple of valuable things from his storage-vendor partnerships, including information on best practices and the chance to influence product development. In return, he and his staff do beta testing, provide input for vendor developers, and give testimonials at tradeshows and in white papers.

Barber's approach is a fairly standard one in the world of IT. But the growing importance of storage and the proliferation of small-to-medium-sized businesses (SMBs) looking for products begs a review. What makes for a good vendor-consumer relationship? Can small firms expect the same results as big ones?

When it comes to good partnerships, most consumers agree the actual purchase of products is only the start. "In my mind it is really the difference between a purchase and a relationship," writes David Silversmith, CTO of Carfax, the online vehicle history company, in an email:

  • In one scenario I purchase a good or service from you and that is the extent of our relationship. My goal is usually to push you to the lowest possible price and be done with it. That's an approach that, in my mind, works when you are buying a commodity - toilet paper, tissues, gasoline etc. A relationship can offer much more than that.

Does offering vendors public support somehow compromise the user, particularly the SMB? Not at all, Silversmith maintains. He thinks it's worth his while to help keep his vendors in business.

  • If my vendor gets no business or drops his prices so low they go out of business... now I am stuck with unsupported product and the switching costs. That's one of the reasons I do references and testimonials for vendors. If they succeed, they will [get] more capital to invest in their product and make it even better for ME.

    If I do testimonials and beta tests for partners - when I have an issue or a problem - I'm not just another customer, I'm the guy who helped them out and they want to help me out. Sure it is their job to help me out - but when somebody also WANTS to help you out you get better service.

The one-hand-washes-the-other approach has helped Holland & Knight's Barber as well. He unabashedly promotes Symantec and Veritas as the suppliers that have helped him solve his backup problems. Without them, though, he'd still be tangling with standalone backup servers and multiple reports.

Larger firms, of course, have long been in partnership with their suppliers. Can smaller companies get the same "elite pass" treatment?

The answer appears to be mixed. On one hand, there are stories of smaller firms not getting respect from larger players. (See Joyce Meyer Ministries.) On the other, the growing importance of the SMB market to storage vendors is likely to play in favor of smaller firms.Sometimes it helps SMB customers to align with a larger service provider or integrator. For example, MCI was behind a recent alliance between hardware vendor 3PAR and AppIQ, the storage management company recently purchased by Hewlett-Packard. (See HP Chomps AppIQ & Peregrine.) MCI is now able to pass along a valuable support and integration agreement with a new On-Demand Storage service for hosting customers in Beltsville, Md., and San Jose, Calif. (The carrier is looking to add the service selectively in other hosting facilities worldwide.)

MCI's hosting services appeal to smaller customers for whom dedicated SANs aren't cost effective, so MCI is in effect using its influence for their benefit. "This actually helps SMBs out," says Rick Dyer, director of product management for MCI Hosting Services.

Dyer says there may be some benefit in working with startups and smaller companies if you're small yourself -- but that's not always the case. "I think it's sometimes easlier for smaller companies to get new features in the roadmap faster," he notes. But being a startup also has its limits in terms of what a consumer can realistically expect in terms of development and support.

Mary Jander, Site Editor, Byte and Switch

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