Social web helps wrest power from suppliers

There has always been a marked imbalance of power between major IT suppliers and their customers. No matter how often IT managers are told about open standards, hear that “we are listening to you”, or are blitzed by marketing mantras such as “customer-centric”, hardened buyers know they are at the mercy of their suppliers’ whims.

Lock-in might not as often be a technical issue these days as a commercial reality – the cost of upheaval will usually outweigh the pain of the status quo.

SAP proved the point last year when it hiked support fees, apparently without consultation with customers, bringing much criticism from user groups in the UK and worldwide.

The software giant deserves some credit for listening to those complaints and responding with an innovative plan to link price increases to an independently-audited measure of the associated benefits. But surely a lot of conflict could have been avoided if SAP had been less heavy-handed in the first place.

The apparent resolution shows the potential of users working together – and there is a greater opportunity emerging to redress that imbalance.

The power of the crowd is already having a big effect on consumer-focused companies such as retailers and banks. The collaboration and information sharing enabled by social networking and the web is delivering a new wave of influence for users.

Try posting a few messages on Twitter about problems with your BT service and see how quickly the telecoms provider replies. Social media is becoming as much about advocacy and customer service as it is about Stephen Fry and telling the world what you had for breakfast.

IT managers would do well to consider the tools now at their disposal to put pressure on problem suppliers. Those suppliers need to be ready to deal with newly-empowered customers not afraid to share their experiences and pool their influence to swing the balance of power ever further away from unwanted tradition.

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