The IT supplier empathy gap

How well do IT suppliers really understand your needs?

Industry analysts, CIOs and others involved in the IT decision-making process are on the receiving end of a lot of supplier pitches, and it can sometimes get a little wearing. Every supplier trots out a problem definition based on the latest Gartner view of what’s important, and there is only so much cloud, social and big data messaging you can take before it all starts to sound like noise.

Most IT decision-makers we speak to in our research would rather IT suppliers came back down to earth and spent more time discussing fundamentals in a specific and tangible manner.

At some point, all that theoretical, transformational, game-changing, visionary rhetoric needs to be translated into practical reality and articulated in precise terms that customers can understand and make buying decisions around.

But some suppliers seem to do better than others when it comes to customer empathy. Rather than getting obsessed with all the ‘me too’ messaging around the latest industry hype, they have a knack of cutting through it all and focusing on what really matters.

A recent briefing with mid-market ERP supplier Epicor provided a good example of this. The company is by no means the only supplier that exhibits a high degree of customer empathy and I will mention some others that have impressed me later in this article.

Social in context

Epicor’s approach is based on the principle that traditional and social styles of collaboration should complement each other, which is what most people we speak with tell us they are looking for. The most important thing is that capability is surfaced naturally in context, so collaboration becomes embedded in all business processes and functions to which it is relevant.

Choice of deployment model

The industry rhetoric around cloud being the answer to everything is shunned in favour of providing choice. Epicor's latest release, ERP10, is based on a single code line designed to work effectively on-premise and in the cloud (with full multi-tenancy).

The principle here is that customers can go with the deployment option that suits them today, but switch in the future (in either direction) if requirements change. Again, this gels with what we hear in our research.

Platform pragmatism

While choice is important in some areas, in others it just creates unnecessary overhead and complexity. Given that the Microsoft stack is well accepted in ERP10’s target market, efforts have been focused on optimising the software for that platform.

This is totally in tune with the application-led approach to infrastructure spending we come across in the SMB space, and it means Epicor can spend more time working on features and functionality that add real value, using SOA and standards-based APIs to keep things open from a third-party integration perspective.

Keep things simple

Acknowledging that most of its customers don’t have the appetite for development and integration, Epicor provides a BPM environment to enable non-technical users to design and adjust process models and workflows.

Meanwhile, it resists propagating the big data hype, which is just noise to most SMBs, and emphasises instead the importance of making basic reporting and business intelligence as accessible and usable as possible.

The principle of simplicity is also encapsulated in ERP10’s use of a metadata-driven approach to allow rapid development and deployment of mobile facilities without huge amounts of coding.

This kind of down-to-earth approach to prioritising and communicating solution capability is more common among SMB-focused suppliers and service providers. A couple of other players exhibiting this trait that have impressed us recently are Sage and Xero.

Both work hard to speak the language of the customer. Rather than preaching about what businesses ‘should’ be doing (as is often the case with suppliers that target large enterprises), they demonstrate knowledge and understanding of what it’s like to live in the customer’s shoes.

But this doesn’t mean the players we have been calling out simply react to customer needs. It’s more about defining the problem in a familiar and relevant way – solution innovation then becomes much more meaningful.

Xero’s use of a company’s online banking records rather the general ledger as a starting point for accounting workflow is a good example of this. It’s not how most accounting systems work, but it makes absolute sense to a small business when you see it in action. Another example is Sage recognising the difference between startups and larger, more established SMBs, then aligning its solutions and prioritising the right innovations accordingly.

So, next time you find your mind wandering in a supplier presentation as the sales rep or spokesperson pontificates and preaches, stop them and challenge them to get to the point. The more of us that do so, the more we might drive a change in behaviour.

Dale Vile is CEO and co-founder of Freeform Dynamics.

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