I hate buying technology. Not consumer electronics, mind you. I love my Tivo, my iPod, my GPS, which has navigated me out of the hundreds of Peachtree Roads in the greater Atlanta area more than once. I love my gadgets. But I hate buying technology.
It makes me uncomfortable to be the recipient of a sales presentation, to listen to the spin, to not be able to ask the hard IT-related questions like "what is your SLA for guaranteed uptime" and "what is the backup power supply situation for your colo facilities." But in this era of software-as-a-service buying, where more often than not IT isn't in the room, it's important for we as marketers to ask the right questions.
In the face of a dazzling presentation, where charismatic sales pros (or enigmatic CEOs) are trying to pitch you on their latest offerings, what should we be asking them?
Here are five questions I always try to ask my prospective vendors during that first sales call:
1. How many employees does the company have?
This is a conversational way to answer some important questions. Who's going to answer the phone when I call? What happens if that person isn't there?
2. Are they going to provide the complete solution they are pitching, or do they need to bring in other companies to complete the solution?
Technology companies are fond of promising you everything. This is a way to figure out how difficult your life is going to be after signing up with them. If a core part of their value is outsourced to "best of breed partners," be very careful. You may be signing up for managing multiple vendors, which may mean some finger pointing if something goes wrong.
3. How many customers do they have?
It's a truism in the technology biz that a small percentage of your customers will be referenceable. Some don't want to advertise to their competitors what tools they are using. Others have blanket corporate policies against issuing endorsements. Still others use case studies as contract bargaining chips. But any company should be able to tell you how many customers they have. The number is important, because it says a lot about how mature the product is and whether you'll be a "bleeding edge innovator" who will be beta testing the product as you go. You also want to make sure they have a mix of customers, from small to large, so you can be sure that you have a growth path into whatever their higher end product is.
4. How many customers did they have last year?
If the answer is 0, be very, very careful. Few B2B solutions are so innovative that you have to be among the first to try it. If money is an important factor to you, companies may be willing to buy your business by giving you ultra-low rates to start. But you can be sure that if the company is successful, those rates will be going up shortly, and if the company fails, well, you've lost a lot of time (and reputation within your company) betting on a loser.
5. Do they sound too good to be true?
Here's an actual pitch I got from a startup a few years ago:
"Our product (name of product) will allow you to track every single document your sales people access on your intranet and dynamically and automatically serve up information based on the most popular, the most relevant, the most time sensitive and the most profitable information at the time."
But it didn't make coffee too, so we passed on buying it.
And here's a bonus question: Ask them about their "ecosystem" -- their partners, their online communities, their user groups. The more active and robust the constellation of activity around them, the safer you can feel.
What other questions do you think about when evaluating a technology vendor? Post 'em in the comments.