Business & Technology Nexus

Dave Stephens on technology and business trends

Tips On Escalating Successfully With Software Vendors

with 2 comments

Note: I’m still collecting my thoughts on Chapter 4 of the E-Business Suite post thread. Thanks for all your interest and inquiries on that topic. I’ll pick it up again soon! But let’s shift gears and discuss something more practical: techniques for escalating successfully with software vendors.

As usual, I’ll write from my experiences in my former role as a vendor of Procurement applications software.

In that role I had thousands of customers. And over the years I witnessed the full range of complaints, gripe sessions, yell-a-thons, you name it. Let’s face it: enterprise software is complex. It’s going to have problems & some customers will need to escalate with their suppliers to get their issues resolved.

And please, before the comments come rolling in accusing Oracle of low quality, you should know Oracle’s per-customer defect rates for Procurement were very, very low. You can never do enough on the quality front, and certainly I wish we would have done even better. But I’ll stand by the track record of my teams.

But let’s get back to the escalation process. For most issues a vendor’s support organization works just fine. But sometimes it doesn’t. These are some of the conditions that can indicate you need to escalate:

1) You talk to a different support agent every time you call in & you have to “bring them up to speed” for a few hours, only to be transferred to the next geographic center. No discernable progress for days or weeks (or months).

2) The vendor refuses to acknowledge the issue you have is a software defect & you can’t possibly “go live” without it. Or you can’t get a commitment for your issues by your “go live” – weeks are sliding by with no noticeable progress.

3) The patches you are getting from the vendor cause more problems than they fix

These are just a few tell-tale signs. I’m sure I’ve left out a ton. Basically, smart customers escalate when they sense they’ve fallen between the cracks in an erstwhile quite reasonable support effort.

[And here’s your magic decoder ring for defect priorities: P1 = we need to work on this right away, P2 = darn, we need to fix this, P3 = we should probably fix this within the next 4 years, P4 = not in your lifetime. (I tend to exaggerate, but I find it interesting how few experienced customers ever log a P3 or a P4).]

So, now you are ready to escalate. But to who?

First, before you send an email to Hasso or Larry you should know larger software companies have small dedicated groups, typically embedded within product development, to communicate with escalated customers. In SAT terms, Support::Army, TheseGroups::Marines. Oracle called the group & the customers within it “Escalated Accounts”. Peoplesoft called it “Lighthouse Accounts”. Kudos to Peoplesoft yet again for turning something negative on its head into a positive.

You want to escalate into this group. They know how to work the system and get you in touch with the people most likely to satisfy your immediate needs. If you have a personal relationship higher, that’s great, by all means use it. What an executive will do first is put you in this program. You’ll know you’re in it when you get daily status reports and have daily conference calls. And before you rush to escalate keep in mind it’s really a lot of work for customers to engage with their software vendors in this way – so think twice before you do it. If you need not, do not – you’ll just end up wasting a lot of time.

The award for worst customer (no it wasn’t Ford! not by a longshot) goes to a former CIO of Carrefour. He was so acidic and caustic on the phone that I always found a way to avoid him. So if the person you most want to talk you is avoiding you at all costs I would argue you might not be on a good path to getting what you want.

But aside from extreme behavior such as this there are other approaches which really don’t usually pay off including: Excel spreadsheets the size of small countries, snooze-worthy 4-hour conference calls, and gargantuan Webex sessions walking through dozens and dozens of flows, to name a few.

So, you’re wondering, “what works”? How do I get my issues fixed fast – and how do I get my enhancements in the base product?

There is no magic formula. But I will tell you what some of the more successful customers did. Oh, and by the way, don’t bother asking “how do you figure out what to put in the next release?” There’s no methodology, even if one is offered to you. It’s a pointless question, and it certainly won’t lead to you getting a different answer on your issues.

Successful escalations require a very knowledgeable escalation person.

They also tend to follow these guidelines:

1) They never, ever, have more than 10 things wrong.

Ideally, pick your 3 top issues and let the rest go through normal channels. After all, it’s an escalation for crying out loud.

2) Communication is outstanding and unemotional.

Don’t assume your supplier understands a word you are saying. Walk her through every step of the process, and stop to make sure you are understanding each other. “Do you agree so far?” is a good thing to say now and again when walking through a complex issue.

3) The customer understands their software vendor’s true motivation.

Know your vendor’s objective is to resolve the issue as quickly as they possibly can, and get back to their primary work. Use that to your advantage & help them understand that fixing your problems will cost them the least amount of time.

Now much of my readership has been on the other side of this relationship. I’m very interested in your comments on what has worked for you!


Written by Dave Stephens

04/19/06 5:48 PM at 5:48 pm

Posted in Opinion

2 Responses

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  1. Having good manners or civility aside, the guidelines sound a bit like the tail wagging the dog. The topic alone, in what is a “service” industry, of how to request better service without being offensive, to produce better results seems ludicrous. While I’m certain your advice is true and reflects the real situation today, I just wonder if something like this may someday make this topic moot.

    Mike O

    04/20/06 3:48 AM at 3:48 am

  2. I disagree with Mike O and feel Dave’s advice is sound. But it depends on whether you subscribe to the “attract more bees with honey than vinegar” metaphor. As a careerist in enterprise software, I can attest that escalation using adversarial tactics will often get the intended (near-term) results but will leave a toxic residue in the supplier’s organization. You will produce a body of people less willing to “go the extra mile” for you. No doubt your software will break again.

    I just think it’s not hard to persuade a supplier why an issue is important and why it’s in their interest to fix it. The power of a you as a customer being a reference, a design partner, a buyer of future upgrades, etc. is persuasive. Find who in the supplier organization most cares and how to motivate them to advocate on your behalf.

    Don MacLennan

    04/20/06 11:09 AM at 11:09 am

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