Attack of the predatory sales force

Low-cost software is almost always a better solution, but if you must purchase the high-cost stuff, don't get caught with blood in the water.

Most skilled professionals-be they butchers, bakers or software makers-take pride in selecting their own tools of the trade. Why is it then that developers and DBAs in large corporations often are not afforded the same professional courtesy or opportunity? The tools they use are just as vital to their livelihood, yet when it comes to high-cost software, developers and DBAs often have no input into what is purchased for their use.

The source of the problem is the predatory practices of some high-cost software vendors. The aggressive sales process used to market their software almost inevitably leads to a disconnect between the end user and the product itself. The trick is to recognize the pitch for what it is and evaluate your options before signing on the dotted line.

It’s all about the sale

The predatory sales process generally involves people who don’t lose sleep over whether or not their product meets your company’s needs. They are motivated by, as well as rewarded and evaluated on, making the sale. Period. The higher the price tag (and by high price we’re talking thousands of dollars per server license), the more aggressive the sales pitch.

Pity the poor software developers and support staff who work in such an aggressive, sales-oriented company. They know that the marketing claims are exaggerated, that the product probably won’t do what the sales person has claimed, and that they’ll take the heat when things don’t go as promised for the customer.

Let’s look at what happens when a company purchases expensive, off-the-shelf database development software from a predatory vendor. Although this varies from company to company, if software is being purchased for many thousands of dollars, chances are the person making the purchase is too high in the company hierarchy to actually use it.

Conversely, the end user-the developer or DBA-generally does not have a say in the software’s evaluation or purchase because he or she can only approve a purchase of a few hundred dollars or thereabouts.

On the vendor’s side, the stakes are high. A rule of the high-cost software game is that it is difficult to make a big-ticket sale and most prospects don’t pan out. The selling process is expensive: The current industry minimum for a personal visit is around $20,000. Since there are often similar development tools on the market for less than $1,000, you have to conclude that 95 percent of the money from a high-cost software purchase is used to fund the sales process.

Two selling scenarios

Consider the differences in buying a typical high-cost SQL Server product versus purchasing a low-cost SQL Server tool.

Let’s first imagine that your company has some SQL Servers, is rich, and can afford to pay top dollar for its software. Let’s then say that one of your DBAs contacts a sales person from a company that markets a high-cost database development tool.

After initial discussion with the DBA, the sales person contacts someone else in your company-someone with signing authority for a $20,000 to $50,000 purchase. After all, the sales person is trained to deal directly with the person who controls the purse strings. So while the DBA who made the initial call gets minimal attention, the CIO is inundated with calls requesting a meeting.

Meeting granted, the CIO needs to be persuaded of the earth-shattering, paradigm-altering effects of the high-cost SQL Server tool. There will be much talk of ROI, cost benefit analysis, and labor force reductions. It is entirely possible-likely, in fact-for such a meeting to involve PowerPoint presentations, fancy graphics and the like. What’s omitted are the product demo and detailed discussions of how the tool accomplishes the sales claims.

Later, the DBAs and developers might be invited to a product evaluation that is carefully managed by the vendor to avoid any meaningful test of the product’s performance. Objections from the internal staff will be brushed off, coming as they do from people trying to save their jobs from the paradigm-altering power of the tool.

If a sale is made, the end users are presented with a tool that they have not personally tried. Meanwhile, back at the vendor’s office, the sales people are exchanging high-fives and popping champagne while their software developers despair over not being able to deliver on the paradigm-shifting promises.

When things go wrong, and they normally do, the blame game starts: The requirements analysis was not complete, the software was buggy, the developers were not sufficiently trained to operate the software successfully, and on and on.

Empower the user

Now consider another scenario, with the end user as the protagonist.

Imagine once again that your company has some SQL Servers, is rich, and can afford to pay top dollar for its software. Let’s say one of your DBAs or developers identifies a need for a SQL Server tool. This time, he or she combs the web and discovers some that might fit the bill. The developer downloads the software that looks the most promising and tries it out for a week or two. If, and only if, it works as required, a purchase is made or official purchase approval is requested.

Why is this so easy? Because good software development tools equivalent to the high-cost “solutions” can often be bought for a few hundred dollars, a sum most developers and DBAs have direct authority to spend or for which they can get easy budget approval.

Talk about ROI. And the satisfaction rate in this process is radically different-and much higher-than in the previous high-pressure sales scenario.

It is a sad state of affairs that a $50,000 purchase freighted with extravagant promises but few real users is less likely to have been properly vetted than a $200 purchase that has been tested in the very environment in which it will be used. And if end users have not been involved in the evaluation and purchase process, their participation in the design of the software is suspect as well.

If the choice is between high cost and low cost, low cost is almost certainly the better bet. The cost to the organization is lower both in the purchase price of the tool and the internal cost of making the choice (think time and resources). It is also more empowering to enable skilled, intelligent people to choose the tools that will make a difference in their work environment than it is to buy them a $50,000 “gift.”

Most important, the lower-cost tool is likely to work as advertised since it will have been evaluated and tested on a real database problem, not because it claimed to fulfill an impossible promise.

Admittedly, part of this argument ignores a market reality: There might not be a low-cost, mass-market tool that addresses your company’s problem. This is natural. It takes courage to go for the mass market, especially if the number of possible customers seems low. Eventually there will probably be a low-cost tool to meet your needs, but if you have a problem that is affecting the company’s bottom line and the only alternatives are high-cost tools, there are ways to separate the shameless predators from the merely high-margin profiteers.

Avoiding the sharks

Besides the high-cost, how can you tell that you might be the victim of predatory sales practices? Here are some things to look for and react to:

  • First, determine if the vendor employs an aggressive sales staff. A good place to look for clues is in the language of the job ads on the vendor’s web site. “Account attack plans,” “penetrate new markets,” and “succeed in a competitive environment” are the kinds of phrases that might stand out. This is hard to fake. If the vendor needs aggressive sales people, applicants must identify themselves as such when applying.
  • On the sales call, does the vendor’s sales person bring a technical person who has at least the same level of authority within the company? If so, ask the technical person straight out if he or she agrees with the claims made by the sales person. Better still, make sure a DBA or developer who is going to use the tool meets with the vendor’s technical person without interference from the sales staff.
  • Is the company headed by an ex-sales person? Often sales people who become CEOs learned in the 1980s that aggressive selling was more important than good products. Fortunately, what was true in the 1980s is no longer true in many markets now.
  • Ask yourself whether the promises you hear ring true. Aggressive sales companies have a strong urge to speak in half-truths that sound good at first blush. But when you consider the statements carefully, they are either nonspecific or blatantly untrue. If something is 95 percent better than something else, that needs to be substantiated.
  • If you hear terms such as “synergistic solution,” “quantifiable value add,” or “enterprise-optimized,” run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.
  • Finally, make sure developers and DBAs-the end users-are given the opportunity to evaluate the software without lots of hand holding from the vendor.

So let the sharks circle. Evaluate your problem and get your development staff involved in the solution. Focus on inexpensive tools whose value can be proven quickly and easily. If you need to spend big money, make sure you invest in a product that solves your problem, instead of buying into the extravagant promises of a sales person who only wants you for the commission.