I received an unsolicited email from jetBlue yesterday, one of many that I routinely receive from various travel providers. This one was different. I was not one of the thousands stranded by them last week and I have only traveled on jetBlue for one trip. They could have omitted this mea culpa letter to me in hopes that I had not already noticed all the media hype around their operational breakdowns and plans to recover from a faulty infrastructure. However, by calling attention to their lapses in such public ways this week, they have insured that I will include them in future travel planning.
Years ago as the President of a software company, I received a truly disturbing email lashing from a client sent after 6 PM on a Friday. The accusations about my company’s service were vitriolic and uncharacteristic of client reactions. I stayed at the office late gathering all the information I could find from the customer support database to learn what might have precipitated the outburst because I wanted to send a thoughtful, accurate and timely response. Without attacking the client I sent a chronology of inquiries and responses with a copy of a remedy sent to them weeks earlier. Then I went home with hopes that Monday would bring a more constructive dialog between the client and my company. The issues were amicably resolved, the client remained a good client, gave us high marks in referrals, and the matter was never mentioned again.
Unfortunately, personalization of client vendor relationships is missing in too many business relationships. A great amount of marketing copy appears describing how software tools and search interfaces support “personalization.” We know that SaS (software as service) or ASP (application service provider) models have come into their own. We also see the major search software vendors posting record growth and grand projections for even more. What this all adds up to is the convergence of a perfect storm of client disappointment as we experience a total disconnect between what vendors mean by “personalization” and “service,” and what customers want. Customers want software that is intuitively simple to personalize, and service that places the responsibility for software problems squarely with the vendor.
Based on my recent experiences with vendors, I see huge industry problems ahead. These are being exposed at all levels: discussions with sales representatives, exchanges with search company executives, deployment of software issues, documentation and training quality, and exchanges with customer support personnel.
Here is my list of vendor weaknesses:
- Lack of understanding by company representative how their software works
- Failure to really understand prospect needs, environments, and requirements
- Poorly written documentation and training giving no context for how the software might be deployed
- Technically sophisticated features delivered with no coherent path to deployment
- Inability to communicate honestly with clients
- Lack of clarity on what industry standards and terminology mean to clients
- Failure to use their own products by all employees in vendor organizations
- Inattention to building quality support infrastructures to service clients
I am not calling for a “customer bill of rights” for the enterprise search software industry. Instead, I am calling for you who procure software to take control of your own experience by doing a lot more than looking under the hood for technical specifications, features and functionality. You need to:
- Look inside the vendor’s organization to see what kind of personnel it has, what the turnover is, how many people are supporting service functions compared to developers, etc.
- Listen to what you are being told; do serious validating research, on your own, to discover customers using the software. Talk to as many as you find; look at blogs and chat rooms to discover where the pain points and good experiences lie.
- Read documentation to understand how much time, effort, and expertise the deployment and maintenance will really require.
- Test drive products with your own data.
Every search company can’t grow 100% year-over-year for years on end. You will be suffering mightily for a long time if you make a big investment in one of those who ignore the customer experience. There is also a good chance they’ll be sold off to the lowest bidder once they realize their inability to service their clients and remain profitable. Take your destiny in your own hands; take enterprise search on in slow and measured increments so you will know what you are getting into.