The IT vendor empathy gap

How well do IT suppliers really understand your needs?


Published/updated: September 2014


By Dale Vile

Industry analysts, CIOs and others involved in the IT decision making process are on the receiving end of a lot of vendor 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’s 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 with in our research would rather IT vendors came back down to earth and spent more time discussing fundamentals in a specific and tangible manner. At some point, all of 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 vendors seem to do better than others when it comes to customer empathy. Rather than getting obsessed with all of 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 Epicor, the mid-market ERP vendor, provided a good example of this. Epicor is by no means the only vendor that exhibits a high degree of customer empathy (I’ll mention some others that have impressed me towards the end). However, the conversation we had with Malcolm Fox, VP Product Marketing, and Erik Johnson, VP Technical Strategy, around the latest product release (ERP10) provided a nice illustration of the difference in style.

The key themes highlighted were the type of things that our research tells us will resonate well with mainstream businesses:

Social in context

Rather than getting carried away with sensational notions of social business ‘changing everything’, the Epicor 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. 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 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.

Keeping things simple

Acknowledging that most of its customers don’t have the appetite for development and integration, Epicor provides a BPM environment for allowing 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 vendors and service providers. A couple of other players exhibiting this trait that have impressed us recently include 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 vendors who target large enterprises), they demonstrate knowledge and understanding of what it’s like to live in the customer’s shoes.

But for the avoidance of doubt, 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 the 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 action. Another example is Sage recognising the difference between start-ups 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 vendor 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 this, the more we might drive a change in behaviour.

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