As a vendor to your client, sometimes your relationship with your client's other vendors can become strained -- and even hostile.TechRepublic member mothershelper sent me an e-mail describing her troubles with a vendor that wanted nothing to do with consultants. The vendor provided her client with a custom hardware/software solution that was overpriced and underengineered. The software was sold as is, and the support contract becomes nullified if the user modifies the code. Thus, the customer is locked in to using only that vendor for any corrections or enhancements unless they're willing to go off of support. To add insult to injury, the support contract included a "free" software upgrade that won't run correctly on the client's "outdated" server without some modifications. When mothershelper contacted the vendor's support line to figure out what was wrong, she was told "We don't deal with consultants."
Mothershelper would like a little help:
"Anyway -- if you or others have run into something like this, I'd like to read about it and see how you handled it and how it turned out. Me? Right now I am plowing through thousands of pages of manuals and hundreds of files, backing up everything in sight, and performing PC necromancy when I have to in order to keep them going until I am certain I can get them on to new hardware and into new software without losing a day's work or their entire database."
I've certainly run into the same sort of situation. It gets particularly frustrating when the vendor is a largish company, and the only people you can talk to are just following orders and have no idea why the policies that they must enforce are in place. If you can talk to somebody with authority, it's helpful to understand their possible motivations in order to get them to see your side. Here are four possible motivations of vendors, as well as strategies for dealing with each one.
The vendor's primary motivation for wanting to control everything may be to avoid supporting code they didn't write; this is a legitimate concern for any software vendor. Even custom modifications (and third-party customizations) that the vendor makes can snowball into a support nightmare.Your strategy: Try to form an alliance to help their customer within their prescribed bounds of supportability. For instance, you might try to get the vendor to stretch its support guidelines a bit (with proper separation of concerns and documentation).
Maybe they really are the big, bad wolf that wants all the little piggies for themselves.Your strategy: Make it clear that you're an agent of their customer and not a competitor. You're not trying to take business away from them -- you're just trying to solve the client's problem. You'll gladly let the vendor make the modifications if they insist, but they need to act now to save the customer. If the vendor can't step up to the plate, maybe you could fill in for them, under their direction.
FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt)
Nobody in the organization really has a clue about how to do business, so they have rigid rules to make them feel safer.Your strategy: You have to be a really good talker. Reassure the vendor that you can help their customer without introducing any risks to them. Ask them (politely) what their (don't swear here) motivations are for their (don't swear here either) policies. Try to talk them through that thought process and calmly pose a solution or qualification to each pseudo-objection they raise.
Something to hide
The vendor secretly knows its product sucks, but they put on the Industry Standard Enterprise Solution act to cover that fact. They enjoy telling you that you couldn't possibly make the corrections successfully yourself because it's far too complex a system to learn in one lifetime. They don't want you to even look at their code because, unless they did a really good job of snowing you with their market speak, you'll see through their BS right away.Your strategy: My best advice is to run away and leave the vendor alone to enjoy the grandeur of their huge pile of spaghetti code.
What to do if your client stays with the vendor
If your client stays with this vendor, your contributions will be hobbled, so don't overpromise what you can solve. If the vendor is too nasty, you might want to counsel the client to leave them behind -- perhaps you could take over maintenance of the system (first, make sure that you're up to the task and that you want to do the work). Or, you could suggest a different vendor; conversions can be a nightmare, but if the new vendor is a lot easier to work with, a few months of pain could well be worth it in the long run.
Share your vendor horror stories
Do you have any horror stories of dealing with exclusive vendors? If so, how did you deal with them and what was the result? Can you think of reasons other than the four I listed in this article why vendors might be reticent to talk to consultants? Post them in the discussion.
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Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.