I recently discovered I’m clairvoyant.
Okay, not really. But I did realize I can tell when a vendor is walking away from a product or service and my company will be left holding a threadbare bag. Which got me thinking: Could I come up with a list of warning signs to share with colleagues, and are there more warning signs they might share with me? I’ve got 5 listed below, but if you have more, I want to hear them.
1. They sell the product (but not to you)
The first warning sign: a vendor sells their product — or whole business — to another company. In the best case, maybe support and development is a bit of a mess for a while, but then things are fine or maybe even get better. For example, Meraki was sold to Cisco in late 2012 and as a happy Meraki customer (and a Cisco critic) it made me really nervous. But Cisco kept their paws off Meraki and their products and services are at least as good as they were before.
In contrast, look at a product like NetBackup. In the olden days NetBackup was owned by the original Veritas. It grew in popularity and spread across the enterprise backup space. Then Veritas was bought by Symantec (strike 1). But Symantec management changed strategies and dumped NetBackup and other products into a reconstituted Veritas (strike 2). Finally the new Veritas was picked up by a private equity group in the hopes of making money from the big installed base (strike 3).
But during the years while NetBackup was being passed around (always to the left), it wasn’t growing or changing much. The venerable NetBackup languished in a market filling up with innovators like Veeam and Commvault. By the time the private equity guys were in charge, it was too late. NetBackup was outmoded and all the backup software development talent and energy had moved on.
Today, Veritas is a company that, in my opinion, is run by a group trying to maximize profits from the installed customer base. They may also be trying to spruce up the company for a final sale. It’s a pretty sound strategy for them, but not a great plan for your company. Watch your back when your favorite product is bought or sold.
2a. You can’t understand the support guys anymore
Are you a software shop that wants to make money right now? Just ship your support operation overseas where labor costs far, far less! Not only will you cut your expenses and boost quarterly profits instantly, but your customers won’t figure it out immediately. Besides, once they do figure it out, they won’t go through the pain of moving to a new product for at least a couple budget cycles. But by then you’ll have cashed in the stock options and moved on to your fancy new job.
I recently found out the hard way this had happened to a managed firewall service I inherited from predecessors. It was a mediocre service on a good day and on a bad day it could make you pull your hair out. But (but!) if you had problems you could call support and you got native English speakers that understood the tech and could help you manage it, despite the inherent challenges.
Just last week I discovered support had moved to southeast Asia, and not just to follow the sun. Though no one would dare admit it, it’s pretty clear the provider figured out the service didn’t stand a chance against focused managed security providers, so they put it on cheap-labor life support. Too bad they did that right after they spent a lot of money building their custom Flash-based web interface (Flash in 2017? D’oh!).
I’m dumping that service this year but in the meantime, I get the classic support runaround where they force you to sit through scripted troubleshooting steps that aren’t relevant to my issues. And bonus: they lack knowledge of, or access to, any other part of the provider’s global infrastructure, despite the services having deep interdependencies. Yeesh.
2b. There’s only 1 support guy left
Hat tip to Will Duderstadt, who noted this option over on LinkedIn. An alternative to support being shipped overseas for cheaper labor is just to cut support to a fraction of its former strength. Technically, you’re fulfilling the terms of your contract (you’re offering support), and so long as there isn’t a Service Level Agreement (SLA) in place, you’re home free. And even if there is an SLA, customers will have a hard time getting compensation for broken SLAs. So again, by the time the customers figure it out and move on, you’re long gone.
I suppose the Daily Double in this case would be support getting shipped overseas and cut back to a fraction of the people needed. (Sounds like some kind of ancient Celtic curse.)
3. The last new feature appeared during the Bush administration (either one)
This is a variation on number 1, but in this case, the company making a product you love just isn’t putting any more wood behind the arrow (so to speak) — the product is not evolving with your needs or keeping up with competitors. While the functionality of the core product is still solid, the grass is getting greener in everyone’s yard but yours.
The “EMC” part of Dell is my favorite example here. Like most giant corporations they have, at times, been slow to adapt to trends and like any big, successful company they can struggle to innovate (the Innovator’s Dilemma in practice). In this case, we all know the story: spinning-disk storage reached enterprise maturity, but flash storage players like Nimble, Pure, and the rest showed up. The new entrants were a great fit for many kinds of customers, so they beat EMC not only with SSD speeds, but with innovative software layers that enabled new storage and virtualization functionalities. Sure, EMC picked up companies and tech to compete along the way, and at this point they’ve effectively got feature parity when you consider their full line of products. But how many customers did they lose on the way to catching up?
If you’re the IT manager on what is becoming a legacy platform, plan for either a mass upgrade to the new platform your legacy provider acquired, or plan to move to a faster-moving entrant. (NetBackup vs. Veeam works here, too.)
4. The ink on your sales rep’s business cards never dries
This one I’ve seen in the telecom space perhaps more than anywhere else. Indeed, I used to work with a carrier in Alaska where my sales rep would change 1 or 2 times per year. That’s an extreme example, but anytime the sales staff changes, ask some questions — it might be for structural reasons that signal waning support for the service or product you’ve come to rely upon. And if the sales team changes repeatedly, get nervous.
Good salespeople — the successful ones — know when the product they’re selling isn’t competitive and is getting squeezed by new players. They decamp to greener pastures. That said, a sales rep or sales team change doesn’t necessarily mean the service or product you’re buying is going away. But keep your eyes peeled.
5. Company X buys Company Y to get Technology Z, but they already have Technology Z!
I’m looking at you, Cisco. And you, too, Dell.
IT manufacturers need to grow and innovate, and in a lot of cases an acquisition is the fastest/easiest way to get that done. But sometimes those acquisitions bring in products similar to products a company already offers. And when that happens, you can bet there will be a fight to the death amongst the product teams, and the product you currently use could be the loser.
Cisco has long been a poster-child for technology development via acquisition. But Dell’s multiple forays into backup software is a favorite example today. At one time in recent years Dell had no less than 3 overlapping backup products under the Dell roof. And then they bought EMC, who had even more. No company is going to take 3, 4, or 5 heavily overlapping products to market indefinitely. Consolidation will happen. But… are you riding the winning horse?
This is why the Cisco Meraki purchase made a lot of people nervous — it’s not like Cisco was missing Wi-Fi, firewall, or switch products! But thankfully Cisco realized they weren’t buying hardware — they were buying into a particular market segment they couldn’t address well, and they were picking up a recurring-revenue subscription service that made Smart Net look outdated.
Are there more?
Are there other warning signs for the decline of a product or a vendor? Add a comment below or drop me a line — I’d love to hear what others have experienced!
Cover photo: Adam Jones / Wikimedia Commons