Dirty vendor tricks

From magical demos to deceptive pricing and fictional charges, here are the six most devious tricks vendors use to get their hands in your pocket

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"One of our requirements was that the system reside on top of an SQL database that we could set up and modify ourselves," she says. "The vendor wasn't happy about not getting lots of implementation money."

First, they wanted her to buy service contracts, which Elliott was unwilling to do. Then they tried to force her into an upgrade to their new SaaS (software as a service) offering (see Dirty vendor trick No. 5: The forced upgrade march, below). When she said no again, things got ugly.

"Once we got the data importation problems worked out with the vendor, we found out that all the SQL tables were password-locked," she says. "They wouldn't give us the password unless we paid several thousand dollars for an upgraded version. We decided to not pay it. It wasn't worth the headaches."

Instead of an integrated CRM and accounting system, Data Net uses the software as a simple contact manager. Four years later Elliott says she still hasn't found the right solution for her data problems and suspects she never will. "But I still think uncharitable thoughts about those folks."

Dirty vendor trick No. 3: The customer headlock

Once some vendors have you, they will do everything in their power to keep you -- even if that sometimes means crossing an ethical line.

"Vendor lock-in is a fundamental issue for companies that purchase enterprise software," says Michael Krigsman, CEO of Asuret, which studies and prevents IT failures. "That's because another term for 'lock-in' is 'Grab the customer by the b**** and squeeze.'"

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Krigsman, who writes a blog about what causes IT projects to fail, says a typical way software companies ensure customer loyalty is by making the cost of switching to a new vendor's solution impossibly high.

"It starts when the company sells its software for a low price, but the buyer then has to spend lots of money to implement the software," he says. "When it comes time to pay upgrade or maintenance fees, the buyer has already spent so much on implementation it really has no choice. That's vendor lock-in at its finest."

But sometimes vendors stoop to a new level of subterfuge. Just ask Bob Davis (not his real name), VP of marketing for a software vendor that competes against some of the biggest names in the networking business.

Davis says vendor lock-in can take several forms, not all of them exactly by the book. The first one happens when the networking vendor brings in its own system engineers to implement the software. Many organizations then become dependent on the vendor's SEs to keep the network running.

Level two occurs when the engineers proceed to turn on every single proprietary network service, sometimes without the customer's knowledge or consent. That makes moving to a new vendor nearly impossible without starting over from scratch.

Still, those are just hardball tactics, says Davis. The dirty tricks come in when the networking vendor's personnel become so entrenched within an organization they become de facto employees, with badges and full access. Davis says he knows of several instances where reps from a well-known vendor attended sales presentations given by competitors, then tried to torpedo the deals later. And if an employee at the customer's firm goes to bat for a competitor's product, he or she may find himself looking for work.

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