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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"Some of the abuses are outrageous," he says. "I've seen payment processing companies charge businesses annual fees of $95, even though that fee is not stated anywhere in their contract. They'll charge 30,000 customers $95 each and wait to see who squawks. When people call they say, 'We're so sorry, it was an accident, let us refund your money.' Then they walk away with the rest. It makes it harder for companies that are trying to do the right thing."

Dirty vendor trick No. 5: The forced upgrade march

It's a subtle transition. One day you're a valued customer; the next day you're a cash cow ready to be milked. And one of the most common ways to wring more money out of you is coercing you to upgrade, even if your software is relatively new.

A few weeks ago Dave Jackson purchased a handful of licenses for a personal information manager for $400 apiece. As executive director for Awake in America, a nonprofit devoted to helping people with sleep disorders, he wanted the PIM to help manage donor lists and other data.

"We had spoken with the salesperson several times, as well as others inside the company, and had taken the product for a 45-day test-drive," he says. "We spoke with the company about upgrades and updates, and everything sounded great. So I whipped out the corporate credit card, called the salesperson, asked a few more questions, and then placed the order."

Three weeks later, he gets an e-mail. There's a new 2010 version available and they want him to upgrade. They're even willing to offer a $50 discount -- $75 if he buys more than one copy. So he calls and asks why they never informed him a new version was imminent.

"One guy tries to pull a Sergeant Schultz on me and says, 'I know nothing,'" he says. "Another person in senior management says it was company policy to not divulge such information because it could 'give the competition an edge.' I told them I'd stick with the 'antiquated' version until it breaks down and dies, or until the government comes up with a Cash for Clunkers program for software."

Forced upgrades are fairly common, says Stone, but "it still chaps me no end. We're working with VMware, who decided to end-of-life their Enterprise license and make us go to Enterprise Plus for another $26,000 a year. Our options are to go down to Advanced, which doesn't have the features we want, pay the money to go with Plus, or convert to Hyper-V and put it on a Microsoft Server. We're seriously discussing the latter option and might just bite the bullet and switch."

Dirty vendor trick No. 6: The clueless customer

The last trick in our bag isn't really a vendor trick at all. It's what happens when customers put too much trust in systems integrators and vendors, and fail to do their own due diligence.

Most failed IT projects fall victim to what Michael Krigsman calls the "Devil's Triangle": the customer, the systems integrator, and the vendor, all of whom have their own, often conflicting, agendas.

Sure, the vendor may overpromise and the integrator might pile on charges, but the customers are hardly faultless, says Krigsman.

"Customers have their own internal schizophrenia. You sit down in a meeting with them and they present a unified front. They want A, B, C, and D. It all sounds great. When you drill down and talk to them, you realize that the IT department doesn't have a clue what the sales or accounting departments need, while the sales and accounting departments are clueless about the technology. But they present this seamless RFP to the systems integrator and the software vendor, and they all sign the contract anyway."

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