Jargon of the Day: Vendor’s Guilt

It’s been almost three years since I quit the folds of a job with a private limited company, with a regular monthly salary, and almost a year since Prasad and I started off our own firm.

It was the beginning of a new continuum of professionalism, applying whatever we know & understand, making mistakes, learning from them, and trying to turn those experiences into repeatable behaviour.

And amongst all this, we observe each other, learn from each other, and try to correct each other from time to time.

One trait I’ve observed in our behaviour at times is what I’ve started calling Vendor’s Guilt (and Prasad does refer to it in a post a couple of months back).
Here’s what it is.

One of the reasons we wanted us to start on our own was to become a rare type of IT vendor: the kind who gives full value of the client’s money, does not act hostile towards the client or their work, and always has the client’s best interests in mind.

While all this is fine and a noble, the fact of the big bad world out there is that any business would try to hold back in negotiations and payments, and try to extract the most bang for their buck. I’m not sitting in judgment on anyone here — it is because businesses are closest to what we learnt as the rational person during our microeconomics classes — they aim to maximize gain while minimizing expenditure. Of course as people many of us might think it’s a crummy thing to do, but as people managing a business we get rid of the guilt associated with such behaviour, and thus we get the every day client.

Often times a well-meaning vendor (the one who goes by the principles I listed two paragraphs ago) gets carried away with the well-meaningness, and goes into altruistic territory. The classic symptoms of this behaviour are:

  • Relenting during negotiation (they can’t pay more than this, how will they get it done at the prices we quoted?)
  • Starting work without receiving any payments (of course they intend to pay, they can’t NOT pay, right? They are good guys!)
  • Volunteering to give advice not asked for at times which would reduce the size of our engagements (as a partner, shouldn’t I be concerned about saving my clients’ costs?)
  • Getting anxious whenever the client would raise even a small concern (how could we let this happen? how would this affect our relationship, and reputation?)
  • Not chasing clients for pending payments often enough (how would it look? he’s the brand manager, the payments are processed by the accounts guy, they have run out of their monthly budgets already)
  • Continuing work and taking on more pressure despite payments being delayed inordinately (they can’t pay, they don’t have money, and unless we deliver this, how will they earn and pay us?)

Please don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have good intentions for clients and prospects as a service provider. And it’s a bit scary for us to imagine turning into the other vendors we all have burnt our fingers with.

But when these concerns overshadow our own survival, and especially when we are dealing with clients who are bigger in size and turnover than we are, yet somehow they don’t have enough to pay us for our services, out comes this term: Vendor’s Guilt.

How was this affecting us? At times we were feeling the pressure from both ends: work was piling up, but money wasn’t trickling in, often due to the same clients. We would keep debating hours about why we are letting this happen to us. And in those hours of debate, it became clear that we were letting this all happen, and maybe were driving ourselves towards this, because we were striving to set ourselves apart from the run-of-the-mill vendor we hear stories of who shut down servers, or put up a nasty message on the homepage, or overcharges for superfluous services.

How did we manage our way out of it? It was a three-point realisation:

  1. That we really aren’t ‘that’ vendor. When we stepped back and assessed our work and engagements, we realised we were a high-performing considerate vendor, and most of our engagements are really healthy. Most of our clients respect us and our work, pay up on time, and barely haggle. And we have always strived to deliver the full value of what we’re paid. Plus, we have not abandoned on bad terms a single project because of payment or personality issues (touchwood), a problem that I increasingly see is quite common at least in the Indian market.
  2. ‘That’ kind of vendors still exist, and we still keep hearing about them. But there’s another realisation we’ve had: that the vendors aren’t always at fault. There are clients who give vendors a hard time, hold back payments, and misbehave with vendors. And there’s just so much that a business owner can take from a client before protecting their own business interests. I’m not condoning that behaviour, but if we haven’t stepped into their shoes, how can we judge them so harshly?
  3. We are a business, being managed and powered by people, who have bills to pay and dreams to fulfill. And at the end of the day, if we can’t pay the wages all these people are here for, and are struggling with working capital and profitability after working so hard, is it really worth it?

From the point that we’ve had this discussion, we’ve decided to keep a tight check on all engagements, raise flags whenever we realise it’s veering towards exploitation, and take appropriate measures. These measures are nothing more than getting clarity amongst ourselves, meeting with the appropriate people at the client’s end and apprising them of our situation. In all the cases, the other party does appreciate our concerns and our sharing with them.

Meanwhile, we continue to deliver value for all our clients, strive hard to get the best done for the best costs, because that’s what we set out to do and not out of any guilt, but we don’t make ourselves bleed to fill anyone else’s cups.

It’s not that difficult, really.

Castrol Active ad: Analysis

Before & After: You must have seen this format.

[before / after]
Gyms, diet plans and hair loss repair clinics practice a crude form of such advertising. Dishwashing liquid/bars also advertise in this format. Fair & Lovely made an assembly line of such ads, though their ads are one level higher on the story bit.

It is quite a general way of selling you something.

“Without our product, your life wasn’t that great, you had such & such problems, and when our product entered your life, it changed, for the better.”

But there has to be a connect in this line.

Which is what the makers of the last two Castrol Activ TVCs seem to have forgotten.

The script of both the ads is similar: An elder is teaching a young one (son/brother) to ride a bike. The drill is simple: clutch, accelerator, brake! Why brake? Because in city traffic, you need to brake more often than accelerate. Enter the helpful mechanic, who tells him that he’s right, but braking too often leads to extra pressure on the engine, which is harmful. Which is why you need Castrol’s new Activ engine oil. Problem solved. And the after scene shows a happy father asking the son if he’d only keep braking or ride the bike after all, or the younger brother just riding off without waiting for his elder brother to get on the bike, to which an elated big brother says “Munna rider ban gaya!”.

Castrol ad: father & son
Castrol ad: father & son
Castrol ad: brothers
Castrol ad: brothers

What is the issue with this, you ask?

Well, let’s analyse.

The ad has 3 parts – problem, intervention, solution (before, product, after – familiar?). The problem was two-fold – the young rider is not happy with the pillion who is not letting him ride and is asking him to brake too often (to simulate city traffic), and the elder pillion is not happy because city traffic is a b*tch.

The intervention is an engine oil, which reduces the strain on the engine which it faces in city traffic.

The after (solution?) is a happy father, who is not asking his son to brake anymore, or a happy elder brother who is happy that his younger brother is riding well now.

Did you notice the disconnect?

The problem that the mechanic mentioned was not on the minds of our protagonists until he came in the picture. He solved a problem they were least concerned with. In fact, he does not address their problems at all – city traffic still remains a b*tch, and thus elder person should still be concerned with it. What does his intervention do? It assures you that your engine will be OK even if you braked like mad in city traffic.

And somehow, this intervention manages to make both the protagonists happy. The elder one is not at all worried about the b*tch like city traffic anymore, even though common sense says that now that he knows the bike’s engine can take the strain of repeated braking and traffic has not at all improved, he shouldn’t be worrying about the engine’s health and should be pushing the rider to keep braking more and more. But he doesn’t.

Microsoft says “I’m a PC” and well… thanks Microsoft :-)

When Microsoft released ads answering the “I’m a PC, I’m a Mac” ads from Apple, the blogosphere is bound to write about it.

Chandoo has also done that. And while reading his post, I wrote the following myself.

Stuff I appreciate about the ads: it fights the idea of stereotyping users, though that is not the intent of the Mac ads. It’s a good strategy – take the strength of the competitor’s communication and turn it around as their weakness. It celebrates diversity – that the hardware I use does not define me. And ofcourse PC (the x86 PC architecture to be precise), being the open systems format, is the perfect “mascot” for that diversity.

And that’s where it does not fit in with M$. It does not work. Why? Mac-vs-PC works because Apple OWNS Mac – the software as well as the hardware. PC is not OWNED by anyone. IBM invented it, and it’s been since taken over by the open market. Even Intel can’t claim to own the PC market. There are many more players who define PC – there’s HP, Dell, AMD.

And Microsoft does not run on just PCs anymore. After Intel entering Macs, Windows also is aiming for people owning Macs.

So why is Microsoft spending so much money on promoting a franchise which it does not own nor which comprises its entire target market?

Note that none of the people say “I’m Windows” or “I’m a Windows user”, nor would it fit if they did.

I guess if they are serious, specialized PC users, they’d NOT be using Windows, let alone Vista. How many of these “PeeCees” were Linux users, how many were BSD users? How many use XP (remember the ad ends with a Vista graphic)?

Next, since the ad celebrates diversity so much, does Microsoft support the idea? Is its software or UI that customizable? The idea that the computer you use should not define who you are or what you look like – shouldn’t it be carried forward in the goods delivered? Why does M$ software (Vista) hog so much of resources that it does not let the real software which DOES define what us PC users are work properly?

Just making smart ads isn’t going to get M$ back in the good books of computer users. Making software that works properly would.

In the end, if you’d remove the last screen mentioning Microsoft, the ads make a stronger case for the x86+OSS systems (read Linux/BSD on PC) rather than Windows/Vista.

Being a devout x86+OSS (rather x64+OSS) user myself, all I have to say is “Thanks Microsoft ;)”.

Choices

Which do you think makes a better connect with you, or whom would you buy from?

We are your only choice
The only company selling blah-blah with blah-blah technology.
We are the only option if you want blah-blah on your blah-blah.
(In other words, if you want blah-blah and not choose us, you’re doomed. Where will you go, eh?)

or

We appreciate your choice
We are equipped with blah-blah on our blah-blah, but we appreciate that you have a choice of going to other people but have chosen us.
We appreciate that you have chosen us amongst many others who are giving similar (not the same) offerings.
(In other words, we are better, because you chose us; The blah-blah on the offering might be just one of the reasons you did.)

The Hare & The Tortoise – Rethink

The tortoise did not win the race. The hare lost it. The tortoise is a winner only because his competitor was an idiot — who was complacent and slept off.

There is a take-away in the story. But it is not that “slow and steady wins the race”. It is that “no matter how skillful you are, never underestimate your competitor”, and “if slow and steady could win the race, think what fast and steady can do”.

If the hare had not slept off, the tortoise would not have been celebrated. Slow and steady wins the race only when fast and steady isn’t around.

MetLotus – are they getting it right?

I came across this Facebook ad today, and clicked on it. It was an Indian site, which is… I don’t know what. On reaching the site (www.metlotus.com), I see the following:

metlotus.com screenshot, click to enlarge

What’s wrong with this? A good design, nice layout, soothing colours, slick animations. But where is the information about the site or the company that it represents? There are the generic social networking promises flashing in neat animation clips, but apart from that? What is its USP, positioning, the hook that would make me want to click any of the links on this page?

When I clicked on ‘Take a Tour’ (which I did purely for the reason for writing this blog), I am presented with another slick flash site in a pop-up window, which has description on how to use this site. Apparently it is a social networking venture. But didn’t the Facebook ad mention something about widgets? I clicked on that link thinking this might be a site specializing in making widgets that we can use on other social networking sites.

Now if it is trying to be a popular social networking site, why is the interface so unusable (for lack of a better word), and not intuitive? How many of us had to go through a tutorial when we first started using Orkut, Facebook or MySpace? Why does a new site, which no one knows about, insist that users log in on the front page without showing any tangible benefit to signing up?

And because I’m a designer of sorts, I also have a problem with the way the consistency with the sans-serifs in the entire design system is not maintained – they’ve used Arial in Flash animations, where they don’t have to worry about embedding fonts! That’s sacrilege in graphic designer-speak 🙂

Leaving this last bit about font puritanism apart, how many times did my mind go “negative” while going through that site – can you count?