Friday Rant — Vendor M&A: Making Your Voice Heard

With all the acquisition news of late -- from Ariba mining for transactional spend gold with Quadrem to SciQuest ticking the diversity and supplier management box with AECSoft to Emptoris calling collect (at Ma Bell's expense) to Rivermine -- it's pretty clear that M&A has entered a new period of activity in the Spend Management sector. This is a topic that I've written about quite a bit on Spend Matters over the years (Check out some past posts here, here and here). But the fact that deals are getting done is not necessarily beneficial to customers, who often face the potential of reduced support/service levels, license/SaaS and maintenance price increases, decreased solution innovation and generally less attention when their software and solutions providers are acquired. Based on my own anecdotal experience, I'd argue that nearly all customers of acquired vendors are usually less satisfied in at least one single important area a few years out -- even in transactions that are widely lauded as successes.

There are ways to tilt the odds in your Spend Management favor, however, even if a significant percentage of customers will ultimately end up at least partially -- if not significantly -- disenfranchised at some point following a transaction. Awareness of this should start by raising the issue in your own organizations and by becoming a more strategic user. I've learned over the years that customers of software and solutions vendors aren't only strategic to a vendor when they write a large check or represent a known brand.

If you want to come out whole after an acquisition, then it's essential to make your voice heard in the mix by getting to know the acquiring company as well as whispering in the ear of the account and executive management of the firm you're already working with. But making your voice heard isn't necessarily easy -- and rarely does it come at an opportune time, especially when it's likely that M&A levels are increasing in your organization given the herd mentality of transactions in the broader capital markets (which we all know brings with it added workloads and potentially added stresses of job security too).

Still, you'll be the better for it if you consider pursuing the following three tactics as a start:

  1. Join customer advisory boards and actively get to know not just the Sales VP and CEO, but also, ideally, the head of product management and the CTO (if applicable). You'd be surprised how much more important the products teams can be in making things happen, especially if they view your organization as an archetype for the existing base and new potential customers. If the acquiring company does not have an active customer advisory group that meets with senior executives, consider it a warning flag that you're likely to end up as just a number at some point in time.
  2. Make your requirements known, and to get your projects and requirements prioritized, make sure you introduce competition into the vendor management area by investigating other solutions as you expand roll-outs geographically, across divisions/operating units, across categories and into more strategic areas of the business. The introduction -- not the threat -- of competition and the feedback the process it generates is invaluable for all parties and will help solidify relationships that were right to begin with (and accelerate the end to those which should have been cut short previously).
  3. Speak both legal and marketing tongues -- it's one thing to hold a vendor to the letter of a contract, but it's another to reach out to analysts, bloggers and others you already know -- but with a public voice -- when it comes to voicing discontent (and to let executives know you're not happy before you do it). A single unhappy customer sharing information about declines in service levels or other issues can be far more damaging to a vendor's top line and general market reputation than the single P&L contribution your organization generates for it. There is a long tail of discontent customers that will no doubt be thrown out of proportion by industry observers should they discover not all is as it seems across a customer base. When it doubt, escalate internally with your vendor and share your plans to check in with consultants, analysts or others to see if other customers are facing similar challenges following an acquisition.

Above all, following a vendor acquisition, make your voice heard! Be among the loud minority who steps onto the field and takes the preemptive shot rather than waiting for the opposing team or referee to make the first move or call.

- Jason Busch

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