Friday Rant — Listen to Your Customers, Please!

On Wednesday, I had the chance to catch up with two Kevins at my home base in Chicago -- Kevin Potts (Emptoris) and Kevin Brooks (formerly Ariba, now IQNavigator). They were both in town for the Forrester research conference (I won’t go there in this rant, so don’t even ask). But the primary reason they were here was not important -- it was the side conversations I ended up having with them, and in Kevin Pott's case, his new CEO, via teleconference. Both interactions reminded me about how important it is to listen not only to your customers, but not to tick off people in the market who can influence potential deals involving your solution.

Kevin Brooks understood this in spades from his early years at Ariba. Back in the day, before the terms cloud computing and SaaS were even tiptoeing into our vernacular, Ariba succeeded at selling very large eProcurement, marketplace and sourcing deals to a willing customer base sold on the concept, if not on the finer points of execution (which would make a great book, if only I had the time). One thing Kevin did when he was there was a series of intense focus groups with his then boss Michael Schmidt and a phenomenal branding/messaging consultant in the area to come up with the elegant -- if not overly simplistic concept of Spend Management and the tagline: find it, get it, keep it. I’ll admit, when I first heard this while working for an Ariba competitor, I just about threw up on my notebook. But it worked and eventually even won me over (no easy feat).

How did Kevin and Michael and their extended team arrive at this entirely new platform? They listened to customers, investing significant amounts of time and dollars in doing so. Ironically, this started Ariba down a path of material investment in customer advisory and focus groups (led by someone at the time from FreeMarkets who, unfortunately, is no longer there). But this ethos, even though it continues today with Ariba's new offerings and SaaS model, has been lost on at least some of Ariba's legacy customers, many from whom I've heard are not in the least enthused with Ariba's emerging plans to provide ongoing maintenance and support (my sources on this come from all sides: direct from customers, industry analysts and consultants, both boutique and Big 4). This is causing a number of these customer organizations to at least talk about moving down another solution path, if only for the emotional-driven response of getting Ariba out of the door (in Ariba's defense, perhaps they've already written off some of these legacy customers, and that's factoring into their equation -- still not the best customer centric strategy if you ask me).

Emptoris, in contrast, did a rather poor job for many years listening to customers about their needs and wants -- prioritizing what they thought was the right roadmap based on their own R&D and acquisitions -- but appears to be doing a complete 180 degree turn, as Kevin Potts and new CEO Pat Quirk have been emphasizing ad nauseum to just about anyone who will listen. But this is more than lip service -- I believe they really mean it, having interviewed a number of long-time and more recent customers at Empower last week, who believe in the new customer-centric Emptoris.

The tale of the two Kevins might be telling. At IQNavigator, I know Kevin Brooks has just begun with his colleagues to really probe what they're looking for when it comes to the future of services and contingent labor procurement -- solutions, business models and core platform capabilities and requirements. Perhaps this customer centric approach to not only new products but also existing legacy customer support is something that Ariba should consider rethinking if the current voices screaming from the legacy peanut gallery are any indication of even small scale discontent in the installed base.

Jason Busch

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