The technology buying process - vertical expertise

  • 27-May-2011

One of the most common questions an enterprise technology buyer will ask of a vendor or supplier is, "What do you know about our business?" It's the kind of question that one gets asked in job interviews too, and just like that personal situation, how the question gets answered can have a huge impact on the result. 

The answer people always prefer is of course, "Actually quite a lot, we've been working in this sector for a while."  By sector I mean industry "vertical," such as manufacturing, retailing, banking, insurance, healthcare, and so forth.  If you understand my business you are a part of my world; if you do not then no matter how clever you may be, you will always be an outsider.

That's basic, yet in the world of content management it's not a message or practice that is commonly followed. Most vendors try (with mixed success) to sell to anyone and everyone.  They argue that the technology is "horizontal" as opposed to "vertical," and that it will work equally well in any industry.  There is a validity to this argument, particularly in the world of web publishing.

Nevertheless the more complex the underlying business process the more the need for somebody who understands your business, My goal here is not to give business advice to sellers of technology, but rather to posit the opinion that buyers are quite right to have a heavy bias toward those that understand their specific industry.

True, most organizations are nothing like as unique as they think they are. Once you have seen one transactional document process you have to some extent seen them all. Likewise one media heavy website is much like another.  Further, the underlying technology used in these situations may have different branding, but they tend to be very similar at core. 

The difference and the value is in detail.  Whether you call it a document, content, a case item, a record, or a deliverable matters. Whether you navigate via product types and sub-types or locations and offerings matters.  As a buyer you want your content management system, sites, and services to be better than your competition; you also want it to be comparable to the competition.  Familiarity matters.  You want to work with a supplier that you can understand, that has an intimate understanding of your world and concerns.  Suppliers you can have conversations with, and and built a long term relationship with. 

The horizontal approach to selling and buying technology makes a lot of sense in the consumer world, but much less so in the enterprise.  The one size fits all mentality seldom works, though that does not stop a lot of suppliers from pursuing any and every opportunity no matter how far outside of their typical market reach and comfort zone. 

It's why we at the Real Story Group consider vertical expertise to be an important factor in our ECM product evaluations, for example.  A vendor might have a great technical solution but zero knowledge of the insurance sector (for example) will often rule them as unsuitable to a insurance-focused buyer.  Speeds and feeds are important, usability and functionality equally so, but a simple and genuine understanding of a buyer's world has just as much, if not more importance in the technology buying process.

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