5 Tips for Switching Vendors

Don't let the deluge of financial offers blind you to the best vendor for your needs. These five tips will help you make the right choice.

By Peter Bauer

Eight months after the news that Webroot was exiting the e-mail security business, Google announced its decision to decommission the Postini spam filtering and e-mail archiving service as we know it. For partners and customers who chose Postini as an alternative to Webroot must have felt jinxed.

With increasing consolidation in the sector, competition is fierce, so it is unsurprising that the social media space is now awash with tempting commercial offers from competitive vendors targeting these vulnerable organizations. What advice is there for companies looking for a new security provider? How can organizations see beyond the financial offer? When it comes to the issues surrounding a switch in provider, I have seen it all, and by sharing some of these experiences, I hope you'll better understand how to make the right decision for the long term.

Tip #1: Customer service and support is paramount

With the increasing commoditization of technologies such as anti-spam and anti-virus, offering standalone cloud services is no longer enough. IT decision makers are increasingly looking for cloud vendors that can solve multiple problems with cost-effective, integrated solutions and provide high levels of customer support.

Inadequate support is often cited as a reason customers start looking for a new e-mail security provider. A sensible part of any due diligence is to examine levels of support available from your new vendor and the reputation of that support organization, too. Don't just ask about support SLAs; seek feedback from peer communities, ask for a reference customer and do some digging to make sure you will be supported in such a way that makes you feel like an important customer.

Cloud vendors don't like losing customers, so some make it hard to leave. Almost counter-intuitively, others show how easy it would be to leave and in doing so, encourage a more speedy sign-up. Understand your vendor's fundamental orientation early on.

Nobody likes talking about the customers they've lost and how the departure process worked, but if you were marrying a divorcee, you'd want to know something about how their last marriage ended and how they treated their former partner during the split. Calling up a former spouse might be a bit creepy, but you at least want to understand from your prospective new partner how it all worked.

Request a case study that covers how a relationship ended – the marketing department won't have one, but I bet the head of customer service could put one together for you. Don't be shy to ask for acceptable terms of departure at the time of signing up.

Tip #2: Think about your provider's long-term business plans

If they are a small, independent provider, are they likely to be acquired and perhaps subsequently care for you less? Have they recently been acquired by a company with little focus on customer support? What is their investment strategy? Is innovation high on their agenda? I mentioned commoditization in the market earlier; I believe that vendors that sell budget solutions perpetuate this problem because they are not investing in bringing any new value or innovation to the market.

Who is their target market? Vendors that spend their time marketing to end users, SMBs, and enterprise organizations are spreading themselves thinly across a wide range of markets and problem-solving functionality. E-mail security in particular is vastly different in the enterprise than in the end-user sector, so finding a vendor that gives your enterprise the right level of control, granularity, and visibility is vital.

Whatever your reasons for switching suppliers, be sure to communicate your reasons to your new supplier and have them agree to be accountable for addressing the problems you encountered before.

Tip #3: Get involved before you sign a contract

Does the prospective provider have a user group or online community? Can you get involved to experience that aspect of life as a customer before signing on the dotted line? Can you play with some aspect of the technology before committing? Can you see a demo from two different sales engineers? Gaining real hands-on experience doing something with a prospective new vendor gives you an insight into how they work. No matter what they say, a vendor will always treat a prospect slightly better than they would a customer, so if your experience as a prospect is mediocre, expect the customer experience to be a disappointment.

Tip #4: Find out how far up the potential vendor's management chain your prospective purchase has gone

Does the head of sales know about it? Does the the CEO? Get their e-mail address and communicate with them. This question will raise your internal profile with the vendor immediately. Explain to your senior contact your reasons for switching, explain the risks you perceive and the benefits you expect. Seek assurance in writing that the vendor understands what you want and can commit to delivering it before you sign. Then, if something goes wrong, you have lined up your escalation point in advance. A senior internal advocate can be a great asset as you become more dependent on your cloud security partner's performance and delivery.

Tip #5: Determine the ease of migration

Moving from one e-mail security provider to another could be as easy as swapping MX records, but most organizations have a deeply complex set of policies, configurations, and access control lists that have taken years to tune. Moving to a new e-mail security vendor in this instance means you'd either have to recreate these by hand or find a vendor that is sympathetic to this pain and can help you transfer your configuration settings to their system.

Whether you're an existing Postini customer or simply dissatisfied with the service you're getting from another provider, the issues I've raised should help you determine a more effective, long-term solution and see beyond the plethora of financial offers available.

Peter Bauer is CEO of Mimecast, a cloud-based unified e-mail management company he co-founded in 2003, long before "the cloud" was so named. His company supports over 5,500 businesses globally with high levels of personal customer support. You can contact the author at pbauer@mimecast.com.