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Time Capsule: The First Lesson I Learned Working for a Vendor: Products Don’t Need to Be Great, Just Good Enough

January 11, 2013 Time Capsule 8 Comments

I wrote weekly editorials for a boutique industry newsletter for several years, anxious for both audience and income. I learned a lot about coming up with ideas for the weekly grind, trying to be simultaneously opinionated and entertaining in a few hundred words, and not sleeping much because I was working all the time. They’re fun to read as a look back at what was important then (and often still important now).

I wrote this piece in May 2008.

The First Lesson I Learned Working for a Vendor: Products Don’t Need to Be Great, Just Good Enough
By Mr. HIStalk


I took my first vendor job many years ago, moving over to the dark side after a short career in hospitals. It was a common vocational change then and still is today: learn an application as a hospital user, then hire on with the vendor who sells it. Ca-ching!

I was anxious to use my hard-won experience to address the application’s many shortcomings. I figured it would be a slam dunk since none of the vendor’s people seemed all that sharp. My dazzling insight, I reasoned, would not only make the vendor’s application the best on the market, it would sweep me to my inevitable destiny as a software genius.

In other words, I was delusional enough to think that the only thing standing between the vendor and greatness was bringing me on board to share my vast frontline knowledge. I expected awe-struck respect, endless gratitude, and … OK, I’ll say it … maybe an outpouring of publicly proclaimed vendor love from my new best friends that I’d have to smilingly shrug off in amused embarrassment.

Stop your snickering. I admit it – I was naïve (I lost most of that naiveté when the vendor eliminated my job just a few months later with no visible sign of reluctance or regret. I was, as it turned out, highly expendable).

Instead of teaching the vendor some lessons, I had learned a few myself.

Vendors don’t necessarily want their applications to be the best; they only want them to be good enough. In the secret vendor playbook, some applications are simply placeholders to keep them from losing profitable package deals. Anything more is a waste of resources better spent on something more strategic.

Knowing how hospitals work is useful to a vendor, but not essential. In my company, decisions were made by humorless corporate wannabes who were short on brilliance and hospital experience, but long on ambition and political skills. It was like high school, where jocks and bullies ran roughshod over the smart and sensitive kids, except that these particular jocks had MBAs didn’t mind lying to the faces of employees and customers alike and were constantly plotting their upward mobility and the people whose backs they’d happily climb to get it.

Vendors enhance software applications to make new sales, not necessarily to keep current users happy. Leverage drops enormously once a hospital progresses from prospect to signed customer.

It’s not a shortage of good ideas that makes a product mediocre, it’s the decisions executives make about allocating resources to it. Execution is the rate-limiting step, not brilliant planning and design.

Perhaps the most eye-opening lesson for me was to appreciate how disillusionment breeds contempt among product insiders nearly everywhere. They’re like hot dog factory workers – they’ve seen the unsavory manufacturing process and wouldn’t eat one on a dare. “Held together by spit and baling wire,” they’ll snort, “old code cobbled together to form a house of cards on a shaky foundation. It’s junk and needs to be rewritten.”

As a new hire fresh off the hospital front lines, I was uncomfortable hearing my beloved application sneered at by those who developed and supported it. Surely they realized how well it really worked.

Most companies don’t have a place for product lovers. There’s too much compromise and indifference required to work for vendors who sell a broad range of applications. A software application is the end result of years of compromise and mediocrity-seeking, the perfect tension between intentional underinvestment and outright customer revolt.

It’s no wonder that few customers really love their software applications. They were designed to be tolerated, not adored.

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Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

  1. Mr. HISTalk. Thank you. I am now back in the vendor space, and I am feeling good about this vendor — that they have learned from mistakes and brought me in to help drive toward a more meaningful go-to-market strategy. I could be, as you were, too idealistic and ever so green even as I embark on my 17th year in this industry. Who knows, but I am not going to give up. I look forward to sharing this article with my colleagues to remind them that our customers have been there and done that. Its now time to impress them and do things right! Wish me luck!!

  2. I couldn’t disagree more!

    I think vendors want their systems to be the best they can be and they want to meet the market need. HOWEVER…how does a vendor do that when every client is just a little bit different – and particularly on the high end – every client is right and does things the best way that they can be done. My hat goes off to Meditech and to Epic for bucking this practice and at both ends of the market (well, Meditech is in the middle) basically saying, “This is the system”. Yes, it would be great if they could say, “This is the system and it is flexible enough to meet the wide divergent needs from hospital to hospital, clinic to clinic – big and small.”

  3. Ouch. I hope you’ve dealt with some less cynical vendor management since this piece was originally written! I have been a software vendor almost my entire career. There is an equilibrium that is struck over time between what clients collectively want and what the vendor can practically provide while continuously balancing the checkbook.

    Most hospitals understand “No Margin / No Mission”. The same is true of vendors. Vendors provide a valuable service within their market as an arbiter of standards, methodologies, terminology, and workable solutions to hard problems–problems bigger than any one client can or should tackle. Many client voices “chime in”. Most client suggestions are worthy of consideration, some suggestions are valuable to other clients across the industry, and of those, a few can be provided at a price that clients are willing to pay. I consider the Vendor’s job noble work. If other vendors don’t, clients are obliged to find those vendors who do.

  4. That’s a pretty myopic perspective. Generalizing about vendors is like….well….generalizing about women.

    You had one vendor experience so you apply the dynamics of that company to all. Shame on you ignoramous-maximus.

    Commercial products are developed and revved to appeal to the broadest segment of the market said company is targeting. Some companies are very attentive to market (read users) needs and roadmap functionality over time.

    Ignormaous’ believe that if they want a green screen to turn blue when you hit this button, well then by golly the vendor ought to drop everything and give it to him/her. Doh!

    You see what we have here is a failure to be edumacated in a more thorough fashion. You think you are buying a product. Wrong. You are making a long term commitment with that vendor. So you better do your due diligence in all areas, not just what the product function is today.

    But nooooo. You technoweenies look at what that product does today, make a purchase decision, then in a year or two the competitor leapfrogs the product you purchased, and then we have the whining writeup we see above.

    News flash essay, nobody forced you to buy that junk. Your bad. Man up and deal w it. Next time conduct a meaningful due diligence on your vendor.

    Not all vendors are created equal.

    Edumacation over. Where do I send the invoice to?

  5. As one who has worked all sides of this street (buyer, developer, and consultant) I am afraid Mr H is more right than wrong. The only adjustment I would make is that your assessment holds mostly for full EHR vendors (or large suite) and far less for best of breed vendors. If all you sell is a pharmacy system it better be a mile deep and rich or you’ll be in trouble.

    A full EMR vendor can get by with ‘good enough’ for some departmental systems becasue he has the CIO pushing for the ‘single vendor solution’…no interface hassles’. The CIO is the one who will the CEO – hey , or full EMR system’s Rx product is ‘good enough…pharmacy does not need a Cadillac’.

    In my many years in he HIT world I have never seen a full EMR system go as deep and rich in a given department as a best of breed. I challenge anyone who disgrees to show me one.

  6. “In my company, decisions were made by humorless corporate wannabes who were short on brilliance and hospital experience, but long on ambition and political skills. It was like high school, where jocks and bullies ran roughshod over the smart and sensitive kids, except that these particular jocks had MBAs didn’t mind lying to the faces of employees and customers alike and were constantly plotting their upward mobility and the people whose backs they’d happily climb to get it.”

    This does a pretty good job of describing the vendor I worked for in the ambulatory space known for using the color orange. If by “ran roughshod” you mean “use intimidation to try to generate short-term performance”, then it’s pretty much spot-on.

  7. Every EMR- IT decision needs to be weighed between these two conflicting directions….do you adopt a superior departmental app, or go with the enterprize EMR.

    That question is easy and has no good answer spitting out….you can not say one or the other.

    First develop a needs list for the department and the overall EMR continuity for the hospital or enterprize.

    Weigh each of the aspects and then apply what each offering will give the the overall plan. This is subjective, but using a wrong app daily is somewhat subjective also.

    Many global EMRs havepretty good departmental solutions, some are horrible.

    Certainly if the OR is very involved and we look at the ultimate client as the clinical patient, we may gain another perspective.

  8. Wow. The almighty dollar drives all things business. Makes you wonder how much “business” belongs in healthcare…

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