When Did Tech Companies Lose Their Point Of View?

As you know, we are right in the middle of conference season, and I’ve been pounding the pavement for the last few months, with another month ahead of me. Here’s a phrase I’ve heard over and over from the tech vendors I’ve visited, which has grown tiresome: “Any way they want it.” This is in reference to their (retail) clients, and to the vendor’s willingness to bend over backwards to get their retail clients whatever they need.

These vendors are dedicating themselves to enabling retailers however they want to be enabled, at exactly the wrong moment in time. Let me explain. It’s okay to emphasize flexibility when it comes to how a vendor enables a business process, or even flexibility in how a vendor deploys their solution (cloud vs. on premise, for example). But what’s not okay — and what I too frequently hear in keynote speeches and press conferences — is to take that flexibility to mean that the vendor should not have a point of view about the future of the industry.

Vendors often agree vehemently whenever we at RSR say things like “A technology investment should be more like a marriage, not a transaction”. They want relationships, they want meetings of the mind, they want to understand their clients’ problems and work together to solve them. None of these things happen when a vendor is held at arm’s length, and frankly, I know I can speak for the whole team at RSR when I say that this is counter-productive for both the retailer and the vendor.

A relationship is a two-way street. As much as vendors want to know retailers’ problems so that they can help solve them, retailers want to know what future vendors see for the industry, so that they can help retailers keep up with those future trends. And, in fact, I would argue that in times of great uncertainty, where the future is not known with any degree of confidence, a vendor’s point of view on how they keep themselves on top of a rapidly shifting environment is even more important to a retailer selecting a vendor partner than the functionality they offer. What’s the point in investing in a relationship if the vendor brings nothing to the party?

And I am distressed to see so many vendors emphasize flexibility to the point that they seem to have no point of view and no strategy to share for how they are keeping on top of the next challenges to head retailers’ way. Especially right now, when the future is so uncertain. There seems to be a concerted effort to kill off the term omni-channel as if it’s done, and has no value today. But how many retailers can say omni-channel is done? I’ll tell you how many: absolutely none. No one has digital transformation figured out, let alone implemented.

Why have so many tech vendors lost their way? This, I don’t understand. Everybody’s talking about the same trends. Millennials. Digital Transformation. Experiences. Price Transparency. Social Media. So many more. How hard is it to articulate what these trends mean for a specific solution area? How hard is it to translate that impact into a vendor’s vision for the future for their solutions specifically?

Apparently, it’s really hard, because instead of hearing those conversations at the events I’ve attended, I am far more likely to hear this: “We’ll do whatever our clients need.” When retailers don’t know what they need next, I guess that answer roughly translates into “nothing of importance”? If so, that means tough times ahead for vendors, who, if they want to achieve their goals for cloud solutions and ease of upgrades and total cost of ownership, need to convince retailers of the value of no customizations, and multi-tenant subscription models.

When you have no point of view on the importance of these things to retail, and worse yet, have no point of view on how retail will change over the next 3-5 years and what it means to you and your clients (who theoretically need to buy into a 3-year minimum subscription), that’s going to be a really tough sell.