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Vendor Web sites big turnoff for CIOs, Forrester says

A new poll from Forrester Research shows CIOs now rely heavily on vendor Web sites to make buying decisions. The problem? Most vendor Web sites are not about the customer.

If you have counted on a vendor Web site to make a purchasing decision only to come away seething, you are not alone.

Vendors are missing the boat. They don't seem to realize they have a live customer on the Web site with every online visitor.
Laura Ramos
analystForrester Research
A new poll from Forrester Research Inc. finds that more than 75% of CIOs now use vendor Web sites as their first stop in a buying decision, compared with 52% who said they rely on traditional print or online ads to point them to a purchase.

Yet vendor Web sites still function by and large as old-school brochures, Forrester analyst Laura Ramos said. They tout the company's products and services rather than help the customer make a buying decision.

"It's all about me as a company," said Ramos, who covers marketing at the Cambridge, Mass.-based firm. "There's very little, 'I understand you, my customer, and here's how you can be successful.'"

Online "company brochures" can work, she said, but only if the language speaks to the user. On many vendor Web sites, however, customers are forced to fill out lengthy questionnaires and jump through other vendor-serving hoops.

"They ask you for too much information. They put up roadblocks to finding the cheaper products," Ramos says. And forget about getting a phone call back from the online customer service. "Vendors are missing the boat. They don't seem to realize they have a live customer on the Web site with every online visitor."

Peer-to-peer trust
After visiting a vendor's Web site and speaking to a sales rep, 72% of respondents in Forrester's poll said going to peers for help was the next stop on their buying trek. Almost as many, 70%, said they use business search engines, such as Technorati and GlobalSpec, to vet products, as well as technology trade publications.  

CIOs are as hip as any when it comes to exploiting new media, it turns out. Forrester "was surprised to learn" that nearly 60% of CIOs cite multimedia content -- online video, demos, podcasts and "uncensored" blogs -- as important vehicles for learning about products. They like to hear customer reviews, telling Forrester that real-life testimonials foster greater trust than a "one-way or one-dimensional pitch."

--Linda Tucci
Bill Richards can relate. Richards is director of corporate IS at McKee Foods Corp., the Collegedale, Tenn.-based maker of Little Debbie snack cakes. He said he frequently dispatches his administrative assistant, Stacey Walker, to vendor Web sites for "odds and ends" and to register employees for off-site training using the corporate credit card.

"I don't like Web sites that ask you to sign up before you can even look at what products they offer," Walker said. Some sites don't let her easily see prices -- she's had to "dig deep into the site to find them or even start the order process to find out the price."

Filling out a billing address is another pain, with some sites automatically declining at the slightest error, or giving her the boot even when the address is correct, Walker said. Then there is that "one company" McKee orders training from that dawdles through each step, keeping her occupied on the Web site for an hour to get one person signed up -- "if the site doesn't crash in the meantime."

Another turnoff? Long intro pages. "Sometimes you get an option to skip them, if you're lucky," she said.

F students

IT vendors don't have a monopoly on bad Web sites. Business-to-business (B2B) user experience is generally poor, according to Forrester's annual review of B2B sites. Only two of the 16 major B2B Web sites tested in 2006 passed the Forrester criteria for usability: Wells Fargo Bank, with a passing grade of 30 out of a possible perfect 50 points, and, which earned a grade of 27. The average score was 7.9, well below the passing mark of 25.

"Average scores in general were low, as basic design flaws hampered even the best sites we tested," said lead author Alan Webber in the Nov. 30 report.

Of the four industry sectors reviewed -- financial services, logistics, software and professional services -- the professional services companies outperformed the other sectors, buoyed by a strong performance by Bringing up the rear with an average score of 5.3 were the tech software companies: IBM (-1), Microsoft (6), SAP AG (7) and Oracle Corp. (9).

The significant flaws included: missing or buried essential content; inefficient navigation and search; illegible text and wasted space; and poor performance, in areas such as reliability, speed, privacy and security.

Death of the salesman -- Not

Underperforming Web sites means salespeople must -- and still do -- play an important role in buying decisions, according to the Forrester data. Nearly the same percentage of CIOs, 75%, said sales interactions are a primary source of product information.

More on Web sites
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Know thyself: Online branding tells all
How and where CIOs interact with salespeople, however, may be changing. The poll found that conferences and vendor events are enjoying an uptick in popularity. Nearly two-thirds of the CIOs polled said they and their staff attend technical trade shows, vendor seminars and webinars and executive events to check out products.

One reason behind the renewed appeal of these events, according to Forrester, is vendors have learned to tailor them to targeted audiences. The more informal and intimate venues allow for up-close-and-personal product demonstrations, one-on-one conversations with sales representatives, talks by industry gurus on the latest trends and peer networking.

"Business buyers need to establish a relationship with their vendors," Ramos said. "While Web sites and product collateral convey product and service capabilities in detail, IT decision makers want to look someone in the eye and shake their hand before trialing a new technology or signing a contract."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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