What a SaaS outage taught me about the meaning of partnerships

Recently, a great customer with global IT operations had a server go down. The outage lasted 48 hours.

Over the past decade, as SaaS products have become essential to the day-to-day operations of businesses, I’ve seen a disturbing trend. Software providers and their clients in IT have become obsessed with delineating responsibilities. While that sounds like a positive thing, the dynamic is not what it professes to be. It’s really about knowing who to blame when things break down – which they always do. The game of “we handle this, and you handle that” is harmless until that moment arrives.

I’ll speak candidly from experience. Recently, a great customer with global IT operations had a server go down. The outage lasted 48 hours. Eventually, we traced the cause to a network administrator who altered a domain name without realising it was associated with my company, SysAid.

In those 48 hours, we didn’t care one bit who caused the outage. When a client is suffering, every bit of spirit and resourcefulness we have goes into fixing the problem. Nothing else matters. We have to think like an emergency room surgeon, not a lawyer. The vendor and client act as one. Emergencies test if you have a real partnership, which, at heart, is an agreement to communicate honestly.

Those 48 hours, as stressful as they were, had a silver lining. They taught my company and our client how we could be better partners to each other. They also motivated me to reflect on how a great vendor-client partnership ought to work. Here’s where that inquiry led:

1. Share information

Companies are hesitant to share private data with vendors, and for good reason. Regulations on payment processing, health records, etc. are intimidating, obtuse, and costly when violated. However, part of a partnership with a vendor is planning – legally and technologically – for those moments when sharing data can save millions of dollars or mitigate a PR disaster.

If you’re in IT, build a channel for sharing internal data with your vendor. Have the vendor sign a nondisclosure agreement or adopt needed security practices. A good SaaS company will step up to the plate.  

2. Be honest

In that outage or security crisis, there’s no space for doublespeak. Most outages do come down to an inappropriate change in a system – a human error. No one wants to be that human. The vendor is scared it screwed up, and that the client will leave as a result. The client fears it will seem foolish when, instead, someone on its IT team made the mistake. 

Both sides are vulnerable. 

So, share in that discomfort by being stone-cold honest. Be willing to say, here’s what we did, here’s what we’re seeing, here’s who was involved, etc. Blame is inconsequential when credibility, money, and trust are on the line.  

3. Learn

After, and only after, a problem is fixed, determine why it happened. Who changed what? Why? How might the vendor and client have prevented the outage? 

A retrospective is invaluable if it prevents the mistake from reoccurring. It’s toxic insofar as it enables one party or the other to demonise someone. 

In outages, the vendor and customer are one team. Both have money and reputation at stake; both want to see an expedient fix; neither want to see a second catastrophe. Make the retrospective a learning opportunity, not a witch hunt.

4. Consult and include

In my experience, IT teams can prevent outages if they consult their vendor before making changes to networks that support external technologies. At a small company with three IT people in the same room, that’s pretty darn easy. For a global company with IT operations in multiple continents, that’s not so easy. The U.S. team might know all about your IT service management platform while the Australian team doesn’t. 

Thus, part of the SaaS partnership is to include everyone who can affect it. Who at the company can make network changes that would impact an outside vendor? That person deserves to have a relationship with the vendor and a direct line of communication. People, not companies, are the true members of a partnership.

5. Ask “Why?”

Vendor-client relationships form partially by chance. At a certain calibre, the differences between vendors shrink. Their capabilities and tools are neck-and-neck. Ultimately, you might choose a software platform because you like one salesperson better than another. Or, you might buy software from the more famous company. After all, nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM. At that point in the game, neither vendor can claim to be the better fit for your company. Personally, I would choose to form a relationship with the vendor who asks “why?” 

People are afraid to ask that question because they think they’re supposed to know the answer. They’re afraid to appear ignorant or childlike when, in reality, 10 other people in the meeting might be wondering the same thing. Without asking “why?”, we’re forced to make assumptions. 

Why do you process credit cards this way? Why do you keep certain data in the cloud and other data on-premises? Why does your IT department use these SLAs? Why did your company adopt a BYOD approach? Why did you decide to part ways with your previous vendor?

A vendor committed to a relationship has a responsibility to ask why, even when doing so is uncomfortable. Behind every practice, process, and rule, there is a reason. Sometimes that reason is inertia – no one remembers why or how the process came to be. But often, there is a law, a traumatic failure, or a clever insight driving the operation. A software vendor can only serve its clients insofar as it understands why they do the things they do. 

Tying the knot

A vendor-client partnership is not so different from a marriage, friendship, or community. It’s human relationships, not technology, that require the most management. Above, I described principles we begin learning in the preschool classroom but never perfect. Building digital tools is and will always be easier than building sound relationships. 

Something inevitably goes wrong between the SaaS vendor and client. Tempers will flare. Personalities will clash. Blame will try to interfere. Whichever side you’re on, be relentless about solving the problem. In those critical hours, nothing else matters. 

Sarah Lahav, CEO, SysAid Technologies
Image Credit: Wright Studio / Shutterstock