[IMGCAP(1)]When I was about to get married 20 years ago, my dad said to me, “Son, getting married will be the last decision you’ll ever make.”

Boy, was he right.

Marriage is a long-term decision. Just like buying technology.

For example, Apple is a great company with smart people. And even they have had their headaches choosing the right technology partner. Their communications service partner, AT&T, has suffered connection glitches in certain parts of the country. The guys who manufacture their iPhones have antenna issues. And now their primary resource for supplying iPad monitors is having supply problems.

Those guys at Apple may be smart. But they clearly need some help choosing the right partner. My advice? They should watch a couple of episodes of "Bridezillas."

C’mon, you know the show. Big, hairy brides-to-be yell and scream at their wedding planners, threaten their own bridesmaids, throw tantrums during photo shoots and have spectacular meltdowns just minutes before walking down the aisle .

And all for the sake of having that perfect wedding, which never really happens in real life.
These brides don’t get it. It’s not about the wedding. It’s about the marriage — and whom they’re marrying. Apple execs have found this out. But unfortunately, a lot of small business owners don’t get this. Especially when it’s time to make big purchases of technology for their companies.

It’s not about the technology. And it’s not about the wedding. It’s about the partner. And the long-term relationship you’re about to enter.

Because the technology industry is changing for small companies like mine. Microsoft doesn’t just want your Windows business. They want your database, security and network management business too. And Sage doesn’t want you just to purchase their ERP software.

They want you to buy their CRM software too. IBM’s software is meshed with its hardware. Dell doesn’t just sell computers. They sell printers and monitors and storage components and networking devices. All of these companies tell you that you’ll be better off sticking with their products. They don’t just want customers. They want customers for life. You’re not buying technology anymore. You’re entering into a marriage. And you don’t want to wake up to find yourself married to Mel Gibson one day, now do you?

Once you implement your new accounting software, or go live with that customer relationship management system, or turn the switch on that upgraded network, the honeymoon is over. You’re going to be in bed with that vendor for the long term. So choose wisely.

When choosing, smart business owners I know start with their vendors’ financial history. They request credit reports from services like Dun & Bradstreet and Hoovers. If public, they research the company’s recent SEC filings. If private, they ask for financial data. They want to know how profitable these companies are and how many employees they have. How long they’ve been in business. What kind of cars their executives drive.

If you’re going to rely on someone else’s software to run your entire business, you want to make damn sure that the company’s going to be in business over the long term in case you’re having any problems. This goes ten-fold if you decide to host your data with a third party. What happens if they suddenly close up shop? Where’s your data? How can you get support?

Referrals are important too. But not those spoon-fed referrals from the technology vendor. The best referrals are the ones you get yourself. Go to Monster.com or CareerBuilder.com and search for the technology you’re considering. If you see a company advertising a job where that software or expertise are a part of the requirements they’re looking for, then that’s a good indication that they own the technology you’re about to buy. Call them and ask about their experience with the vendor. What happened after the sale? Do they pick up the phone when there’s a problem? Are their support people knowledgeable? Do they update their technology frequently? Do they care if the floral arrangements lack yellow roses? Are they pro-active?

Guys, what would you do if you saw your fiancée scream at her family, kick over tables and punch holes in the drywall just days before your wedding? Same as me. Nothing. Let’s not make the same mistake when buying technology for our businesses.

Many of those wonderful girls on “Bridezillas” make the mistake of visiting the catering hall where the wedding is going to happen. Good idea…but wrong place. They should be visiting the trailer park where they’ll be living once the affair is over. Many business owners make the same mistake when buying technology. They rely too much on what their vendor is telling them. And not enough on their own eyes.

If you’re going to spend a big chunk of change on a new business management system, you should visit the vendor beforehand. Do their offices look like George Clooney or Zach Galifianakis? To find this out, some clients of mine have sent key people to end-user training at the vendor’s location before they even purchase the technology. Why not? They spend a few days with users from other companies. They get to speak to the vendor’s trainers and support people and not the sales guys. They can get a sense of the company’s culture and attitude towards their existing customers. A typical end user training may cost a few thousand dollars. But if you’re about to spend six figures on a brand-new business system, you may find this little investment well worth the money.

Smart business owners I know have looked to purchase technology from companies that have strong partner channels too. That’s not to say that some companies provide good long-term support completely from their headquarters. But large companies like HP, Microsoft and Cisco have found that building a strong network of partners helps them service their smaller customers more efficiently. We need to make sure these partners hold the right certifications, are well staffed and can refer us to some of their own customers so we can determine if they do good, reliable work. We want to try calling them at all hours of the night with questions just to see how responsive they are. We want to ask how long these partners have been affiliated with their technology vendors and try to gauge how happy or frustrated they may be with their relationship. This could be a pretty good indicator of our own long-term happiness with the vendor too.

And in the end, we also want to be good partner. God knows, no marriage is perfect – just ask Jon and Kate. And no technology is perfect either. Instead of throwing a hissy fit like a typical Bridezilla, Apple has worked with its partners to solve those inevitable problems when they occur. For a small business owner, the technology will never work completely well all the time. But if we have a good partnership with our vendors, and don’t behave like a Bridezilla, we too can overcome whatever problems we’ll ultimately encounter.

With no hissy fits.

Gene Marks, CPA, runs a 10-person technology consulting firm in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. His latest book is In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash: Simple Lessons from Smart Business People.

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