EMC’s Chuck Hollis blogged about The Vendor Beating a couple of months ago. The unspoken question in the post is “how do we understand what customers are telling us?”

He writes

As an employee of a large IT vendor, I’ve been at the receiving end of a reasonable number of vendor beatings.

Occasionally it’s richly deserved. But, sometimes, it’s masking a deeper set of issues that have very little to do any vendor whatsoever.

Unhappy customers, like unhappy families, are all unhappy in their own way. This customer appeared to be overstaffed, under-skilled and poorly managed.

Interpreting customer complaints and behavior is hard. When companies can’t decipher what customers want – which is usually what the company isn’t selling – it is easy and dangerous to tune them out.

Customers can tell you things about your company and products that you can’t directly discover for yourself, but what customers say may be different from what they think. And both are influenced by the customer’s context, which can include company politics, prior vendor experiences, knowledge deficits and employee level.

Steve Jobs once said that customers don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Customers know what would improve the current product in the current use case, but they can’t imagine bringing multiple novel technologies to bear on a much broader problem.

Tablet computers flopped for years until the iPad crystalized the market. Everyone saw the tablet problems: thick; heavy; slow; clunky UI; poor battery life; and, thanks to low volumes, cost. Incremental improvements – faster processors, more RAM, larger disks – didn’t help.

Tablets required a deep rethinking and application of several novel technologies – flash, gestures, CNC case milling, an app store and an energy-efficient OS – to create a compelling user experience.

The iPad illustrates the problem of listening to customers: they described symptoms and suggest fixes, but couldn’t articulate the underlying problem: how the use case differs from desktop and notebook PCs. That requires an act of imagination, not transcription.

The StorageMojo take
In Chuck’s post an EMC presales engineer identified the root cause of the customer’s pain:

. . . the database environment had grown willy-nilly over the years — it wasn’t laid out well, the queries weren’t particularly well written, and so on.

Sure, there were things we could do on the storage side (e.g. faster storage, better layouts, etc.), but it was a bigger issue than just storage performance.

But the larger question is: with high-speed and high-capacity SSDs, why isn’t this customer moving to an infrastructure that doesn’t need this fancy tuning? EMC can’t manage the fight between DBAs and storage admins, but they could be making it less contentious.

From within the EMC ecosystem the solution is clear: more training, professional services and faster gear. But from the outside the question is: who is building “it just works” high performance storage?

Courteous comments welcome, of course. I admire Tucci’s innovative EMC business model: outbid everyone else for chasm-crossing companies; give them global distribution and support; and watch the bucks roll in. It may not be innovative technically but it is innovative.