Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Business Intelligence Vendor Websites – How to Read Between the Lines

If you’ve begun looking for a business intelligence solution, you probably noticed very quickly that there are quite a few business intelligence vendors out there. Narrowing the overcrowded field of vendors in order to come up with your own business intelligence short list will usually start with a review of the vendors’ Websites. Armed with your short list, you can begin contacting vendors to receive proposals.

This article is going to help you discover some key differences between vendors based on what they share on their Websites – and what they don’t. Read between the lines while looking at BI vendor Websites to quickly figure out which business intelligence vendors are probably right for you, and which ones aren’t.

The Customers Page
Obviously, a business intelligence vendor Website without a page dedicated to featured customers is cause for concern.

Assuming the vendor does indeed have a Customers page, the first thing you should look for is whether the featured customers are big corporations or smaller companies. This is an important distinction because business intelligence solutions for big corporations often have very different functional (and other) requirements than business intelligence for smaller companies.  You should focus on vendors which sell to companies like the one for which you’re seeking a solution. If you need BI for an SMB, a business intelligence vendor that only lists Fortune 500 corporations on their Customers page probably won’t fit your needs. Their solutions are probably too complicated and/or expensive. Similarly, if you need BI for a large corporation and the business intelligence vendor only lists SMB customers, the solution may not deliver the functionality, performance or scalability you need.

The second thing you should look for is whether you recognize any of the customers listed on this page. Having recognizable names says a lot about the credibility of the business intelligence vendor. Well-known companies with recognizable brand names do not trust their business operations to just anyone. A business intelligence vendor with recognizable names on its Customers page is less likely to disappoint you than a company listing only unknown names.

The Case Studies Page
Reviewing the case studies on a vendor’s Website is a good way to determine whether the solutions the vendor provides were implemented in business scenarios that resemble your own. Most vendors should include at least a few case studies on their site.

It’s important to note whether the solution has been implemented in companies within the same industry as yours. Different industries will share many common needs, but there will also be special needs and requirements unique to each one. 

Another important thing to look for is whether the solution is being used in the same way you’d like to be using your business intelligence solution. There are several types of business intelligence solutions available – some are used more for reporting and some more for analytics. Some are maintained primarily by IT and some are designed for more hands-on use by business professionals. Case studies help you determine whether the solution can meet your goals and whether it can be used by the people you intend to use it.

The Partners Page
The Partners page is a great place in which to gather information about the vendor. You may think that the Partners page is mainly used for finding representatives in your own region, but there is a lot more you can tell about a vendor from this page.

One thing you should look at is whether the vendor has a long list of service integrators listed as partners. This is important because it says a lot about how difficult the solution may be to implement. 

While software vendors prefer to sell software licenses, service integrators typically make most of their revenue from projects they execute, charging by the hour or by the day. When a business intelligence vendor has a long list of service integrators as partners, it usually means that the solution they sell is a challenge to implement and/or requires extensive on-going maintenance and consulting. Otherwise, the service integrators wouldn’t see much business value from working with that vendor.

The second thing you should look for on the Partners page is whether the vendor has multiple software/technology vendors listed as partners. Typical business intelligence applications require several tools and technologies to be fully implemented, and when a vendor lists technology/software partners, it usually means they only provide a portion of the business intelligence stack themselves.

The Free Trial Download Page
Even though free trial downloads are commonly found in the software industry, they are not commonly found in BI vendor Websites.

There are two major reasons for this. The first is that 99% of the business intelligence vendors out there are not software providers, but rather service providers. As opposed to selling products, they partner with existing software/technology vendors to use their products as building blocks for implementing custom solutions.

The second reason for vendors not having a free trial available for download is their lack of confidence in your ability to quickly and easily use their software (due to it being too complex and/or because it requires professional services to get started).

Therefore, when a vendor does in fact have a free trial version available for download, it typically means both that this vendor is willing to sell directly to you (thus removing the mark-ups taken by third-party service providers and resellers) and that this vendor believes you would actually be able to use their software yourself. It also stands to reason in this case that you’re looking at dramatically shorter implementation times, without extensive third-party service provider fees.

The Services Page
Vendors in the business intelligence space basically have two ways of making money: through selling software or through selling services (e.g., consulting, implementation, maintenance).
It is very difficult for a vendor to successfully focus on both, as they require completely different staff and operations. Building commercial software in the BI space requires significantly deeper pockets than simply providing services which utilize existing (third-party) software. This is why the business intelligence space has very few vendors which provide end-to-end “productized” software and significantly more service providers who will custom build a system.

It’s important to understand that the total cost of owning a BI solution is rarely the cost of software licensing, but rather all the work that needs to be done in order to customize this software for your own needs. Therefore, if a business intelligence vendor presents itself as a software vendor, while having a wide range of professional services for sale, it should make you wonder what it is about their software that requires so many services around it. As previously mentioned, true software product vendors prefer to focus on selling licenses, not on selling services. It is very difficult to do both equally well and, from a vendor’s business model perspective, it’s wrong to even try. So business intelligence software vendors try to make their software as easy to implement in as self-service a manner as possible. Otherwise, they would have to spend more than they’d want on training, support and customization services.

The Pricing Page
Pricing pages are not something you often find on business intelligence vendor Websites. Those which do have pricing pages usually have some empty statements such as “contact us” instead of actual pricing figures.

Usually, business intelligence vendors do not publish pricing information because most of the actual cost of a system deployment will go towards the implementation and customization projects. These projects are very hard to price before doing extensive on-site analysis and estimating project scope. Therefore, the pricing would be meaningless.

For a vendor that actually sells software products, a typical reason for not posting pricing information is to hide the mark-ups their service integrator partners get on the deal. In many cases, the service integrator is the actual one doing the selling to the end customer and they enjoy margins which tend to be significant. Publicly posting the list price would prevent third-party resellers such as these from adding significant markup to the sale.

However, there are rare cases when a business intelligence vendor does post pricing on their Website. These are typically companies with unique business models and offerings, and by that fact alone they are worth your close attention.

The Online Community Page
Having an online community (via blogs, forums, etc.) is a very big benefit for customers in the BI space, as it allows you to leverage the experience of other users to accomplish tasks and solve problems. Regardless of which vendor you choose, you will always have a question at some point and it’s great to be able to get it answered without having to rely on the vendor’s official support channels.

Online communities also give you a good indication of how popular the solution is and what types of things people are doing with it. Generally speaking, your experience with a business intelligence solution will be much more fluent if you have access to the collective knowledge of an active online community.

When a business intelligence vendor does not have an online community, you should immediately be concerned about how much support will cost you and how quickly you will be able to get responses to your inquiries.

Good luck on the search for your perfect business intelligence solution!
Provided as public service to the business intelligence customer community by SiSense, a BI vendor leading the way to a faster, easier, better era of business intelligence.


  1. I thought this post was very insightful. With these points in mind, what would you have to say about ? This is a SAAS BI website and would love your feedback so we can improve our offering.

  2. Thanks Kirsty.

    The first thing I can tell you is the same thing I told the guys at Birst - I don't like the mixed messages regarding hosted and on-premises. Don't get me wrong, I understand completely why you do it, but that does it make it any less of a mistake.

    I do not believe that a company (especially as small as yours seems to be) can do both equally well, as each requires completely different operations both from an M&S perspective and an engineering perspective.

    The hosted solutions provided by the on-premises platform players suck, just like the on-premises solutions provided by cloud players suck. Each approach solves different problems and introduces unique ones.

    My suggestion to you is, at least in this respect, is to pick what you're best at and leave the rest alone. If you're a cloud BI company, be proud of it. Otherwise, you're just confusing the customer as well as your own team.

    Good luck to you!


  3. Thanks for the feedback Elad. We do focus on the SAAS side as that is what we are pioneering. I can see how it can be confusing to customers.

    Best regards.

  4. Kirsty, how do you compare to the venture funded Gooddata and Birst?


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