If you see a customer who is short on licences - clearly breaking the rules - do you turn a blind eye and help them become compliant, or do you report them to the vendor or a licensing trade body? What if you were offered a juicy cut of the fine the customer would have to pay - would that change your mind?
That's the dilemma the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) is posing to software-asset-management (SAM) professionals for the first time. The trade body, whose aim is to stop software licensing abuse, has targeted many areas of the market before, but is now offering SAM professionals a cut of any fine an errant customer ends up paying, if their tip-off gets that far. The organisation says that it is looking to catch out customers that are deliberately flouting the rules to save themselves cash, and claims it is only enforcing rules customers should be adhering to already.
FAST's campaign certainly caused a stir, with independent SAM consultants and those who work in larger resellers both claiming it would break customer trust to shop them.
According to a CRN poll, 65 per cent of respondents said they would never shop a customer because trust is key, compared with 10 per cent who said they definitely would. Another 18 per cent said they would consider reporting customers, but it would depend how bad the case was. Seven per cent said they would consider shopping a customer if there was something in it for them financially.
Further controversy unfolded amid the debate, as independent SAM firms squared up against resellers that offer SAM and software sales, claiming only those who are truly independent can be trusted by customers.
Paul Sheehan, managing partner at SAM practice ITAMS, agreed and said only independent firms such as his can truly help customers, because they do not answer to anyone else.
"This activity [from FAST] is a blatant form of marketing for their organisation, not for the good of the industry," he said. "Our position is in contrast to this and we don't work with any of the major vendors. We don't have ties to them or supply software, so we are completely independent for this very reason. The messiness here is that FAST mix who their customer is. In threatening action, they are saying their customer is the vendor. That has never sat well with me and doesn't quite work. We are 100 per cent confidential and we get no money or advantage [from customers who fall short on compliance]."
Ian Camino, who left Insight - a big Microsoft LSP offering SAM services and software sales - to join independent firm Cloud Optics as a senior partner, agreed and said FAST's actions are "counter-productive" in that it would make customers wary of SAM firms in the first place.
But LSPs have fought back, insisting that it is perfectly understandable to companies to both offer SAM services and then sell customers software.
Chris Hibbert, enterprise solutions director at Microsoft software specialists Bytes, told CRN that it would make no sense at all for firms such as his to abuse customers' trust by selling them more than they really needed.
"If an LSP were to falsely report a position to sell more software, that would be a very short-lived opportunity because you would soon be found out," he said. "I would argue when it comes to vendors - look at the Microsoft initiatives - it's about helping customers reduce their software spend because it's all about long-term customer value, not a short-term win. It's all about integrity. I would categorically disagree with the independents - they have a vested interest in saying that so customers work with them and not LSPs. You can see where they are coming from and why they are saying that, but it's a ridiculous statement."
He added that in fact, working with an LSP is more efficient than going with an independent, because an LSP can offer an all-in-one package of SAM services and the required software, which he claims is simpler and more cost effective than buying each from different firms. The only people who would take FAST up on its offer to shop customers would be disgruntled ex-staff, Hibbert said, adding that it would never be considered by a serving employee.
Hibbert did admit that customers sometimes initially question whether the firm has a conflict of interest, but he said these fears are soon put to rest.
"They do bring it up - obviously we are Bytes and we sell software," he said. "We quickly get over that issue by talking about our integrity. It's a short-term issue and customers are satisfied quickly with that. Equally, we demonstrate we have Chinese walls between the SAM business and the sales business. We put those processes in place. Otherwise, most customers don't see it as a problem. We would argue that it's better to have the sales business, which means we have a good understanding of the vendors, their processes and individuals - so we can bring them the best resolutions and the best deals. Independents just cannot do that; they don't have the relationships that we do."
Softcat's software asset manager Matt Ward agreed that similar measures are in place at Softcat, which is another major Microsoft LSP.
"How do we get over the conflict of interest as an LSP? We have lots of [SAM] customers where we are not the LSP and we just do SAM services for them," he said. "But we have some customers who like to put all their eggs in one basket and we do SAM, procurement and the whole life cycle piece. SAM is part and parcel of that. So long as we have processes in place and checks and balances, then the customer is happy with that.
"There is a technology gap for a start. All SAM services are put into our Network Operations Centre - it's a tier-three datacentre, so it's secure. There are glass panels there. A sales guy can't just go in and look at details, it is not possible. We don't give access to the general population of Softcat unless a customer specifically asks."
He added that it is "absolutely ridiculous" for FAST to expect SAM professionals to report non-compliant customers.
"At Softcat we do great customer service and we are there to help the customer and we are grateful they're passing us business," he said. "We would never consider dobbing anyone in. I think they'll find that line will be full of disgruntled employees or something like that."
'Rules are rules'
Speaking in more detail about its campaign, FAST's general counsel Julian Heathcote Hobbins was defiant, and stressed that it's only fair to ensure the rules are being followed.
"FAST's role here is to deal with this issue, and enforcement is part of that - we shouldn't shy away from it," he said. "I've been speaking to one independent contractor this week, and [the thing is], the end users do not care. They are not proactively managing their software estate. They might have a tool, they might take advice. But they are waiting to be caught. It's our right and proper place to have a message in the market that if it's SAM or otherwise, rules are rules, and they need to be protected.
"I was told there is frustration and these end users don't care. They do not care. They are waiting to write cheques and brush it under the carpet. It's balanced and proportionate that we have our place in the market. We're aiming at the deliberate infringers - the bad guys - why should we shy away from that? We have to deal with these instances where it is deliberate on a large scale."
When questioned further on whether he would expect a SAM provider to report a customer who made a small, honest mistake, he said: "Our place here is about deliberate infringement over months and years. Frustrated IT pros who want to do the right thing are being ignored."
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