Beware the software snake oil salesman

Software snake oil (noun): A software product or service with little to no real value, marketed as the ideal solution for a business problem.

Unfortunately, the snake oil salesman is not a thing of the past. Though they no longer peddle spuriously medicinal tonics on the back pages of newspapers, snake oil salesmen still exist in the 21st century. Today, they’ve taken the leap from seedy pseudo-science to seedy pseudo-software.

Software snake oil is everywhere. It’s hidden in plain sight. You’re reading about it, you’re seeing its adverts splashed over the internet, and you might even be buying it. So, how can you spot SaaS quackery for what it is, and avoid the patter of the software snake oil salesman?

SaaS quackery: an overview

Buying a software product or service is trickier than buying hardware. When you buy into software, you’re never buying into a “finished” product. Rather, you’re buying something that is actively and consistently evolving; that is slightly different with each passing quarter.

The fast-paced nature of software makes it easy for a more slippery salesperson to make trumped-up claims.

  • “We’re adding x feature next quarter!” (They’re not.)
  • “Sure it can do that!” (It can’t.)
  • “We can definitely help you with that!” (After additional cost and extensive professional services.)

Unless you’re familiar with the product or the market, software snake oil can be difficult to spot upfront. Worse, the deception happens more commonly than you might think.

Modern software snake oil

If software snake oil was a meme, it would be the Buzz Lightyear everywhere meme. Let’s take a recent example: “GDPR compliant software”. There is categorically no such thing as a piece of software that is GDPR compliant. We’ve written about this one before: only a company can be compliant, not the software or tools they’re using. And yet we all witnessed a rush of “GDPR compliant” solutions when the legislation became a trending topic.

Speaking of trending topics, artificial intelligence is another area saturated with software snake oil. Algorithms here, machine learning there: we’re awash with AI buzzwords. More often than not, what you’re really seeing is an old rule-based system (if this, then that), with a fresh lick of rebranding paint. It’s not AI: it’s the same process automation that’s been around for a decade.

Then there’s vapourware and futureware to contend with. Vapourware is classic software snake oil in that it’s entirely fabricated. It’s real only in the spiel of the salesperson as they try to win you over.

Futureware is a little more tangible; it’s not real yet, but it is at least in the product roadmap. Either way, if you buy into them, you’re not getting what you wanted right away.

And the rest

And we’re still only scratching the surface. “Data” is being sold as “intelligence”.  System optimisers and tune-up apps are often nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Narrowly focused security applications are sold as “security solutions”.

This is without even looking at the downright impossible claims that software snake oil salespeople make: “24/7/365 uptime”, “unbreakable software”, “100% accuracy”.

The point is: software snake oil is everywhere in the modern world. And countless customers are being hoodwinked day in, day out.


Spotting the software snake oil salesman

So, you’re searching for a software solution. You’ve identified your pain points and needs, you know what you want to achieve, and you’ve found some likely vendors.

The software snake oil salesman is concealed amongst them. Their camouflage, in fact, is often hard to spot. But there are steps you can take. We’ll call it the software snake oil sniff test.

  • Research the vendor

Check out their customers, their case studies, their company history. Read the independent reviews that aren’t on their website. Go through their feature/pricing table with a fine-tooth comb. If you start coming across negative reviews or mismatched information, be suspicious.

  • Request a demo

A sales pitch is easy to slide exaggerations into. A product demo, on the other hand, is harder to fake. Make sure you get a specific demo focused on the features that solve your own need – especially if those features have been pushed to you by a salesperson beforehand.

Also, consider dates. A demo closer to your desired purchase date leaves less scope for vague promises of feature additions later down the line. If you’ve already been told a date for a certain roadmap achievement, take a demo then to ensure its implementation.

  • Try before you buy

Perhaps the best way to sniff out software snake oil is to take advantage of a trial. That way, you can see the product or service in action for yourself, without committing to an investment. Any non-existent features or overegged promises will soon come to light in actual office use. If the vendor doesn’t offer a free trial, consider why not.

Say no to software snake oil

In the ever-changing SaaS landscape, software snake oil is something of a constant. You never have to search far to find an inflated vendor presentation, hype around the latest “innovation”, and thick and fast promises of “transformational” tech that will revolutionise your business.

Of course, some software really will help your business enormously. It’s a matter of doing your research and taking hype with a pinch of salt. In a marketplace saturated with smoke, mirrors, and snake oil, you need to tread carefully, ye who enter into a software purchase.

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