In a recent Infoworld article, Matt Prigge brought up a host of valid points about the way we market the cloud. Is it a disservice to the small business owner without an IT staff to overly simplify the concepts behind our wares? Surely it sells an account, but at what cost? I’m forever walking the line between too much detail and not enough, but what if the vendor doesn’t actually provide the service as promised? What if, in spite of years of great service, the customer discovers they’ve simply been mind-bogglingly fortunate? While Prigge’s example seems extreme, consider how easy it is to stumble (or walk eagerly) into such traps. The vendor said it would do these things, and as far as the customer could tell, that was how it was.

Perhaps the blame lies in the times. We’re doing business at a time of change as fundamental as the move to the Internet. Many businesses are being run by people who remember a time without it, who had to be convinced to that the Internet would help their businesses. The compelling story we tell has to be in a language they can understand. Two key pain points in the cloud narrative are in making sure that customers understand what cloud does and how it works, and that they get what they pay for.

Know thy cloud—and thy neighbor

Picking your first apartment probably didn’t include a thorough inspection of the plumbing or wiring, and certainly didn’t include a walk-through of the rooms of other tenants. You had to trust the building wouldn’t burn or flood or expose you to theft. Admittedly, I only thought about whether or not the sofa would fit up the stairs and if my cool loft bed would be too close to the ceiling. Was water was included? In the end I bought on price and availability, much the way many small businesses once settled on managed services. To be honest, not much has changed, and it turns out buying into the cloud is much like this process.

Multi-tenancy services must act as if the term is more than tech-speak. It has to be the norm. Consider the humble apartment building, provider of shelter and basic amenities. Like me, did you choose your first apartment based on factors that seem laughable now? Sure, a bathroom is a necessity, but what if you were forced to share it with someone you didn’t know or never met? Like some bad sitcom, you find yourself sharing an apartment with someone you never knew was there until you notice your toothbrush is wet.

Some multitenant services fail to disclose just how close you’ll be living with your neighbors. Every customer should have thick, soundproof walls between himself and his neighbor’s rockabilly collection. In fact, he shouldn’t even notice his neighbors unless they see each other at the grocery store. Small businesses have it worse. What if a patient in an examination room discusses her health with her doctor, while her words pass through the thin walls into the next room? As a business owner, you recognize that mixing your records with the dentist down the hall makes as much sense as two surgeons using the same table for operations.

The point is that vendors must adequately explain how their cloud services provide a safe, secure, and separate experience. More importantly, they need to know their data is properly segmented via software, access controls, and where possible, encrypted. And when the time comes to pull that data, it has to return quickly with no indication the guy down in 3C has been in the shower for 30 minutes. Governors should assure every customer a similar experience.

Don’t hide behind contract language

When I was explaining a service level agreement (SLA) to a customer once he replied, Don’t tell me how much you’re going to pay me when it fails. Tell me it isn’t going to fail. SLAs are worth as much as the digital paper that holds it. Actually they’re only worth the payout they promise. In truth, all systems experience outages. The differentiator is how easily and quickly a vendor recovers and how affected the customer base will be before full restoral of service.

Often times, cloud services are a quilt made up of many intricate and exotic fabrics, hopefully sewn together with strong thread. But a blanket with two or three squares missing is less a blanket and more like a net. A good cloud provider should be able to explain to a customer how each square connects to the one beside it, or how each service makes up the whole. It’s great to know all the fancy features of a product and how it differentiates from the competition, but be sure to set proper expectations for the experience.

Cloud providers must continue to push the bar and educate sales teams on what a platform or service can do and what it cannot. Cloud services are often priced lower than traditional big iron installations, making profit margins much slimmer and the need to keep an eye on costs imperative. A disgruntled cloud customer who realizes the service lacks documentation and support leaves, making proper forecasting impossible. And if that happens, we all lose.

How can we, as cloud marketers, come up with a better way to sell our wares? How can we do it in a way that not only sells our product, but educates the customer at the same time? Otherwise, we won’t have enough informed customers who know it’s time to make the leap.