Listen Beyond the Words!

Recently, I have been subjected new software with an interface that screams a lack of usability testing.  It is always a shame when workable, convenient software is replaced by something “better” that simply doesn’t serve the end-user.  Having been in the software business, I understand how this comes to pass.  When purchasing software for your business, you need to “Listen Beyond the Words” and “Look Beyond the Demo”.

Early in my career I worried about consultants helping associations choose software.  As time went on, I developed a real respect for good consultants who knew their client’s needs and could explain them well to the vendor. They could probe into the real functionality of the proposed software, ask questions that the client might not ask themselves, and ultimately create a real collaborative team during the implementation.

The different players in the software selection process each have different objectives. The business wants to purchase software that will do a certain job in a way that improves on older software and increases the productivity and efficiency of the staff.  On the other hand, the software salesman’s objective is to make the sale.  I’m not saying that the objective of software salesmen is to mislead – just that everything that measures their success relates to their sales.

The software demo, a key aspect of the selection process, is supposed to be where the committee determines if the software meets the company’s objectives.  For the salesman doing the demo, the objective is to show the strengths of the software and to do it in a way that masks any objections to their software’s design and functionality.  It is up to the committee to extrapolate what is shown versus what is needed.  Those involved in the selection process often assume too much and trust what is implied rather than insist on seeing each entire process.  Sometimes, committee members feel that they just might not understand the technology and don’t want to ask specifically about something they think must be obvious or at least obvious to everyone else.

Though I don’t expect a salesman to call attention to the negatives of the software, I would at least expect them not to actively mislead.  Then again, chances are, the salesman doesn’t really know the prospective client’s business well enough to know where his software doesn’t fit.

The key success factor in the software selection process is to have someone on your side that understands the objectives of the different players and knows what it is that you do and what you want to accomplish.  That consultant’s role is to “listen beyond the words”, to look, and to demand clarity on issues that are important to the client and that are not necessarily shown during the standard demo.  The consultant’s job is to tease out edge conditions and related issues.  “Show me” has to be a standard mantra and pushback the standard procedure when it appears that an issue is being avoided.  If the vendor embraces the consultant’s questions and answers questions openly, you are in good shape.  If the vendor tries to diminish the role of the consultant in the process, then take fair warning.

Sometimes the issue is not whether or not the software will do something you need to do but rather how it does it and who does what.  If the software can do it but it requires a cumbersome process that replaces an existing simple process, there is a problem.  If the process is now to be done by a different person or different position, make sure you are comfortable with that.  The selection committee needs to actually see everything that is important to each process and not just be assured that everything is fine.

In a recent implementation of hospital and medical records software, the administrators were assured that they could reduce the staff because of the new software.  The administrators were delighted.  What was not mentioned was that the vendor was now requiring the surgeons themselves to do data entry.  You can imagine how well that went over once the implementation got underway!

Here are a few of the warning signs:

  • “Well, I don’t have a full set of data in the demo system so I can’t actually show you…”
  • “We don’t have a printer hooked up to the demo system so I’ll send you a copy of the report tomorrow.” (…tomorrow never comes…)
  • “Sure, we can do that.” (…without actually showing you.)
  • “Not a problem.” (…often repeated frequently with no follow-up.)
  • “Trust me; you’ll love it.”

In one of my consulting engagements, the vendor, during the demo of a financial system, said “Of course we have month-end reports.  It never dawned on anyone that their month-end general ledger report wouldn’t show starting and ending balances nor would anyone guess that their system didn’t actually store offsetting debits and credits!  Now, that’s the most egregious example I have seen but still…

Going back to the experience that started this article, the basic idea behind the new software was actually a good one.  The new software did something that the old software did not and it was a very nice feature.  What might not have been noticed by to the customer was that all the good things that the existing software did were not done by the new software at all.  What used to be simple and automatic was now very cumbersome.  The staff facing the public probably weren’t involved in the selection process but are now left with having to smile and say “You’ll like it once you get used to it.”  To me, that’s saying “When you forget how good the old software was, you’ll finally accept the new software!”

Lessons to be learned:

  • Hire someone to help you who knows how the process works both from the vendor and the client perspectives.
  • Invest in the time to make sure that your consultant knows your business, your objectives, what you are currently doing, and who and how they are doing it. The consultant needs to know the existing software interface to correctly assess a new one.
  • Trust and encourage the consultant to press the vendor for specifics. You may not get everything you want but at least you will know what you are getting into before it’s too late!
  • If the vendor pushes back on the consultant or tries to bypass or marginalize the consultant, raise red flags against that vendor! Ultimately, this needs to be a collaborative team!