ERP Vendor to Client: "You Incompetent and Clueless Fools"

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The backstory: a lawsuit filed in 2008 by Alabama pet food maker Sunshine Mills over a Ross Systems ERP implementation.

Fast-forward to December 3, 2010, when an Alabama jury awarded Sunshine Mills $61 million (USD) in damages ($45 million of which were punitive).

From's article about the verdict, quoting Sunshine Mills attorney Daniel McDowell:
Ross Systems handled the training of Sunshine workers on the system, he said. In an internal e-mail, one Ross employee called Sunshine workers "clueless fools" who were unable to learn how to use it.

To be precise:
Ross Systems officials allegedly made fun of Sunshine Mills employees behind their backs, at times calling them incompetent and clueless fools in e-mails sent within Ross Systems.

Incompetent and clueless, eh?

What the Hell Happened Here?

Let's just simmer down and listen to what Ross Systems had to say in a press release issued after the verdict:
The jury reached this result despite the fact that:

  • Sunshine Mills acquired the Ross ERP beta system in 2005 and used the product for years before filing a lawsuit;

  • The Ross ERP system continues to be used by Sunshine Mills to this day;

  • Sunshine Mills has recently purchased services from Ross Systems to help them in their operations; and

  • The software at issue is being used successfully by many of Ross’ national and global customers, and has been for years.

I'm presenting Ross Systems' side of the story because I don't want to argue the merits or demerits of the suit itself.

My point, however, is that from the sidelines, perspective is rapidly getting lost in the bafflegab of lawyers and marketing departments.


For instance, in a putatively unrelated press release, cheerily titled Ross Systems Closes More than Half a Million Dollar Sales Deal for Ross ERP (and bizarrely subtitled "Technology Association of Georgia Also Shows Support for Ross Systems over Recent Jury Verdict"), Ross Systems president Sherri Rodriguez is quoted as saying:
We also are very pleased by the tremendous show of support we have received from several of our customers and TAG since receiving this jury award. We are continuing to deliver the world-class products and services that our customers expect, as well as working with them to meet their business objectives. Our Ross support satisfaction rates continue to be very strong, with a very significant majority of customers giving us "satisfied" to "very satisfied" ratings in surveys from each of their incident reports.

In spite of the title of the press release, this is plainly not a press release about a new client, who is vaguely (and twice) identified only as a "leading food manufacturing company."

The press release is 341 words long, and precisely 59 of those words are devoted to the customer acquisition. Indeed, the Cautionary Note Regarding Forward-Looking Statements that follows the press release is 369 words (!), and focuses its CYAttitude exclusively on the lawsuit.

It all looks like an exceedingly curious attempt to exercise some damage control. Ross Systems cites Tino Mantella, president of the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG), as saying:
TAG was disappointed with the jury’s ruling against Ross Systems. We believe that the growing number of excessive and unreasonable jury awards against companies in the technology industry will only make it more difficult to do business in the U.S., and stifle economic growth and job creation.

Hey, do you smell a veiled threat too? What utter nonsense, and a straw man fallacy to boot. You want economic growth? Then get your shit together, and stop, for example, calling customers clueless and incompetent fools. It is completely disingenuous to appeal a verdict in the forum of public opinion by arguing that said verdict is damaging to the economy.

But then again, I get the feeling that these press releases are targeting shareholders rather than public opinion, which is why they say nothing of substance.

This, in turn, leads me to believe that $61 million later, neither Ross Systems nor Sunshine Mills are entirely clear on how they got into this sorry mess in the first place.


Could This PR Disaster Have Been Averted?

It's tempting to wave off this unfortunate public relations disaster as simply a manifestation of a certain arrogance in dev culture, or perhaps sheer blindness when it comes to usability issues.

Also, software developers are not famous for being humble, or for being experts on usability. And also, well, newsflash: sometimes people just hate people, and in particular, sometimes people hate customers.

It happens.

I'll bet this mudslinging could have been avoided, though. It's all extremely reminiscent of what happens when three critical components go MIA during the software implementation process:

  • Clearly defined expectations from both the vendor and the client with respect to what the software implementation and post-implementation processes were supposed to achieve.

  • A clear definition of roles and responsibilities during the implementation and post-implementation stages.

  • A clear understanding on the part of client management of just how the ERP vendor is going to deliver the functionality it has promised to deliver.


How to Avoid the Lawyers (And the Insults)—Or: How to Select an ERP Partnership that Works the Way You Expect It To

Elsewhere on the TEC site, I’ve gone on at length about the elements of successful software selection, so I'll just present the essential points here.

The three main phases of successful software selection (four phases if you include post-selection, which you should):
1.  Research
The initial research phase consists of preliminary study and defining your organizational strategy and tactics. Organizations at this stage should begin to understand what their overall strategy is regarding the software they are looking to implement.

In addition, they need to know both their short- and long-term objectives and constraints with respect to their business processes. During this phase, it’s also important for you to review systems currently in place in order to gauge whether it’s worth upgrading your current software, as opposed to acquiring an entirely new system.

2.  Evaluation
Once you have a basic grasp of the different functional requirements for the software, you can begin to evaluate software vendors and put together a short list of products for further in-depth analysis. [Use TEC Advisor for this.]

3.  Selection
You benefit from enterprise software only when you make the right selection. Determining accurate and relevant criteria on enterprise software functionality helps you become better informed of your options. Using proper analysis, your selection team can make accurate assessments about how well a vendor can meet your needs, which should ensure that you select the most appropriate enterprise software.

Some of the important steps in this phase:

  • creating scripted scenarios based on your most important business requirements

  • issuing a request for proposal (RFP) (including costing information)

  • inviting vendors for a site visit

  • conducting vendor demos and proof of concept

  • evaluating vendors' implementation strategies

  • conducting a total cost of ownership (TCO) analysis

  • identifying the best-fit solution

  • developing a selection auditing and reporting mechanism

  • obtaining executive approval

  • performing reference checks

  • negotiating the contract

4. Post-selection
Because implementation is such a complex process, you may find that you and the implementing party have different perspectives on many implementation issues. You may also find it a challenge to execute the implementation on time and within budget.
Important steps involved in post-selection:

  • auditing each implementation milestone

  • coordinating the resources necessary for keeping the project on track

  • auditing the progress of implementation against products and services promised

  • negotiating additional costs associated with increase in the scope of projects

  • monitoring the implementation process

  • briefing the stakeholders from an independent perspective on the progress of the implementation

In the case of Ross Systems and Sunshine Mills, it sounds like the wheels started to fall off the wagon during phases three and phase four.


What do you think? Comments? Questions? Assertions? Leave 'em below.

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