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Show Me, Don't Sell Me

Written By: Jamal Rahal
Published On: November 17 2008

Are you having trouble finding concrete information about how enterprise software actually works? I know I am.

I’m not talking about feature lists—you can find those easily enough—and I’m not talking about promises to streamline processes, increase efficiency, or deliver value—which I don’t read. What I’m talking about is this:

Let’s say my company is considering upgrading one of its enterprise software packages, and, as an end user, I’m going to be spending most of every day using said package. What’s my day going to look like?


To hear the vendors tell it, no matter who we end up choosing, I’ll be seeing benefits like these:

I’ll be able to get all of the information I need from a single, centralized location.

I’ll get updates to that information in real time.

I’ll be able to easily generate fully customized reports.

I’ll be able to do these things remotely, using a snazzy web interface.

Bla

Bla

Bla

The problem is, what I really want to know is whether the single, centralized location is a well-arranged overview that links to greater detail, or a crowded mess (or something in between). Will I even be able to tell when those real time updates happen? Is customizing a report going to be an elegant drag & drop affair, or a nightmare of checking six boxes out of a list of six hundred? Does the web interface look anything like the regular interface? Does the regular interface look anything like other software that I use? Just how steep a learning curve am I looking at?

Show me, don’t sell me

Clearly, the easiest way for a vendor to allay my fears is to marry their feature list to my to-do list, and show me how to use their software for some of the things that I do every day.

And because I’m an inveterate YouTube addict (as are many of us office folk, I think) the best way to show me is to make some videos. Short ones that get right to the point so I can watch them while I’m eating lunch and still make my 1:00 meeting.

Looking around for videos such as these can be frustrating. Many vendor websites don’t have any. Some sites have them, but force you to register if you want to watch them (as if I needed any more email). Still other sites bury their videos so far down that you’re ten clicks away from finding out that they even exist. Ugh.

Hope is not lost

On the other hand, there are some vendors who, at least partly, get it, and the two that stood out in my quick survey were Microsoft and SAP.

The Microsoft Dynamics site’s introductory series of videos presents the Dynamics product line from the point of view of five “typical” department heads and their cartoon staff. It’s an overt marketing piece but if you hang on through the first minute of each manager’s spiel, you do get a few nuggets of valuable information.

For example, you can see how different Dynamics products integrate with other Microsoft Office products in the context of actual tasks, like tracking orders, generating reports, setting up marketing campaigns, etc. More to the point, you can see the products’ interfaces, which goes along way towards forming your gut feeling about each product.

Dig deeper into the Dynamics site and you’ll find demo videos for each of the products. These tend to be a strange mixture of Powerpoint-ish presentations and actual walkthroughs. But again, if you can hang on through the benefit statements (and you’re not put off by images of trains, factory floors, and guys in suits shaking hands and sharing laptops), you’ll get genuine task-oriented information that will give you some idea of what it’s like to work with the products.

SAP has a similarly extensive video library for its Business One product. While the videos aren’t quite as easy to find as Microsoft’s are, I thought they did a better job of connecting the dots. For each demo, SAP lists a few capabilities. When you click through to the video, you’ll notice that it explains each of those capabilities in terms of day-to-day tasks.

You still have to put up with “typical user” personas, dull stock photography, and a few marketing-y bullets, but the SAP videos are pretty well focused on the end user. Which is nice. It’s one thing to know that a piece of software “manages customer interactions, from contact data and history to calendaring and tasks.” It’s another thing to see how a real customer service call might be handled using that software. Especially if you work in customer service.

It’s not that hard

“Of course,” you’re saying, “Microsoft and SAP have the money to do that sort of thing.” But the truth is, it’s not that hard. Just search YouTube for any popular software—Photoshop, for example—and you’ll find a wealth of video tutorials produced by lone users in their spare time. Any corporate marketing department worth its budget should be able to do at least that much. And while Microsoft and SAP might have the resources to polish their videos to within an inch of their lives, for the average end user, good content trumps good presentation any day.

And it’s worth it

Making it easy to find nuts & bolts information about day-to-day software use has important benefits for both buyers and vendors of enterprise software.

If you’re in the market for new enterprise software, and you’re following TEC’s sage advice, one of the things you’ll do in the early stages of your selection project is to ask end users exactly what they do with your current software, and what might help them do it better.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to ask them individually. Instead, make sure that your selection team includes a few people who know, or can find the answers to those questions, and help you turn early-stage user feedback into criteria that you can weigh and analyze relative to all of your other requirements.

When they pass their feedback up the chain to the selection team, users who have seen various solutions in action can point to concrete examples of functionality they’d like to have in the new system. Instead of having to fully explain a complete workflow or a missing feature, they can say “I want something that works like that.” The end-user advocates on the selection team can translate “that” into more quantifiable feature lists and requirements.

As the beleaguered user, what’s in it for me is the feeling that my voice has been heard, which means I’ll be more likely to adopt the new system and less likely to turn into the office jerk.

What vendor wouldn’t want that kind of bottom-up support from their potential customers?

Now I know that end users rarely make the final decision, and that software selection projects tend to be fraught with political considerations that can pull a company in one direction or another. But smart companies—the ones that carefully consider the everyday needs of their employees before making a rational selection—are going to get more bang for their enterprise software buck.

Smart vendors are going to do everything they can to get those employees on their side.

What do you think?

Are you having trouble getting user-level information about enterprise software? Do video walkthroughs like Microsoft’s and SAP’s help? Are they something you’d like to see more of?

Share your thoughts in the comments.
 
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