Educating the Buyer

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Customer Relationship Management--and some other upscale software capabilities--haven't been the hit many observers (including me) thought it would have been. Is it a bad economy? War? Locusts? Plain dumb luck?

As vendors and resellers scratch their heads over what it will take to reinvigorate a market that looked desolate before any planes hit the World Trade Center, one idea from Rich Walker rings true as providing insight into a fundamental issue. Walker, director of professional partner programs for Intuit, suggests that sellers now have to spend their time educating buyers about what the latest generation of products does.

Many of us have forgotten about that educational process because computer terminology and concepts have become so ingrained in many businesses. Many of us understand the basics of how PCs and PC software work. And we know the terms.

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Enter ERP, CRM, PSA, and any of a number of the latest hot phrases and it's not so simple, even for Enterprise Resource Planning, which has seemingly been around for a long time. Once, I told a channel executive at one company that "ERP, it's just accounting software." She reacted quickly. "When we talk about ERP, our buyers looked puzzled. When we say, 'It's accounting software' they go, 'Oh, yes.'"

We've been there before, in that land where terminology and functionality are equally linked and equally confusing. I remember starting in the computer trade press in 1984 and grappling with the term Random Access Memory. It probably took me two months to understand that, and I didn't truly grasp the definition until I could compare it with the concept of sequential access.

It's been a long time since most vendors and resellers have had to explain RAM, ROM, or megabytes, and a lot of buyers would have no trouble with more complicated concepts such as network topology and OSI layers.

But it's really not so long ago that many tax software vendors had to explain to tax preparers what a modem is.

Now were in that same land with the next generation of financial software. Resellers and vendors have to make the case of what CRM does and that it's more than an over-priced contact manager. (One of the problems is that for some companies it is an over-priced contact manager, and CRM is being sold into the wrong market.)

Unfortunately, education requires time, time is money, hence the time spent educating the customer reduces the reseller's profits. As they say in the business, it extends the sales cycle.

Clearly, the education cannot rest with the reseller alone--the concepts need the kind of marketing dollars behind them that are behind many resellers. The leadership has to come from the vendors and frankly, all of them haven't done a great job. Not to pick on Great Plains, but its unfortunate partnership with Siebel Systems has probably set back the effort by months, by making it appear that CRM is exorbitantly priced for the middle market.

Well, sooner or later they will get it right. It's just going to take longer than we'd all anticipated.

Accounting Technology November 2001

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