Making sense of the configurable and custom software market requires a keen intellect and analysis skills worthy of the SAT.
Do you remember taking SATs? One of the most dreaded sections of the SAT (at least at my school) was the analytical association. Cat : paw (which we read as “cat is to paw as”) would equate to three choices, from which you might select horse : hoof (“as horse is to hoof”).
There were so many of these on the SAT, and the associations were sometimes loose- sometimes stretching logic almost to the breaking point. But, I love analysis. Finding connections isn’t difficult for me, and I did pretty well on those sections.
So why can’t I find the logic in my industry?
I’ve been in the shop floor software or high tech solutions business for nearly 25 years and I still can’t figure out how a “configurable” software product can require more services, and cost more money, yet be offered to customers as a benefit? But I’ve spoken with manufacturers who have told tales of configurable software that required a number of “services” to make it work as promised. How can it be that as your use of consultants rise, so does your risk of obsolescence? I have seen it happen- companies will use a consultant, who makes software so “unique,” any change will require more consulting work. The analyst in me sees it like this:
Consultant : obsolescence
As one goes up, the other goes up. The more configurable to software, the more services are required. As your use of a consultant rises, so does the risk of obsolescence. Pretty good deal for the software vendor. As obsolescence rises, you will pay for more services and more consultants to maintain the system.
With some software vendors, this leads to a vicious little buying that cuts into the benefit you gain from the software, and the ease of upgrade. Suddenly, the more you invest in the system, the less benefit you have. Every additional, unforeseen project cost cuts into your benefit. Every service charge and consultant fee will make an upgrade more difficult and chip away at the savings you might accrue with the new system, therefore:
Project cost : benefit
Upgrade ease : savings
So what’s the problem? This is all backwards! Configurable software should require fewer services and fewer consultants with NO risk of obsolescence. You pay fees for more benefit, not less.
Configurable is becoming one of those boardroom bingo words. It’s overused and meaningless to many customers because some vendors are offering software that isn’t really “configurable.” They are a wolf in sheep’s (configurable) clothing. Their version of configurable software is just a way of padding the bill with more consultants and service fees. It pains me.
Truly configurable software packages are a real benefit to the customer. By our standards, there are two critical items in configurable software:
- A configurable system must provide a path forward for a future product upgrade without having to redo the services work.
- Within 2 days of having the system, a configurable system should look and act the way the customer wants, without the hassle or cost of paying a service fee or consultant.
If a software system can’t offer these two items, you’re dealing with a custom system. Vendors don’t want to use this dreaded word – it was hated long before “configurable” software came along. Custom meant high costs and a long implementation. The cost (in time and money) was justified because, in the end, the product was exactly what you required, nothing more and nothing less. It was designed just for you, which is also custom software’s biggest problem. The system is nothing more than what you specifically committed to writing at the time that you scoped the project – before your largest customer required a change and now your project requirements are completely different (and I have heard that tale before).
So why do software companies (wolves) portray themselves as having a simple system? Would you buy it if they told you upfront that it would be difficult and expensive? We do a fair amount of industry research and I can no longer count the number of stories that I’ve heard of competitors in the market coming back with services bills 3 to 4 times the cost of the licenses. It’s maddening.
What can you do to hang with the sheep and dodge the wolves? Ask the following questions of your potential vendor:
- On your last product implementation at a new site, what was the length of time between your first trip to the site and the last trip to the site? Do you equate this to the number of weeks of implementation? Why or why not?
- On your last three product implementations, how many scope change documents did you produce on the project? Is this typical? How many should I expect?
- What guarantees do you provide, in writing, for your services? For your products?
Or, go for the jugular and ask them to define configurable for you. See what clothing that wolf is really wearing… Baaaah.