Selling Brittle Applications

October 7, 2009

Has it ever occurred to you that software salespeople get a bad rap? In the popular imagination, they have blood dripping from their fangs. But in my experience, that’s not what they’re like at all. don’t. The ones I know are pretty decent folk, live in the suburbs, maybe even coach soccer. Not one of them would actually throw their mothers under a bus in order to get the deal. At least, I don’t think they would.

So what accounts for this reputation? Well, in the course of writing this series of blogs on brittle apps, I think I’ve come up with an answer of sorts.

Start with a fact that you should know, but maybe haven’t paid much attention to. Good software salespeople don’t sell software. They sell benefits. They don’t try to confuse you with features or functions or architecture; they try to make you understand what those things will do for you.

This is what they should be doing. After all, the buyers of software don’t really know about or understand what the features do, and they don’t have the patience to figure out exactly how the features produce the benefits. You’re a CEO or CFO, you want to get to the point. What is the value that these products deliver?

Software salespeople have developed this reputation, I think, because people have discovered or heard or found that the benefits aren’t available. And they think the salesperson knew this all along and, like some snake-oil salesman was promising a cure for cancer in order to wrest the last dollar out of some old lady’s handbag.

But in my experience, that’s not what’s going on at all. The salespeople actually have a fairly rational, if optimistic view of their product. They know that the products are designed to achieve certain benefits; they can see themselves how the design could work; and they probably know of customers who have achieved the benefits they should achieve. At worst, they’re like a Ferrari or a Jaguar salesman, who focuses on the riding experience and doesn’t feel it is incumbent upon him to bring up the repair records.

People like Dennis Moore would go even further in the software salesman’s defense, and perhaps they’re right. They would say that the salesperson is more like a good physical trainer, who can genuinely promise to get you in better shape if you’ll work out. If after you buy, you don’t want to put in what it takes to get the benefits, that’s your problem not theirs.

So is Dennis right (assuming he would agree with the words I’m putting in his mouth); when somebody buys software and underutilizes or puts it on the shelf, is it entirely their problem. Well, no. I think it would be if they realized how brittle these applications really are. But in my experience, they rarely do. They buy this Ferrari, go out on a Sunday afternoon, and only when they find themselves riding back next to the tow truck driver, do they find out what they’ve bought.

So whose problem is it? Well, I’ve already gone on too long. You’ll have to wait until the next post.

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2 Responses to “Selling Brittle Applications”

  1. Greg Jones Says:

    I’ve been following the ‘brittle’ thread, more or less. But I have problems with the analogy. If you are an executive making decisions about MRP software (MRP, MRP II, ERP, etc., etc., etc.) you are not the same as billy-jo-bubba who just fell off the turnip truck and is hanging out at the Ferrari dealership.

    Those executives nominally worked very hard (in college, at work, and at self-promotion) to get those jobs and should therefore be making intelligent, informed, educated, knowledgable decisions about the software (including having a crystal clear understanding of the skill sets they and their subordinates will need to operate said system). Even a modicum of effort at understanding the situation should make it self-evident that you can’t just drop people into a company & computer system without some training and lead-up time. And to be blunt, if those executives can’t see that, then the executives in their competitor’s companies have an advantage. See US car companies vs. Japanese car companies in the 1970’s thru now for examples of US companies blythely ignoring best practices and the ramifications of same.

    Where I thought you’d be heading with this is something I picked up from the book ‘Fast Food Nation’. The fast-food restaurant companies have put a lot of time, research and energy into making their cooking processes so fool-proof that they need virtually zero training time for their employees. Assuming that book is even close to accurate, the question becomes – how can software companies do the same to their applications.

  2. toppundit Says:

    Let me tell you a story. About ten years ago, a name-brand company was looking at the latest version of a well-known software company’s software. I was in the room, trying to help them with the choice.

    The person giving the demo was an artist, but the product was very buggy. Over and over again, she’d get a message, or the product would hang, or it would do the wrong thing. on her. There were roughly 20 people watching, including ten company executives.

    It was painful, believe me. She was doing what she could to glide over the problems. She had multiple windows, so she’d switch quickly when a program would generate an error message, and she’d start talking about benefits when the program hung. But as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t working.

    In the middle of all this, the CIO came over to me. He was hunched over, trying not to get in anybody else’s sightline. The room was darkened and hushed, so when he got there, he whispered.

    I thought he was going to tell me to shut down the demo. You know what he actually said? I can still remember, it was so shocking. “Isn’t this great? This product is amazing!”

    This guy made more money during the years I knew him than I had made in my lifetime up to that point.

    I’d like to believe that all executives know what they’re doing. But it has not been my experience. I think you have to take it on a case by case basis.


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