The Stories of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated — And A Customer Bill of Rights in Software

I have been quite busy of late–with a good deal of travel mixed in–and so my posts have been stacked up in various states of completion. Thus, given a holiday and more travel next week, my postings will be fairly close to one another. If you missed my recent post on a digital IPM inventory please follow this link.

This post is somewhat focused on business owners, especially those in the technology industry not enamored of flimflam or used car salesman tactics. But it is also of interest to any organization or individuals who procure or are thinking of procuring software and their associated services.

Buying Software is Sometimes Challenging

Buying software and applying it to one’s business processes is fraught with risk and sometimes frustration, even for technology companies. We are in the midst of another technology bubble with a plethora of new products and companies being introduced virtually every week vying for attention.

Some of these use more traditional methods of development and delivery, and others more innovative methods. The hot topics remain Big(ger) Data and Cloud, though the definition of these terms varies considerably in practice. Thus, when looking at the market, companies and organizations need to be mindful of their needs, their expectations, and whether the purpose of acquiring the new technology is to simply improve performance over a legacy system, increasing one’s knowledge capabilities, improve productivity, or driving organizational change with the technology in the vanguard of that change.

To the manager, each of these decisions will determine the amount of risk that she or he can tolerate. Even after acquisition the manager, depending on the scope of the change, must assess and manage risk. I am yet to see any transition from one technology to another to be completely bump-free–and this extends from being on both sides of the table. I have been lucky thus far not to have experienced failure, but the level of effort required to be able to lay claim to that record has varied greatly from organization to organization. In most cases this is a people problem, where the technological challenges are easy to address but the tolerance of the organization to change or rapid change is somewhat limiting.

The explosion of software companies and solutions in each market has created an environment where more entities are vying for the same dollars. This is particularly true where solutions are focused on some niche within a larger vertical. I have seen this in the project and program management discipline, which even has a number of competitors that offer limited tools to address specific concerns. Needless to say, this is not my preferred vision or approach, but all of them offer some value that must be assessed against one’s needs.

From a market perspective, however, this has created a hyper-competitive environment. Consumers may mistakenly believe that this is a good development–and if the focus is on competing to make products better and more effective I would agree. But its the “hyper” part of that word that is the part that creates dysfunction.

Hyper-competition and dysfunctional markets

What this means is that when anyone begins to break away from the pack (or displace less agile incumbents) there are always the less ethical members of the industry that resort to character assassination, and rumor campaigns containing innuendo, misinformation–and outright slander–to try to tilt the balance. Unable to successfully articulate their own vision (if they even have one) and the relative merits of their own products, they see their only choice–usually in desperation–to denigrate others an attempt to bring their target down to their level. Oftentimes they will enlist partisans in the market–even disgruntled employees–to give a sheen of “truthiness” to their whisper campaign. The best liars use half-truths.

This being said, my own personal experience has been mostly positive. I have a very good professional relationship with the overwhelming majority of competitors and semi-competitors, and while we are aware of the issue of competition between us, we are able to respect and socialize in a civil manner.

After all, these aren’t just “competitors”–they are people. I learn and converse with them about, among other things, their concerns and perspectives on child rearing (or grandchild rearing), home renovation, recent travel, social perspectives, customer challenges, and the comedy of life. I learn about their experiences and often come away with a bit of knowledge that I did not possess before–applying the practice of lifetime learning to my social interactions–and I enjoy their company.

When a couple of them found themselves without a job, especially after the last financial crisis and recession, I assisted them in finding new employment and wrote glowing recommendations based on my first-hand experience in dealing with and observing them, even though we were competitors. If I had a matching position at the time, I probably would have brought the best of them into own company.

But with the good comes the bad.

Over the course of time I have occasionally learned a number of things about myself or my firm that I somehow had missed, and which seems to conflict with reality.

For example, I heard (and was asked by a customer about its veracity at the time) that my company was close to insolvency. This rumor made the rounds for about three years and I was surprised in its persistence given the length of time that it was repeated. (The reality: I acquired full control of my company and we’ve experienced years of significant growth, though being privately owned and hence financially opaque to the market provides the environment for this kind of misinformation). At one point a document was anonymously posted on-line that seemed authoritative and embarrassing, combined with a concerted whisper campaign to spin its significance to support the first rumor. (Turned out that it too went the way of the first rumor). Recently I learned that a large customer was so dissatisfied that they were dropping our product and looking for alternatives, another fact of which I was unaware. (Senior management of the customer, after hearing about the rumor, invited anyone who thinks they believe what was said to give him a call and he will provide the facts).

But I don’t feel picked on.

Those aforementioned competitors with whom I have civil relations have from time-to-time been targets by some of these same bad actors in our market. Over lunch or in side conversations we often share the latest slander being spread. Oftentimes it is there that I learn of the latest whisper campaign–except that, unlike those that fuel the rumor, they identify the source.

Why is this important? Because of experience and standards of practice.

First, experience: during the last speculative real estate bubble financial institutions engaged in cutthroat competition, engaging in unethical business conduct to undermine their competitors. The response of those that were targeted was to retaliate in like manner. Pretty soon the entire industry went into the toilet and there were no good people among those that were left when the bottom dropped out. There are many other such examples in which entire markets are held in low esteem due to poorly regulated or transgressive business practices.

When you throw mud at least some of it will stick to you.

Second, standards of practice: all of the firms and government organizations in our industry must conform to a standard of business ethics. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest or unethical behavior is sanctioned. It appears on websites and it is enforced by management. So when you hear “shhh, hey…did you hear…” and the price to this bit of information is maintaining the anonymity of the source, then you know that someone is engaged in unethical practices and you should break the cycle.

So what is one to do? Well, you can get into the gutter and sling mud as well–but refer to the note on mud sticking to the thrower above (as well as the example of the financial services industry). Aggressive legal action is also an option, but anyone who thinks that the legal system is anything but Byzantine–and very expensive–is fooling themselves. It’s usually unnecessary except in the most extreme cases. Litigation comes with its own perceptions.

A Customer Bill of Rights

The purpose of a whisper campaign in business is to eliminate consideration of the target from the competitive range. Unfamiliarity of any sort–with the company, a new or innovative technology or approach, or normal operational security in business–simply provide a rich environmnet for the spinner of tales to operate. It thrives in darkness. Given risk, fear, and trepidation in acquiring a software solution, they oftentimes are a consideration that creates delays and frustration since the rumor must be addressed.

Thus, there is another approach: it is to use sunlight to cleanse the market of the most dirty of practices.

My response to our industry–the software industry–is a Customer Bill of Rights. These are principles and practices to which I abide. I challenge all other software solutions providers in my market to sign on to these same principles. I think the consulting companies that inhabit our market would benefit from these as well.

One–To truthfully represent our own product capabilities and limitations so that the customer can make an assessment of whether the products meet their needs in relation to other products on the market. While criticism and differences will arise regarding competing products and visions, our marketing will not be based on degrading the work of competitors. Our message will focus on differences in functionality and technical approach.

Two–To provide as much transparency as possible to our prospective customers to our existing customer experience and satisfaction levels. This will include, where existing customers have not selected privacy, to allow for unfiltered communication with our present customer base. For existing customers who wish to remain anonymous we will continue to respect their privacy.

Three–Since we are not afraid of our products’ performance, to always demonstrate its capabilities in a live environment that replicates as best as possible the perspective of the customer.

Four–To provide to any prospective customer who requests it, an evaluation copy of our products to test and evaluate to determine if they will best meet their needs, and to provide support for their effort as with any other established customer. In addition to the software itself, the necessary information for evaluation will include full documentation and training materials related to our products so that we meet our goal of full transparency.

Five–In seeking to fully understand customer requirements, to have the moral courage to admit those cases where our products will not satisfy those requirements. This includes honestly identifying competing products or alternative products that may meet customer needs where our own products do not.

Six–To focus on satisfying our customers’ needs by treating every customer as if they are the most important customer, regardless of size or significance to the bottom line. Any customer questions and issues will be addressed immediately and respectfully. At the core of this commitment is to ensure that customer expectations are understood and fully addressed.

Seven–To commit ourselves to constant product and process improvement with a focus on customer satisfaction in seeking new and innovative solutions. As such, while doing our own due diligence in being mindful of our market and its competitive benchmarks, we will also treat our competitors with respect, understanding through our own efforts the work that is usually involved in running and operating a business. Where that respect is not reciprocated our policy will be to simply avoid engaging with those individuals or companies, and sanctioning them as necessary, as anyone caring about business ethics would do.

I am confident that the more my customers and the market knows personally about me the better. Let the chips fall where they may. I am equally confident that the more the market knows about my business team, our products, and our reputation, the more they will like what they experience and see. My personnel and I make no claims of infallibility, but we work hard to address our shortfalls–our most challenging competitor is ourselves and the goals that we strive to meet.

 

Stay Calm and Carry On — The Business End of Software: How to handle malicious rumors

Veteran’s Day is approaching and, with it, the finale of conference and workshop season for people in my business.  Lately I have been engaged with the less than scrupulous members of my discipline who engage in character assassination and rumor.  Every market has bad players, and one must make the choice of whether you want to run with the black hats or the white hats.  I’m not referring to hackers here but to individuals who are less than savory in their business practices.  So here are a few bits of advice in how to handle such issues:

a.  Bring the rumor to light.  The rumor only has power if it hides in the dark and is allowed to inhabit that realm.  Acknowledge that you are aware of it.

b.  Ask the recipients of the rumor to identify the anonymous source.  Small privately-held companies are not public personalities.  Individuals within companies enjoy the protections of private persons.  The individual or individuals starting a rumor must be placed on an equal footing with those who must respond to it.  Of course, someone who anonymously spreads a rumor and doesn’t acknowledge they are the source is a coward and scumbag anyway, and anyone who would continue to associate with them must ask themselves why they would associate with someone who is a coward and scumbag.  Just saying.

c.  Determine the facts being used in the rumor.  In some cases this could be a leaked document from a civil case that would otherwise go unnoticed, a messy divorce, or some other type of “documentary” evidence provided out of context.  Most individuals who initiate such rumors naively believe they are insulated because the item is “true.”  But it’s not that easy.  Perhaps documentary evidence is transient and unsettled with its release not only interfering with contracts and business interests, but also with a civil case.  Oftentimes a “story” goes along with the document.  The story may be a complete fabrication and, by itself, constitute malicious intent.

d.  If you are confident that you are in the right then state so.  Nothing hurts someone who takes the advice of counsel and says “no comment.”  There are constructive ways to dealing with malicious intent in addressing an issue in public.  Use them.  Hesitation gives the wrong impression–that there is shame or hiding.  If you think you are wronged then state so strongly and without hesitation.

e.  Don’t litigate in public.  If the public doesn’t have an interest in the basis of the rumor, then they only need to know that you are handling the situation.  If it’s based on an internal dispute within the company, then state so.  For example, if there is a possible reversal in a civil suit or unsettled counterclaims, litigating issues in public not only may undermine your case, but inadvertently also give credence to unfounded claims.  The United States is a very litigious country.  Not being involved in a civil case would be extremely unusual for any company.

f.  Once you have determined the extent of the whisper campaign, issue a press release or public statement that combines items a through e above.  Keep in mind that as a CEO or senior executive that your duties are to your customers, your employees, your suppliers, and to defend the interests of the asset itself–your company.  Do not be intimidated or feel constrained from executing those duties.  State clearly that your company will continue to vigorously defend itself and press its own interests.

g.  Don’t take it personally.  Deal with the issue as you would any one in which a competitor is attempting to undermine you.  Understand that desperate people do desperate things.

As a retired senior U.S. Navy Commander with a spotless record and with multiple personal awards and decorations–having risen from the enlisted ranks to senior rank when I was on active duty–and then having a pretty remarkable career thus far in the software industry, I have found that sometimes you run into challenging situations that will test your mettle.  There are individuals out there who are so desperate that they will do their worst in trying to taint or tear someone down, even without good cause.  They must bring things down to their own level because that’s the only thing they understand–a type of psychological projection.

Years ago on one of my tours on ship as a young Navy Lieutenant a senior Navy Captain imparted some words of wisdom to me.  He said that if you achieve anything of importance that there are going to be times when you are brought before the “long green table” to account for your actions.  Thus, one must always be ready to defend themselves.  This is a particularly important inevitability to accept because a good U.S. Navy commissioned officer is trained to understand that between an act of commission–that is, that you took action in facing a challenge–and an act of omission–that you did nothing in the face of the challenge–that the first was defensible and the second was unforgiveable.  The other good piece of advice was that eventually the system screws with you.  It’s how you deal with it that will determine your character.

Thus, in entitling this post I have quoted an old British World War II poster that was recently discovered in an old building.  As a leader you must demonstrate resolve and confidence, even in the most challenging circumstances.  Stay calm and carry on.  I couldn’t say it better myself.