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An Open Letter To Software Publishers
You've cast your corporate users adrift without a lifeline. Save them and you just may save yourselves.
DEAR SOFTWARE PUBLISHER:
You're killing your corporate sales by not supporting your products. Before you file for bankruptcy, I'd like to offer a few suggestions.
Businesspeople today refuse to waste time, effort and hard disk space on software that doesn't add any value to their jobs. Your products can help them perform their jobs more effectively; they just don't figure that out quickly enough by themselves. So new software turns into shelfware. Then it turns to dust.
Your failure to provide the right support for everything from installation and configuration to actual use makes you your own worst enemy. You probably lose more corporate sales to "It isn't worth it!" than to any competitor. IT professionals would rather buy nothing than buy something their users will have to spend hours configuring and learning. So they end up kludging the job with a suite-provided freebie, such as a spreadsheet or word processor. It's the wrong use of a tool for them and a lost sale for you.
Competition is fierce, I know. You have to rush your great new concept to market before two dozen competitors beat you to it. And there's always the lurking threat of some software Goliath, intrigued by your idea, asphyxiating your baby with vaporware.
I also know your margins are tight. You were forced to cut just about everything but the box. Documentation, decent help systems and toll-free support are mere memories. You had to pare down to the essentials-a CD-ROM and a good-luck wish-and hope users would figure things out.
Well, they haven't. And users' general lack of interest, not to mention IT departments' hostility, leaves you with just a fraction of the market.
So what's the answer? Let's start at the beginning-your marketing message. To capture the IT professional's interest, you must clearly state the business problem your software addresses. Prime the idea pump with a few good examples. Is your software a great tool for the traveling salesperson? Or is it the best thing to hit project management since the status report?
Next, make sure your product works the way people do. To serve the business population, your software has to be collaboration-friendly. I've seen great products come and go because the publisher forgot businesspeople rarely work alone. Wake up! This is the networked planet.
And don't get too cute with your GUI. About 90 percent of the business population knows Windows, so stick with a GUI they know. Also, don't bury your best features. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone told me Microsoft Word couldn't do an outline, create a table of contents or process mailing labels. It does them all, but the processes just aren't well documented.
Leave a trail of bread crumbs. Inadequate documentation and unhelpful help can hurt you. Try a hyperlinked help format, so users can access and learn features when they want. Or include tutorials that let users learn while working with their own data.
Build a better beta program
Blast your beta programs. Just because you sent beta to 500 or 500,000 of your closest friends, it doesn't mean they used it. Most corporate beta sites I know don't give new software a true shake-and-bake test because they can't risk it in a production environment. Return to the beta days of yore, when testers were paid to try out the product. Ask for specific feedback and have them complete checklists. And get some fresh faces, not your current customers. Because these testers are unfamiliar with your software, their opinions could provide more insight into its potential for success.
Double- and triple-check interoperability and configuration assumptions. If your product isn't compatible with another, say so on the package, your Web site and everywhere else.
This list is far from complete. You'll need to do more in areas such as corporate licensing, try-and-buy programs and end-user support. But, if you follow these suggestions and create a strong and targeted marketing message, you'll increase your odds of success. Businesspeople today have the PCs, the networks and the desire. You've got to provide them with the products to meet their needs. WinMag Analyst Cheryl Currid is president of Houston-based Currid & Company, a research and consulting firm. Contact Cheryl in the "Windows at Work" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe, or care of the editor at the e-mail addresses here.