I am currently shopping for software. No doubt many of you just cringed at those words — and your empathy is appreciated, but I really am excited to be leading this effort. It’s not often that supply chain management professionals get to choose and implement a new, high-impact suite of supply chain planning software that will advance the global sales and operations planning (S&OP) process.
My earliest professional experiences were in information technology (IT). I worked there for 15 years, ultimately rising to the level of CIO. So, I actually love software, understand the industry, and have insight into how applications are sold and some of the tricks of the trade. That’s probably why I was so disappointed to discover that the software selection process has barely evolved in more than a decade. In fact, the only real advance is the shift to cloud-based, software-as-a-service pricing models.
Around the midpoint of my project, I just couldn’t restrain my frustration any longer. I sat down and compiled a long list of grievances. This proved cathartic for me, and now I hope it might be helpful to you — particularly if you sell software. Following is an abridged version of my list of objections:
1. Find a better way to discuss the budget. I hate the question, Do you have a budget? It is often asked prematurely, in which case, it is always off-putting (sort of like discussing whether you want to have children on a first date). Don’t ask about budgets; inquire about the business problem I want to solve and the scope of the solution I am seeking. Ask if this is an investigative process, about the project timeline and whether the project has executive support. In my experience, companies will find money for projects that have potential to add value. Vendors lose me right from the start if all they focus on is what’s in it for them.
Moreover, early engagement allows vendors access to my mindshare from the outset of the purchasing process. If a salesperson helps me figure out what I need, I will appreciate those efforts. It may make for a longer lead time, but the investment is almost always rewarded by making my short list. Plus, if I reveal my budget, any subsequent quote will surely fall on the high side of my range. Alternatively, if my initial budget number is off the mark, the competitive qualification and sizing process may help me realize that I need to go back and ask for more capital. Thus, focusing on budget existence and budget size — without doing some real qualification work — is more than just premature; it sets the stage for a very awkward interaction.
2. Standard return-on-investment (ROI) models rarely work. Traditional supply chain ROI is passé. It is at best overused and at worst abused. If I had a dime for every hundred thousand dollars of inventory that some newfangled software would save me, I would be a very rich man. I am much more interested in how the solution might make my organization’s planning function more agile or scalable in a global supply chain with increasing complexity. Tell me the software will manage my workflow in a disjointed and complex global sourcing network where no one is in the same time zone. Explain how it will alert my planners to demand, capacity and inventory issues as their stock keeping unit count doubles or how the tool will make my operations personnel more effective. I want to work with a software solution provider that is bold enough to define ROI differently.
3. Understand the marketplace in which I exist. I can easily tell when a salesperson is out of touch with my marketplace. Take the time to learn about my specific industry so you can be truly knowledgeable about the issues I am facing.
4. Understand current planning trends and usage. Scenario planning within S&OP is very hot. Nearly every software firm has been eager to tell me that they have a scenario planning solution. Unfortunately, what’s missing is a pragmatic understanding of how scenario planning is leveraged. One salesperson described how I could use his company’s software to run different live scenarios in front of my executive S&OP team. No S&OP lead would ever waste time running an unproven model or scenario in front of a team of time-conscious executives. Whenever I hear such absurd suggestions, I just shake my head. I know that the person trying to sell me on such functionality does not understand its practical usage.
A close corollary is when software companies try to catch up to competitors by coming up with suboptimal workarounds. I would rather have someone tell me, “We are developing a robust scenario-planning solution, but we did not want to present you with a poorly designed workaround.” That is a more honest answer than saying yes to every question about functionality, then underdelivering.
5. Stop asking me about your competition. “Who is my competition?” I’m asked that question constantly. If I answer, I find myself swamped by negatives about the other players. Competing well is not about beating up someone else; it’s about helping a potential user visualize your solution. And consider this: If a potential client gives you sensitive information about the competition, that probably means that he or she is sharing your sensitive information with your competitors — including pricing.
6. Do not bypass me to reach someone in a corner office. If this grievance was a premium coffee beverage, it would be my super-grande-venti complaint. I have witnessed this move a hundred times, and I assure you, the second someone tries to go over my head, my trust and support vanish.
Unfortunately, I could include many more gripes, and I am certain I would not be alone in a single one of them. My best suggestion to software companies is to prepare. Do your homework — about the product, my company and my industry. Approach any prospect confident in your ability to compete. Understand my problem set, educate me on how your tool will help me address my challenges, tell me your plans for ongoing development and innovation, and then price your solution accurately and competitively.
Patrick Bower is senior director of global supply chain planning and Customer Relations for Combe. He is responsible for the company’s sales and operations planning process, order management, and third-party logistics management. Bower may be contacted at email@example.com.