The Things We Think and Do Not Say - Modern Distribution Management

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The Things We Think and Do Not Say

Understanding how to best serve a customer, not how to best sell a business.

It’s 1:00 a.m. and this might be the bad pizza I had earlier talking, but I believe I have something to say. 

That’s the first line of maybe the most famous mission statement in movie history, written by sports agent Jerry Maguire: “The Things We Think and Do Not Say,” he called it.

For me, maybe it is the leftovers I had for lunch, but like Jerry Maguire, I believe I have something to say. Or rather, I have something to say that I believe in. This is my version of “The Things We Think and Do Not Say” for the software industry – specifically those of us developing business software for wholesalers or distributors.

As software vendors, we spend too much time tossing around meaningless jargon, setting unrealistic customer expectations, and not enough time focusing on the one thing that matters most (more on that later).

For example, we’re always hearing about “seamless integration” of business applications. Salespeople use it, consultants use it, and companies feature the phrase on websites and in promotional materials. For all I know, people at my company have said it from time to time.

But I’m here to tell you that there is no such thing as seamless integration. I see the seams. In fact, when you take a system that was built in the twentieth century and attach a modern software application, not only can you see the seams, but we’re talking about totally different patterns of fabric.

Why does it matter? It’s more than calling out a bit of fiction that marketing and salespeople use to sell a product. Pretending that software written in different computer languages – and by different developers in different eras – can somehow be seamlessly fused diminishes the complexity of the effort. This stuff is doable, but hard. Companies that tout seamless integration are either ignorant of the work it takes, trivializing the effort, or flat out lying to you. None of this is acceptable in my book. Not only does it insult the intelligence of the customer, it sets an unrealistic level of effort and cost.

Want some more? Companies in what they would describe as the “enterprise software space” (can’t we just say business software?) like to talk about “purpose-built software.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never accidentally built anything in my life. No one accidentally builds a great billing system, inventory management application, or a top-flight e-commerce website, for that matter. “Purpose-built software” is just meaningless jargon to make a company and its people sound smart, or sincere, or competent. Frankly, for me they sound unoriginal, insincere, and incompetent.

No names here, but I actually heard a top executive of a large business software company say, “It’s about curating the customer’s experience." Really, who the heck uses the word “curate” unless they work at a museum?

These days there’s all this talk of “the cloud.” It’s always “the cloud” –  even when the software was written in the 1980s or 1990s and simply hosted on some metal that is owned by a hosting company or the software vendor. In my book, it doesn’t count as cloud-based software unless it’s a multi-tenant system that uses a browser as the interface and consumers pay a service fee for uses the software. Ideally, they’re services that customers can scale on demand and pay only when they consume resources. In most cases “the cloud” is just a fancy way of saying that the metal that used to sit in a user’s building is now housed in another building and lets you connect your two or five or 50 locations. Presto, it’s now in “the cloud,” as if that’s any different?

People throw around terms like “machine learning” or “ML” and “artificial intelligence” or “AI” as if more magic. Yes, those represent potentially new technologies, but is calculating a dynamic order point (something that has been done for decades) now referred to as machine learning or artificial intelligence? I certainly hope not, but I question what the software is specifically doing that is using modern tools that weren’t available in the past. Show it to me by demonstration – NOT POWERPOINT!

Most vendors use these catchphrases liberally and often incorrectly. Instead, why don’t we talk about the problems these concepts solve for the customer? We spend way too much time talking about how we’re doing things (or how we will) and not enough time articulating why we’re doing things. 

I’ve heard people at my own company slip and use some of these phrases. I find myself using some begrudgingly, as a kind of agreed upon shorthand. Like Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire,” I realize we’re all part of the problem.

But like the best fictional sports agent in movie history, I say it’s time to call BS.

When I started off in the software business at the end of the 1980s, after earning a computer science degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the customer was king. We even spent weeks to months to years working in our customers’ locations to learn about the challenges they faced and the needs of their business. Now it seems the software industry is all about slashing costs and driving EBITDA, a term I had never even heard through most of my career as a software developer.

To channel Jerry Maguire, it needs to be less about the sneaker deals and more about personal relationships. In our industry, that means doing a better job understanding how we can best serve a customer and not how we can best sell a business. That’s our mission at Unilog and I hope the mission of others in our market. 

It’s about solving problems for customers. It’s about clearly articulating before the sale what your software can and cannot do. It’s about doing the right thing. And if saying this puts me and us in the wilderness, like Jerry finds himself after delivering his manifesto, so be it. We must stop trying to sound smart. We must stop selling for the sake of the sale and make the customer king again.

Joe Bennett, senior VP of strategy at Unilog, is a distribution software expert with experience as a programmer/analyst, designer/architect, support engineer, consultant, pre-sales engineer, executive, principal and board member.

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