Monthly Archives: April 2007

How I learnt to love bad suppliers

I got a quote the other day from a computer guy, who emailed: “I will charge you $350 to upgrade your Drupal installation to the latest version.” This was probably the worst quotation I have ever received. (Drupal is an open source content management system that I use in one of my businesses.)

So I thought I might write about bad suppliers, whom I learnt to love even before I learned to love bad customers.

My first bad supplier experience (that I really thought about) was about a decade ago. I was the financial controller at a multinational engineering group at the time, and I received a bill from an IT company on which was simply stated: “Server tweaking – $750.”

At this point in time I realised that customers enjoy having verbose invoices, and I was instantly grumpy because server tweaking just didn’t sound like value for money.

In later life I actually created a series of paragraphs for use on invoices. When my techo said, “I tweaked the server” on the service sheet, I would paste into the invoice a large standard paragraph about applying patches, checking logs, changing settings, checking virus controls, etc. Everyone was happy.

Then there was the consulting group, who taught me that the time that it will take to complete the work is completely disconnected from when the work will actually be scheduled.

And a special thankyou to my heating guy, who taught me that you need to specify exactly what is excluded from a quote if you want to avoid a customer absolutely hating you and wishing acid rain pouring down at your place.

In fact, I have learnt so many lessons, that I created an open letter to anyone who wants me to buy from them, that includes the following points.

  • Only quotations in writing will be considered.
  • Let me know whether the cost includes GST.
  • Let me know which costs are once off, and which are recurring.
  • Let me know what isn’t included in your quote that might be expected to be.
  • Are there other third-party costs to be incurred?
  • Is invoicing linked to milestones, and if so what are they?
  • When will the work be scheduled?
  • When will the work be completed?
  • What do I need to supply, and by when?
  • What are the risks involved?
  • What are your payment terms?
  • What milestones will I be billed against?
  • What is your warranty?
  • Whom exactly am I buying from?
  • How will you communicate with me over the course of the job?
  • Who will be working on my job?
  • Where will the work occur?
  • Don’t charge me for learning on the job, unless I am getting a discount for it.
  • And finally, if you don’t invoice me within 30 days of doing the work, expect me to pay in the same timeframe.

So of course the computer guy didn’t get the work. In fact, he didn’t even get a response. But if he ever follows me up, we will have plenty to talk about.

Problem Solving Pathways

The other week I went to hear a speaker talk on leadership in times of crisis. I noticed during the question time that lots of people were asking really good questions, but I didn’t think of my good questions until the next day. Irritating but not unusual.

On discussion with a friend, we came to the conclusion that my situation stemmed from two problems. The first issue was that I went to the seminar without having spent time thinking about what specifically I wanted to get out of it. The second issue was that I wasn’t thinking on my feet because I didn’t have the right mental model to analyse the information.

Thinking about this further, I realised that I can make good decisions about IT on my feet because I have a mental model that I use to probe for further information. Consequently I get all the facts I need before making a decision.

This mental model consists of four different aspects of an IT product that I explore before making my decision. They are:

  • The performance aspects.
  • The commercial aspects.
  • The security aspects.
  • The continuity aspects.

Now, for example, if I was looking to buy a CRM (customer relationship management) system, I think I might be asking myself the following questions.

The performance aspects

Does the CRM system do what I want it to do, including can I send out personalised emails to 1000 people without hassle?

How does the calendar integrate with Microsoft Outlook?

How does the contacts integrate with Microsoft Outlook?

Can I record who I have sent invitations out to, who has accepted, and who has declined?

Can I categorise individuals and select people according to category?

How does it handle an individual who belongs to more than one organisation?

How does it handle an individual moving between organisations?

How can extract data?

How can I customise what an opportunity looks like?

How can I network/share the information?

How fast will the application work on my computer?

How does the performance compare to its competitors?

The commercial aspects

How much is the software really going to cost me? – including:

What is the cost for the box product?

Is there annual maintenance fees?

What support do I need to get it going?

How much does the support cost?

What volume discounts are available?

How much is it to buy the software as media and licences, rather than buy boxes?

How old is this version of the product?

When is the next version of the product likely to come out, and will I get a free upgrade?

How does the pricing compare to its competitors?

The security aspects

How is software piracy prevented?

How is the database of customer information secured?

Is the database open? Password protected? Encrypted?

How are backups secured?

Can anyone open up a backup with a text editor and extract information?

Can anyone open up a backup if they have a licensed version of the software and extract information?

The continuity aspects

How does the CRM system back itself up?

Can this backup be automated?

How often should I backup?

How much storage do the backups require?

Who is the beneficial owner of the software and do they have competing products in their stable (will my product be phased out?)

What happens if my database becomes corrupted?

Who provides support in my area?

Now obviously all of the above questions are not a complete list, but it is a fairly good start achieved by just thinking about the four attributes of any IT decision – performance, commercials, security and continuity.

In recent years I have deployed Maximizer, Maximizer Enterprise, Act, Saleslogix and Free CRM. For the Churchill Club I chose Maximizer 8 as the CRM system.

The integration without Outlook is poor, but I like the way it handles my member database and invitations to events. I also like its pricing for the size organisation we are and support is readily available.

Real time metering, now that’s smart

I read last week that the accelerated rollout of smart meters is on the table at the federal-state COAG summit (click here to read the news story).

Smart meters gauge electricity use every 30 minutes, unlike most existing meters that are read every three months. A friend who works for an energy retailer seems to think this is a fantastic idea. This new technology is considered to be smart because you can tailor your electricity use exploit cheaper tariffs.

What’s frightening for me is that in today’s climate change environment, we are rolling out technology that should have been installed 25 years ago and calling it smart.

Now a couple of weeks ago I went to a luncheon discussion some of the technologies that were being rolled out in Springfield, Queensland. Steve Outtrim, the entrepreneur behind Sausage Software, is heading a team installing a whole heap of cool gadgets into homes there. The thing that interested me most was the smart meters they are using.

Their smart meters are networked, meaning you can look at your electricity costs in real time (exactly how much is that grunty new air conditioner costing you?). It also means the electricity sales companies can be sent your consumption in 30-second segments (rather than 30-minute segments). Guess what? No meterman tromping through your property, and no dodgy electricity bills. And the meter can be remotely turned off the moment you finish your tenancy, so you don’t get hit by bills that belong to other parties.

Smart meters are also able to monitor how much electricity you could potentially “sell back to the grid” if you had devices such as windmills on your property.

It also appears that there is a company in Europe that is trialling using smart meters paired with smart controls on devices in office blocks.

Effectively when the power grid approaches peak load, their control systems turn down power use in the office blocks by putting some pre-agreed systems, such as air-conditioners, into a lower electricity use setting (such as only running air-conditioning half the time and letting the temperature go up by two degrees).

Their customers get a cut of the savings made, by delivering megawatts of what is effectively green, cheap power into the grid. No need to build new power stations!

That’s what I call smart metering. And any company can access this type of technology if they are interested in managing their own power usage and costs.

I feel like I know you

For a salesperson, the internet is an incredible boon. It gives me a chance to learn about people before I meet them, their interests them and how to present any messages I might have.

There are five different tools I generally use when I want to find out about somebody.

First and foremost there is Google. If ever I am going to meet someone, I always type their name into Google. Sometimes there are a lot of hits and you need to narrow the search.

Google also brings up older web pages, which let you see a person’s work history. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who was not at least mentioned on Google.

A Google search for someone’s bio or resume can also turn up some very interesting information, giving you and idea of their hobbies, interests or values. If someone keeps a blog, that’s like hitting the jackpot into understanding who they are.

If the person has public profile, there is nothing better than Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia. Sure it may have some inaccuracies or biases, but the inaccuracies normally occur around opinions on activities, rather than on the base facts. Wikipedia will tell you when John Howard’s birthday is (July 26) and lots of other bits of information that could come in useful in a meeting. Wikipedia also has plenty of links and references.

If the person works in IT, HR or marketing, it’s a good bet that they will have a profile on Linked In, a commercial networking site that shows your profile, and who is in your network, their profile, and who is in their network, etc. Because the Linked In profile is written by the subject, it gives you a good idea of how they see themselves and who they know (maybe you know someone in common).

Don’t forget Google Images. It’s great for finding out what a person looks like so that when you first meet, you don’t try to shake hands with the wrong person.

Finally, Google has another tool that I love called Google Alerts. Google Alerts is a kind of permanent search that you can setup or a news monitoring system.

You could set up an alert for Brendan Lewis (or someone else), and every time my name appears in a web page or news article, Google will automatically send you an email advising you of the new page that has appeared.

This system does require some tweaking, though, as initially you may get may too many responses. In fact, if you were monitoring me you would probably set up the alert as “Brendan Lewis” so that you only got notified about Australian news and websites. You can have up to 1000 Google Alerts on your account.

I have Google Alerts set up on all of the members of my advisory board, anyone I am in regular communication with and companies that sponsor Churchill Club events. So far the system is working for me as I always appear to be up on what people are doing.