Why you need to know your vendor’s roadmap

by admin on April 20, 2012

in Cloud Computing/SaaS

A minor spat on Twitter got me thinking. See image below:

@Ben_asbkltd was looking forward to hearing about the Xero roadmap at an upcoming roadshow event. My response triggered the conversation you see here. In direct messaging, Gary Turner, MD, Xero UK said that the company does publish these things. Well that’s sort of true. Stuff goes out on the blog but there isn’t really what I would call a formal process. Why should you care?

In a later Tweet, Gary referred to this post from KashFlow a while back entitled: Buy what we have today, not what we might have tomorrow. It’s not a fresh topic and one I have discussed from different  perspectives in the past.

The KashFlow post got a decent amount of play with folk taking differernt positions depending upon whether they were on the buyer or seller side of the equation. Upon reflection, I think I missed a really important point and one that’s worth articulating today given that this topic has reared its head once again.

When it comes to roadmaps there are two distinct audiences:

  1. Potential buyers – to whom the KashFlow post seems closely aligned
  2. Existing buyers – who are actually the more important audience for reasons I’ll now explain

I spend a lot of time at user conferences. Central to those events are keynotes and analyst presentations that talk to the question of roadmap. On the one hand they provide a vision, on the other hand they represent a comfort factor.

Contrary to what many might have you believe, customers make long term decisions and that is nowhere more true when it comes to acquiring accounting software. In the early 2000′s the average life of a software customer used to be around five years. Now it is more likely to be 10 years. Good news for incumbents you might think. That is because the state of the art has matured to a point where switching is both difficult and unlikely to yield significant benefit. Except when a disruptive force comes along – in this case cloud accounting – and changes the game. Then we move back to a faster switching cycle while the market matures again. Only this time it is different.

This current round of solution iteration is moving at an an unprecedented pace. The speed at which the new boys and girls on the block are delivering functionality is way beyond anything I have seen in the past. That puts buyers in a different and arguably more difficult position.

On the one hand, it is easy to see how buyers might be encouraged to flit from system to system. But what if one of the vendors presented a roadmap? Would that change perceptions? I believe it would.

Roadmaps are statements of intent. They are not statements of future fact and should never be relied upon as such. If that makes them sound on par with a chocolate teapot then you’d be wrong.

Accountants who are forward thinking make sure they are at least familiar with the broad strokes of what is going on in the market. They rely on monkeys like me (and many others) to keep them informed about what ‘we’ see further down the road. They need to know a bunch of things that will help them figure whether Vendor A is preferable to Vendor B given the composition of their client portfolio. Folks like myself make our assessments based upon many points of discovery: broad mega trends, different technologies e.g. mobile, internet, adoption among customers, user experience, market adoption and of course we all have our own agendas which add into the mix.

We make judgment calls not just on the basis of the here and now but of the immediate and longer term future. At least as best we can and as best we see it based upon many points of reference. It is an important if somewhat flawed approach.

Many analysts make their calls based upon a vague understanding of markets combined with a strong belief in certain tech trends. However, that general way of working is changing. The analysts of the past are making way for a new breed that have a much closer eye on what matters to customers. Rather than simply jumping upon a tech trend, they are assessing the variety of trends that are emerging in an effort to dovetail back to how they understand specific markets and their changing needs. Key to that in the accounting profession’s case is a realisation that commoditisation has hit ‘us’ big time and therefore transformation to survive and thrive are key to the future. That in turn means that ‘we’ need a much better understanding of the ‘roads ahead.’

So…if your vendor is fighting shy of giving firm indications about where they’re going and in what broad time frame then maybe you should be thinking about their ability to understand future need plus their understanding of what it means to service customers going forward. It is important.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Guy Letts April 20, 2012 at 10:39 am

Dennis

I’ve always found “no surprises” to be a very helpful maxim. Having wrestled with this issue for many years as both a vendor and purchaser, I agree with you that the best customer experience (new or existing) comes when a roadmap is open. Customers (and intermediaries such as accountants and partners) have to make plans for their own businesses and it’s frustrating when the information is not shared.

However I’ve found it works best when it’s not treated as a yes/no issue. As with any customer experience, the best solution is managing expectations; that is, present the information in context so that the reader can make an informed judgement according to their own individual circumstances and preferences.

If someone relies on a roadmap feature in their buying decision, thinking it’s assured, they’ll be aggrieved if it’s then scratched. And scratched some of them will be, because vendors have hard business decisions to make in a fast and turbulent market.

So the way to balance the risk for both vendors and purchasers is to lay out the plans as far ahead as you know them, and to give an indication of certainty (or risk) to them. And if there’s something you know you’re probably not going to do, because it’s out of scope for your vision, then it’s just as helpful for the customer to know that too.

The advantage of open book roadmaps for vendors (providing you do manage expectations) is that they help with the consultation and feedback process, which increases your chances of building software that pleases customers and therefore sells.

Stuart Jones April 20, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Excellent post Dennis and as you say, it is important.

The speed of change has also created another problem in that buyers expect their wishes to be acted upon quickly. When someone suggests a new feature and it is acknowledged by the vendor then it must happen.

Neil Ballard April 23, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Cheers Dennis. Good stuff.

To add to the above…

More and more, we’re seeing the better SaaS solutions being bought because of ‘how’ they do things, rather than just ‘what’ it does and when it will do something it doesn’t do yet.

Back in the day when there was no alternative to cumbersome, clunky, buggy and difficult-to-use software, the typical decision-making process revolved almost entirely around comparing long lists of (often useless) features or simply not bothering to decide at all!

By focussing on usability and democratising the tech, rather than mimicking traditional products, the better SaaS vendors are able to stamp their own ‘persona’ on their services. Key to users is how elegant and simple the implementation of functionality. This is what they buy into, among other things.

Services are differentiated by how they implement. Features and functionality are added as they near the top of the vendor’s priority list and when they feel they can confidently add it to the product in an elegant and consistent manner. Put it another way, a clunky and inconsistent addition would turn people off and could do irreparable damage to the brand. It would be foolhardy to add something for the sake of it or just because somebody asked!

Often it is who a user feels they can trust with such matters that gets the vote.
The days of (successful) me too products are over. Undoubtedly there are some and will continue to be some mimics, but they will fail because they’re copying something they don’t understand. It’s a different dynamic at play.

SaaS is not about the same old features but accessed via a web-browser. That’s a classic wrong-end-of-the-stick presumption that accountants, trusted advisors and resellers should be wary of. It’s a natural thing to do as that was always the way it was done, but recommending SaaS products just on features is missing the point in many cases. It may well result in unhappy customers!

It’s a mistake that many software houses have made – “shove the same old rubbish down the pipe”. What is it they say about “rubbish in”? What’s the point? Some of these can be recognised as not getting it, as they talk(ed) about SaaS being a fad. Reluctantly putting something in the cloud is a typically cynical ploy in these circumstances.

Thanks

Neil Ballard
@SaaSitUK

Dennis Howlett May 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I’m not sure this is adding to this particular topic and in any case I disagree with much of what you’re saying. But for another time. The short version: users don’t care ‘how’ a vendor implements – all they want is a great experience and value they can see..

FWIW2 – Gary Turner tells me the penny dropped for his professional customers once they realised there IS a viable roadmap that delivers value.

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