Hammering Home Some Points

By Phil Hearn, CEO of MRDC Thailand

The day after I left my childhood home and moved into an apartment, my father appeared at the door with a shopping bag full of tinned food and an old bag containing a hammer, a saw and some screws. He had misjudged me in two ways – I was perfectly capable of preparing and cooking food, but I could not see any possible use for the tools.

Dear reader, if you are a home maintenance expert – or even just vaguely proficient – you will be shocked to know that the first time I wanted put something on a wall, I hammered the screw in a short distance and then found a kitchen knife to turn the screw, damaging the blade of the knife in the process, but just about succeeding in getting the screw into the splintering wood.

This memory came back to me recently when I was trying to sell some tabulation software to a prospective customer. The wise customer explained that he was planning to buy my software because it handled certain types of work far more efficiently than his current software. Now, this was music to my ears, but then, briefly at least, I was knocked back, when he told me that his current software was better for another type of work.

Now, software people like me are often rightly (though sometimes wrongly) very proud of their products – some are as protective as a parent protecting a baby. It made me realise that nearly everyone selling software wants to tell potential new customers that their product beats everything else in every way. Of course, this just can’t be true. I don’t always subscribe to the view that ‘the customer is always right’, I am afraid, but on this occasion, here was someone who was right buying two products rather than one because efficiency would be improved.

I recall in 2000 when Mark Katz, a regular conference speaker at the time, caused a stir in an audience when he stated that most software buyers will not spend 250 UK pounds (about USD400) to save them 3 hours every week. He was right though many denied it. However, the aforementioned buyer of two seemingly similar products was spending more money to save money. Now, statements like this tend to cause the blood pressure of Chief Financial Officers to rise sharply, but I believe that the enlightened buyer is right.

So, what is the problem? In some cases, the person who buys the software is not qualified to do a cost benefit analysis. A few years ago, the CEO of a small research agency took me on a tour of his offices. He proudly showed me the one way mirror, comfortable chairs and catering facilities in his new group discussion area. As we passed the data processing office, he said “We call this the black hole. We have no idea what goes on in there”. Well, at least he was honest and, to his credit, he empowered relatively junior staff so that they had a say in the tools they needed to do the job. They knew what to look for and what things wasted their time. I am not sure that every CEO is as enlightened even though he may be in the dark.

And that is the problem? Knowing what tools staff members need to do the job efficiently is not obvious necessarily. Managers may be able to produce nice charts showing throughput and become familiar with which member of his team can do a particular task best, but knowing where time is spent because the right software is not in place may be less obvious. This is because the world of data processing, using software and software development are things that go off the scale in terms of inefficiency when they are approached wrongly.

I am not exaggerating when I say that when one user switched to our software recently, they were able to carry out the task in less than one tenth of the time previously achieved. The converse of this is, of course, that using the wrong tools would have meant a huge inefficiency. Now, I am not promoting my own software here – the same will true of many other software products – competitors included (well, possibly!). This can be hard for business people to understand – most business processes can be fine-tuned and improve productivity by 10%, maybe 20%, but in the software-related business the gains and losses can be much bigger.

I am older and wiser now –my wife would vouch for the fact that I am slightly more competent when it comes to home maintenance. I am now the owner of a several screwdrivers, a hammer, a pair of pliers and a saw. I also have screws and nails of many sizes as well. I can use all of these items with reasonable competence. I have all the tools I need to do the limits of the home maintenance that I might undertake. Does every market research agency have the right tools in its toolkit to do what it needs to do efficiently?