Apparently I am a Dumbass

imageEarlier this week, I gave two presentations in Orlando, FL. One, at the AIIM Conference was well received; it was about SharePoint and ECM and will take a few blog posts to sort out.

The second presentation was to the Service Provider Executive Forum (SPEF) and unfortunately, it’s very easy to describe. The vendors attending SPEF are the ones who sell scanning services, document storage, printers, copiers and scanners. SPEF was one of those conference-within-a-conference deals, and my presentation was part of a ‘User Feedback’ panel.

I worked hard on this presentation. It was a good presentation. It just wasn’t the message this group wanted to hear. I’m sorry for that, but I don’t have a great history with this industry. My message wasn’t a feel-good story. I talked about why we don’t use many of these services, and how our most recent encounter has gone somewhat off the rails. I had hoped that the organizer was right when she told me:

They will appreciate your candor

Here’s a tip: if you ever hear those words, run. Drop everything, don’t tweet about it, don’t snap a picture, don’t think twice – just run.

Our story in a nutshell – we are small. This industry’s story in a my-opinion-nutshell – they are commodity brokers seeking a sale at any cost.

The best analogy I can come up with is that buying these services or products is like buying a digital camera; they all take pictures, they all have good battery life and they all let me move pictures to my PC, tablet, Cloud storage, etc. Once I decide the few, somewhat unique features (zoom, video, and form-factor) that I want, it comes down to picking the one that’s most comfortable.

The problem – that we have experienced – is that some salespeople want to be the mystic swami in your life. They don’t want informed customers. They don’t want to hear your story; they want to tell you theirs.

My presentation carefully presented our position, our real-life experience and then I took “questions” I put that in quotes because most of what I heard were not questions per se.

Why didn’t you buy a scanner? Scanning to SharePoint from dedicated scanners seems to provide more robust options than scanning from multi-function copies (MFCs)…who knew? More importantly, who cares? The fact of the matter is that we don’t have a space for a dedicated scanner, nor do we have the volume to justify one. In addition, we only want to have to learn how to use one device.

Why didn’t you do an RFI first?  Seriously, an RFI for two MFCs?

You’re ignoring the money you could save by outsourcing all the scanning to us. I reminded this person that I had explained the very, very high cost of teaching someone how to classify and index our documents.

Finally, a white knight emerged. Addressing the audience, he said:

What I’m hearing is that you guys are saying that Dan is a dumbass

Ah…well…thanks?

His point was that I failed to engage with them according to their preferred sales method. Apparently, from their perspective, that was my mistake.

One woman came up to me afterwards and said “I don’t think you’re a dumbass, but this managed metadata thing sounds like a unique requirement.” I reminded her that it’s a mainstream feature of a major product. I didn’t invent it; I just want to use it. More importantly, it was a written requirement that we were willing to explain.

One guy followed me to my next presentation, all the way telling me that if I had done an RFI he would have been able to explain why we needed a scanner. I explained, again, why we chose MFCs over a dedicated scanner.

He turned up again later as I was boarding the bus to the conference social event. He started telling me about the features of the scanner. The one we don’t want – as if he thought that if he gave the same pitch often enough I might just buy one. My friend (who sells a high-end ECM product) said:

This guy sells hammers. You have a screw, but he still has to try and sell you a hammer.” He added, “It’s a sales technique we call show-up and throw-up.”

I’ll leave you with the message in my final two slides. When we look for vendors to help us, we look for a vendor who will:

  • Be a business partner with us
  • Let us do the portions of the project that we feel we need to closely control
  • Accept that we know our business and know enough about yours to evaluate you/your product or services as compared to others that are available
  • Think long term; think beyond this sale and this commission.

Oh, and don’t lie to me. I can handle the truth.

Face to Face

clip_image002About 5 years ago we launched a project to give our customers access to certain key documents via an Internet-facing SharePoint site. We worked with a small group of beta users as we developed the site(s) and I gave a short presentation at our Policyholder Meeting later that year. The following year I conducted a training class at our Policyholder Meeting. For the past three years I have offered to meet, one-on-one with our customers to walk them through their specific site. These have been great meetings, but suffice it to say, they are different than giving a presentation, or conducting a class.

When we develop solutions on SharePoint internally, we have our coworkers to bounce ideas off of to help us perfect the design and to test the solutions with us. When we develop for our customers, we have to get it right without a lot of input, without the collaboration features of Lync and sometimes, without the benefit of their having an understanding of SharePoint. An interesting twist this year was the fact that every member of the original beta group is now retired.

I met with about 10 different people. Some were new to their role, taking the place of those retirees and some were relative old-timers. As I walked them through the features of the Policyholder Portal (yeah, I know…portal… well, it’s what we called it 5 years ago, so) they were generally impressed. My goal was to come away from these meetings with three things: happy customers, food for thought and happy customers. I put that in twice because I want them to be happy and my boss wants them to be happy. I also tried to pay attention to their general reaction, particularly the people who were seeing our site and perhaps SharePoint for the first time. I’ll save the specific enhancements I agreed to have my team make for later posts, but let me share the general observations.

Content – We have generally focused our development effort on improving the quality of the content available to our customers. This seems to have been the right play. They were impressed by the fact that they can directly access information that they used to have to ask for. Not that we were ever unresponsive in handling those requests, but the difference between the time it takes to send and receive a response to an email and immediate access is huge. Also, new people don’t always know what to ask for. If you don’t know what content is available, asking for it will consume several email cycles – browsing a site lets you figure it out on your own and that seems to be a very important benefit. In addition, two of our customers expressed an interest in working toward the goal of getting content out of email altogether.

Food for thought – add some guidance to the site to help people know what content is available and how to get to it.

Security – “How are you protecting my information?” That’s a question I was asked several times, and that’s a question that I am asking vendors in my supply chain. After months and months of watching leaks, breaches and spying being rolled out on the news, people are concerned about who has access to information about them. I explained what we do to protect their content, and I explained what we plan to do to improve that next year. They were happy to hear that this has always been a concern of ours and they were happier to hear that we aren’t resting on a five-year-old solution. When I explained that our plan for next year involves moving to SharePoint 365, they were less happy. Regardless of how secure a cloud-based solution is, it involves incorporating more people in that supply chain, and these days, nobody is happy with that thought.

Food for thought – Make sure the SharePoint 365 host we choose understands that security and confidentiality are important critical.

Process – One of the things people seemed to appreciate most was our effort to automate the transfer of content from our internal business process to the Internet-facing site. Automated processes insure that current content will be available in a timely manner. It’s not that our customers don’t trust our staff to do that job, but they like the idea that the process is on rails, so to speak.

Food for thought – Make sure that we can extend that process into SharePoint 365.

I wish I could have beamed a few people from Microsoft into these meetings. I wish I could put them face-to-face with my customers so they could see how important it is for SharePoint to grow in terms of those fundamental capabilities that caused us to buy it in 2006. Marching forward into “new ways of working” is important, but not if it comes at the expense of content, security, and process capabilities or improvements in those critical areas.

The Market Rocks

clip_image002Last week, I wrote about how we are going to shut down the now-dysfunctional shared folder structure we have had in operation since 1988. Of course, telling you via this blog was actually the easy part; telling the people using those shared folders, well that’s a different story. As soon as I declared the date (June 30) for the lockdown, my team started working on a strategy to ease the pain, and make the transition easier. My Systems Administrator seems to have hit a home run, finding another product from the folks at SharePointBoost. I wrote about these guys back in 2009, right after we installed their Batch Check-in product. Since then, we’ve added their List Transfer product and now we are taking a hard look at Classifier.

Here’s what I like about the product – In addition to forcing encouraging people to move existing content into SharePoint, we are also suggesting requiring that the libraries they establish contain a minimal set of required metadata. We’re not trying to replicate the K: Drive, we’re trying to improve upon it. That means that for the valuable content that we need to preserve, the upload into SharePoint process becomes a challenging exercise. That’s why Classifier is so cool.

Since a person who understands the content can quickly identify documents that share common characteristics, they can select those documents, batch them and very quickly establish the common metadata. SharePointBoost has a wonderful selection of tutorials on their website, but here’s a quick illustration of what I just described.

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I’ve selected five documents from a folder containing documents related to the AIIM New England Chapter. To make life easier, I selected all the minutes that were in the folder.

At this point, I can just check these all in, using the Batch Check-in features. If all the metadata is the same, I can chose to “bulk edit” the properties. In my case, most of the metadata is the same but there’s a description field that is unique, so I’m going to edit the files one-by-one.

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As I edit the properties of the first document, I can instruct Classifier to keep the choices I make on that file and carry them forward to the rest. This means that all I have to do is edit the unique property of each document.

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After I move through all five documents, voila!

Here’s what I like about this company – SharePoint add-on products can be expensive, but SharePointBoost does a great job of containing that cost. I particularly like the way they work with SMBs. Since we don’t have a ton of users, we can save money by buying a limited license as opposed to a Farm license (since we will never hit the limit). In addition, they reward previous customers instead of punishing them. One of the features of Classifier is the ability to check in all the documents that you are working with. We already own their Batch Check-in product, so they offered to discount the license fee for Classifier to reflect that prior ownership. I’m not naming names, but I know other companies that seem to ferret out every possible way that can force you to buy another license. Microsoft wants to charge me based on what I am doing, where I am doing it and what device I am using. Some scientists say we will never be able to invent the Heisenberg Compensator used in Star Trek to enable the Transporter to work around the laws of physics. I say that that technology will be an offshoot of software licensing.

IT likes market-driven solutions – One of the things that often happens after I write about buying an add-on product is that someone will point out way(s) that we could duplicate some or all of these features using out-of-the-box features, sometimes augmented by some code. We think about those solutions, but I like buying add-ons. No, I don’t like spending money, particularly when I think Microsoft should have included the feature in the base product, but I do like saving money. Designing, building, testing and maintain SharePoint solutions takes time, and we pay our employees for the time they spend doing those tasks. It doesn’t take very many hours before a fairly-priced product is cheaper to buy than it would be to build.

The combination in this case is win-win2. I win, because I’ve saved money and I am easing the pain of moving forward. Our employees win because they can save time completing the arduous task I’ve dumped on them. I win again because this lets me move the classification task completely into the user space. Finally, our employees win again because they will have well organized content. I think we need to buy this product.

In Case You Missed Last Week

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Last week, I wrote about customer service and why we (SharePoint/ECM/IT practitioners) should make it a priority. This week, I want to add a few thoughts to that argument from the customer point of view. I would suggest that if you don’t feel like reading this, then skip to the end, because after I turn this back to SharePoint, I have an announcement to make about something new on this blog.

In an earlier post on my personal blog, I ranted about how some things would end in 2012. I wasn’t trying to predict the future and I wasn’t reading the Mayan Calendar; I was simply announcing that I had reached a point where I could no longer tolerate certain behavior by services, marketers and vendors. Last week, something big changed at work, and I was both sad and proud to have made the decision to make the change. Without naming names, we dropped a vendor with whom we had once enjoyed a great relationship. Over the years, the vendor had moved from treating us like a good customer, to merely a customer to a revenue source and finally to a payable item; it was time to stop the bleeding.

I will point out that I wasn’t exactly suffering in silence with this vendor; I had complained numerous times, I had threatened to end this relationship and I had called every member of the account team that was handling our account. When I ignored the renewal invoice, I received an email chastising me for forgetting to pay for maintenance. I responded to that email by telling the maintenance service manager that I wasn’t sure we were going to renew the contract. I added a few of my reasons, let’s say enough to send the message that someone should call me. Instead of a phone call, I received another terse email and this time my boss was copied. Several days after the maintenance contract expired, I received an email from the Sales Manager asking if I wanted to talk about the changes they were making that he hoped would eliminate my problems – nope, too little, too late, color me gone.

Since I had been a customer of this company for over a decade, and since the sales manager did reach out to me, I felt he was entitled to an explanation. I didn’t really want to talk to him, but I wrote a lengthy (surprise) email detailing the history of our growing frustration. This is where I’m going to end the description of this saga and turn it back to SharePoint – your users aren’t going to be as considerate as I was. When your users get upset with you, your department, your solutions or your lack of attention to them, they are just as likely to move on without warning as they are to approach you for a discussion. I know of businesses around here that have fully licensed and provisioned SharePoint shops that are now also running a different ECM solution. I think just about every SharePoint professional knows of users that have gone off-grid and built their own SharePoint solutions, in fact some of you make a living supporting these rogue installations. From a customer point of view, customer service isn’t a luxury, it’s a requirement.

I feel better after having severed a relationship with an inattentive vendor, but I feel better still knowing that most of the vendors that we have chosen to work with are flat-out great organizations. If you’ve read this blog for very long, you know that I have called some of these people out on occasion for special recognition. Today, I am launching my “Who we like and why we like them” page. It’s not the most beautiful bit of HTML, but if you have been reading for a while, you remember that “make it work, then make it pretty…” mantra of mine. I wanted to say this and I didn’t want to wait until I could make it pretty. Please take a look at the page, and if you need the services that these people, companies and organizations offer, consider using them.

Two Days in the Dark

clip_image002I’ll start by saying that, all things considered, we were very lucky last week. Although our little state endured the effects from an earthquake and a hurricane in the same week, most of the people I know are faring pretty well. The worst thing that happened was a sustained loss of power in the town where our office is located. We lost power early Sunday and it wasn’t restored until late Tuesday afternoon. Glastonbury, CT is on the east side of the Connecticut River, and their power grid is supplied by an extension cord running across the Rt-3 Bridge to an outlet near the McDonalds in Wethersfield, CT. We lose power all the time in Glastonbury, but never for this long.

I mention the earthquake, even though the effects were insignificant by east coast standards and, apparently, laughable by west coast standards, for two reasons. One, we aren’t used to earthquakes here in the northeast. Two, we are an insurance company, so earthquakes are something we take seriously. Along that same line, this isn’t hurricane country either – the last hurricane to make landfall in CT was Hurricane Gloria in 1985. Ironically, Gloria landed about a week after I opened my cabinet shop; the first of many bad signs for that business venture. The earthquake came as a surprise; the hurricane came with adequate warning, so in addition to be spared significant damage, we were about as prepared as you could be. Still, the prolonged power outage was a surprise and there are a few things we learned that others might find helpful.

Alternate Access – We have access to our incoming email, via a cloud-based archive, but there is a delay involved that renders email useless for rapid communication. We used a company contact feature on our public website to exchange personal email addresses, which did speed things up quite nicely. In the future, we will maintain those email addresses. Our public website has always been hosted off-site, specifically so we can communicate during a “building emergency.” The requests submitted via the “Contact Us” form go to a hosted email address, so the whole process is separate from our domain network and infrastructure. In retrospect, that seems to have been a good decision. We also maintain a conference calling and web meeting service in addition to the ones we manage on our own.

IM – Text messaging was the communication tool of choice for many people. Short messages are easy to handle, force you into being succinct and don’t use a lot of that precious commodity – cell phone battery life. In a serendipitous twist, we had just released an iPhone app that included personal cell phone numbers for most of our employees and the option to initiate an SMS message. We decided to store the data locally in this app, just in case travelling employees find themselves without access to our network. That decision also seems to have been validated this week.

Vendors You Can Rely Upon – I have written many blog entries where I espouse the concept of having a good relationship your critical vendors. We have a great relationship with our infrastructure vendor, and this was the kind of event where that pays off. I emailed my contact at 4:14 am on Tuesday, when I realized that the power might be out long enough to consider making alternate arrangements. By 6:03 am, I had a preliminary set of options to consider. By 7:28 am, arrangements were being made to acquire and pre-stage off-site backups so they could set up a remote office for us. A room had been set aside, computers had been tagged and people had been notified that we might be building a network Tuesday night. We ended-up not needing that option, but it was a huge relief knowing that it was available!

SharePoint Workspace – Suffice it to say, some of us will be taking a second look at this product in the near future. The idea of carrying critical SharePoint content around with me seems like it might be worth considering. If you’re thinking “I bet he wished he had moved to Office 365,” take a look at my thoughts from last year on cloud computing. Several things have changed since I wrote that post, but I’m still comfortable with my conclusion. Our Internet speeds are higher; our leverage with cloud vendors is the same or worse. I mention that last bit, because when Amazon’s cloud services were down for two days, I’m guessing that the little guys got a partial refund instead of an “all hands on deck” response.

We made it through two natural disasters in less than a week, and we are not really any worse for the experience. We have learned some lessons, and we have several things to attend to. Lessons learned; it’s more than a catchy buzz-phrase; it’s how you prepare for the next big event. Because the sidebar story will disappear with the next blog post, I’m including a shout-out to ADNET Technologies today. These guys are flat-out awesome!

The Right Tool

clip_image002In the picture to the right, the tool next to MiMi is an impact driver. Of course, it’s the right tool because it’s black and white, but when you have to drive any type of substantial fastener, it’s the only tool for the job. This past Wednesday, I followed a tweet from John Mancini that said “AIIM Survey Concludes That E-Mail Still a Challenge for Most Organizations” and I realized that once again, I own the perfect tool for the job. The job is email management and the tool is Harmon.ie

Take a look at the AIIM survey, and look at the pitiful status of “integration between Outlook and SharePoint”, a category that should have been a slam-dunk for Microsoft from the get-go. Why does “Copy/Transfer to SharePoint” have the worst results in the survey? Because it’s too damn hard to do! Oh, wait, I meant to put that in the past tense, it was too damn hard to do. In fact, storing emails or email attachments in SharePoint was so hard, that some of my biggest SharePoint fans were about to pronounce the content management solution we built for them to be a failure. Over a year ago, they told me “you have got to find a way to make it easy to include email along with the documents we put in SharePoint”. I promised them I would, and then, like any good manager, I told my Systems Administrator to find just such a solution.

He rounded up the “usual suspects”, i.e. every company that claims to make email integration with SharePoint possible. Borrowing a line from Casablanca, given the importance of this project, he rounded-up twice the normal number of suspects. The results were not encouraging. He installed trial versions of several solutions that I never even saw; he had quickly deemed them too difficult to use, too buggy or too expensive. He installed trial versions of at least two products that I did see. The first one seemed to break Outlook, leaving it in a state where certain context menu options no longer functioned. The second actually seemed to work, and made it onto the desk of one of our users for testing. After a few weeks, our conclusion was “there has to be something easier to use than this”. Enter Harmon.ie

Harmon.ie loads into Outlook, and sits on the side of your inbox, and stands ready to receive email or individual attachments. Using the drag and drop interface, I can quickly move email messages or attachments from an open email into any SharePoint library I have setup in Harmon.ie. Setting up those libraries is easy too; I can easily add new sites or libraries, explore all the libraries on a site and navigate through the folder structure if there is one. In addition, Harmon.ie can be shown in an individual email message. That means that if I can’t determine what to do with the message from the subject line, I can handle it or its attachments while reading the message. Of course, as one of my users pointed out, if I were to turn on the Preview Pane, I could handle everything from the inbox. I watched his setup, and Outlook appeared to be a mail processing system. He would click on a message, take a quick look at the contents and then either drag it or its attachments into a library on SharePoint, via Harmon.ie.

Harmon.ie also provides the ability to set document properties, including managed metadata and to create new documents or folders. You can also access the documents on SharePoint from the Harmon.ie sidebar which prompted one of my users to point out that “some days I don’t even go into SharePoint” he simply works out of Outlook. That fact is mildly disturbing, but an amazing bit of praise for the product.

By far the best thing about Harmon.ie from my point of view is how much our users like it. They were growing impatient with us as we looked for a good solution, but they have come to appreciate the fact that we waited until we found the right solution. It also reinforced the fact that we aren’t total SharePoint zealots, we accepted the consensus opinion that email management in SharePoint was simply harder than it should be and we purchased a solution. Sometimes, admitting that SharePoint needs help is a good move for the IT group.

The Fine Print – American Nuclear Insurers didn’t receive anything of value from Harmon.ie for this blog entry, neither did I. I did receive a tee-shirt for recording a video for them while attending Info360, but that had nothing to do with this blog entry either. As with other vendors/products I have mentioned here, I am talking about Harmon.ie today because they are a good company, with a great product that has served us well.