I fell into technology and business management software almost by accident. Back in the mid 1980s I was working for a CPA firm in Myrtle Beach, SC. During that time, the partners at the firm decided to move into the 20th century from a technology perspective. The question, however, was who in the firm would take on that task. So, being young and eager to prove myself, I raised my hand and volunteered for the job.
In those days, there weren’t many options in the area of accounting software so a new company called State of the Art was selected. Little did I know that some 30 years later I would still be working with Sage 100 ERP (fka MAS 90 and MAS 200) and that State of the Art would evolve into Sage North America. I guess there’s something to be said for consistency.
After working for a few years in both the public and private sectors of accounting and finance (yes, I have been an end-user of Sage 100, so I look at software from a user’s perspective), I decided to jump into the entrepreneurial world. My father had owned his own businesses for many years and he gave me the inspiration to take the risk.
We were quite content for a while with helping customers troubleshoot technical issues, write reports, installing upgrades, and teaching customers how to get the most out of the software. The whole time we were filling out time sheets and billing based on our time because that was just the way it had always been done.
Over the years, we began to notice quite a bit of negativity in the industry, both for our customers and for us. Our customers asked us questions that we couldn’t answer which frustrated us and made us wonder what was wrong. The questions were not technical; rather they were focused on who bears the responsibility for software and on why there are so many unknowns about the price of projects and support. Here are some examples:
Why should I get a bill every time my software breaks? I didn’t break it. Should I have to pay for something I didn’t break?
Why is it that every time we have you install an upgrade or write a report, we never know how much it will cost? I don’t care how long it takes you, just get it done.
I like you guys but I’ve told my employees not to call for support or anything software related unless it is a dire emergency. The problem is that I don’t know if I’ll get a bill for $100 or $10,000. How do I budget for that?
My belief is these are the types of issues that have always driven a wedge between customer and software partner over the years. It creates unnecessary stress on both sides. Since our passion and mission is to help customers use their systems to the greatest effect, it bothered us that customers perceived the software and the software partner to be a necessary evils and as unknown costs to be avoided. We knew for an absolute fact that applying our knowledge and experience to our customers’ businesses provided great value. The question was: how do we price that knowledge so our customers can clearly see the value?
Inspiration struck in the form of very forward thinking and encouragement from two people at Sage. Bill Hammer, who had been our partner manager at Sage for many years, understood that we were looking for ways to eliminate the negative aspects of the customer/software vendor relationship. He told me that I needed to meet Ed Kless, the partner development manager at Sage, and that I needed to attend one of Ed’s conferences. Ed’s message was incredibly simple and incredibly enlightening: Customers hate billable time, get rid of it! Give them guarantees on everything. So we did and it has been the most positive part of our business since we opened our doors in 1996.
What a concept, a software and consulting company who actually talks with all of their customers about how the customer wants to do business with us. Everything we do for a customer is custom tailored for their business.
On a personal note, growing up in the Carolinas (Charlotte, Gastonia, and Myrtle Beach) should have led me to embrace NASCAR from a very early age. However, I came to racing via my true passion, hockey. While living in Greensboro, NC in the mid 1990s, my dream came true: an NHL hockey team was actually going to play in the city where I was living. The Hartford Whalers packed up shop, became the Carolina Hurricanes and moved to Greensboro to play for two years while their new arena was being constructed in Raleigh.
During one of the Hurricanes’ open houses to introduce folks to the new team, there was a NASCAR show car on display. The idea was to draw in racing fans to give this hockey thing a try. What caught my attention was that there was a Hurricanes logo on the car. Well, here’s a race car driver who likes hockey. I’ll have to jump on the NASCAR band wagon. That driver was Jeff Burton, that car was his rookie car and I’ve been following Jeff ever since. In 2006, the ‘Canes won a Stanley Cup, now let’s see if Jeff can win a NASCAR championship.