With this month's CDK-e-Emphasys merger further reducing the independent software choices for dealers, our “deep dive” into software for our next edition is most timely. 

As we put this report together, I reflected on our own experiences in “upgrading” to “grown-up” software systems. I’ll also admit that a choice between elective dental work vs. software conversions would be a "close call."

Eight years ago, I was asked to present at a national business media conference on our decision to go with a Cadillac-level “Software as a Service” (SAAS) system that would drive 7 web content relaunches in 6 months and serve as our long-term platform. The panel, which included 2 other execs on the dais, was billed as a “Software Do-Overs: Hard Lessons Learned.”

At the time, I thought my experience was the biggest “cluster----” of a vendor issue I’d ever seen. Still, I agreed to help call out landmines for our peers. (And maybe get the attention of our software vendor, who watched carefully from the front row in that Georgia ballroom.) We’d been told our install would be the vendor’s gold-star model as it aimed to break into our business segment.

Even if the wheels fell off in other areas, a positive takeaway was a team exercise that identified and ranked 15 benefits what our staff most wanted in a new system. This weighted list gave focus and winnowed out unqualified vendors, even though we learned our chosen one defined “completion” and a “met-milestone” differently. 

My “10 lessons learned” slides included a few that may apply to your world too. Number 8 cautioned the audience “not to assume that a group doing lots of installs knows what’s working or best practices.” We humbly bought into a promise of discovering new “best practices” via the software system, but sound strategy has no shortcuts and cannot be bought. 

Additional items were ROI (clear efficiencies came but only after significant and additional outside investments with another tandem SAAS), personnel (we’d overtasked our sole in-house project manager) and database integration problems (which resulted in a termination at the vendor).

And that leads me to message on which I closed my talk. “Don’t let your system get so long in the tooth that you can’t stand it anymore. It will force haste, and this is a big, expensive and long-term decision.” After the rockiest of starts, we’re still on the same platform 8 years later, despite less expensive options available. We know what we’re dealing with and how to use it.

Fast forward to the spring of 2022 and our customer relationship management (CRM) software. Our 12-year-old CRM had virtually no updates nor meaningful features in years. We stopped accepting training along the way, our in-house champion was promoted into other responsibilities and we never found the same devotion from those who followed. In a quest to solve a few secondary issues, we hastily fell in love with a shiny new system. And I didn't personally roll up my sleeves during or after the recommendation to pursue a new system, still chafing over a “just bill-us” ticket request made years ago that was dismissed as not worth programmers’ time.

As it turned out, I should’ve dusted off those Powerpoint slides from 2015. In our own radio-silence, we didn’t realize our vendor was months away from a massive overhaul (and expansion of their programming center) that would address much of the issues causing our discontent. 

Eyeing a newer user-friendly interface, modern dashboards and long list of push-button reports, we stubbornly voted – with our shoe leather – to leave a vendor that had been solid for most of the 12 years. 

And then we stumbled almost immediately. 

The problems were our own fault, we assumed. Some of us (in our busyness disease) treated the pre-conversion training as optional or with an intent to “catch up later.” The slower and shallower dive thwarted a discovery of the system’s skeletons and misunderstandings of how new processes needed to work. The ingenuity of our data manager brought us workarounds, but the inability to forecast via the new CRM was a “hole in the boat” type of problem. Eventually, we returned to the old-school Google sheets that operate outside of the rest of the CRM. Coincidence or not, sales suddenly improved once this hard decision was made.

Now, 10 months later, with too many man-hours than we want to count, we’re contemplating an about-face. Another tough decision and some humble pie may now await, but giving up and abandoning sunk costs may also be the right thing to do. (I’ll share an update another time.)

A few more lessons learned over the last year:

  • Pick the problems you want. In hindsight, we'd choose the “devil you know” vs. unfamiliar problems. 
  • Insist on a priority list. A system may be good for sales or service but not for accounting, and vice-versa. A clear understanding of what’s most important and for whom can serve as the tie-breaker.
  • Staff non-negotiables. Make sure your staff understands the depth of a conversion and the required training. The muscle memory of our last experiences had long since faded.
  • Size. As a small business, we prefer to be a bigger fish in the pond for customer service. But there may be good reasons why some ponds remain small.
  • Hubris, haste & 'last looks.' With the switching pains and costs, training, reinforcing and problem troubleshooting (there will be problems), the best solution may be the one you’re already on. A new software should beat the incumbent by a factor of magnitude knowing the time and disruption that’ll follow. 
  • Morale & turnover. Software is cited as a top contributor to employee frustration. So the KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid!) approach may be more important than ever to avoiding inviting a job search.

Watch for the deep-dive software report coming in the June special edition of Farm Equipment.

ACTION ITEM: What are your thoughts on the CDK and e-Emphasys merger and its impact on dealers of your size/scope? Email kschmidt@lessitermedia.com