The Sorrows of Selling

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Selling business software sometimes seems like the worst job in the world, but I’ve come to understand that buying software can be even more difficult.

unhappy salesman

Software salesmen used to be held in greater contempt than second-hand car salesmen. Indeed, it still seems that a chasm of misunderstanding separates the salesman (even if he is honest) and the buyer. The buyer and the seller each ask questions and answer them in a language couched in their own terminology. Volumes of unspoken assumptions could be written about both.

Which is why selling software gets ever more difficult. The distrust of the buyer (which is not intended to be insulting, isn’t based on the assumption that the salesman will lie) is reasonable. So many projects go wrong, even if both parties are buying and selling in good faith.

Buyers are ever more wary. Long gone are the days when a steady gaze, a firm handshake and a couple of boozy dinners could win you a deal.

But there is risk on both sides of the equation. The buyer risks wasting too much time and money on something that doesn’t do what he wants.  Buying more carefully, at the expense of the seller’s time mitigates this risk. The seller, on the other hand, risks spending vast amounts of time trying to sell, failing, ever more expensively, more often than not.

Which is why the seller must ‘qualify’ every opportunity. If you’re selling software you must always ask yourself:

  • Can my software meet the buyer’s requirements?
  • Am I talking to the decision makers?
  • Is there a clear buying process?
  • Does the buyer really intend to buy something within reasonable timescales?
  • Does the buyer have a budget for the project?
  • Does the list of competitors make sense?

A salesman must be a shrewd psychologist as well as relentlessly inquisitive. He or she must understand the motivation behind each link in the decision-making chain.

So, two trends make selling ever more sorrowful.

The first is the understandable trend of asking the seller to demonstrate the capabilities of his software and consultants more and more extensively. It’s as if the implementation project must be completed before the sale is made. This means prototypes, ‘sandbox’ environments where the buyer can play with the system, and multiple virtual ‘meetings’. These activities close the chasm, narrow the differences between the vocabularies of buyer and seller and they are a very good thing. But for the seller, even more than for the buyer, they are expensive.

The second trend is that all of this is more and more often done remotely, using tools such as GoToMeeting or WebEx. Very often we never meet the people who buy our software, or at least, not until the final stages of a sale or when the project begins.

The trouble with the ‘remote’ approach is that you get to know your buyer less easily and that makes ‘qualification’ very much more difficult. A salesman must make judgements about people, their interests, their ambitions, their credibility and their influence, and this is difficult to do with only an electronic link.

I write this because I spend ever more time building demonstration systems, discussing them with potential users, writing about them, offering them to the buyer to use in secure ‘sandbox’ environment, and failing to sell my software as often as always. These are the sorrows of selling. It gets ever more difficult, ever more expensive.

In one recent case I built several versions of a prototype for a company in India, exchanged at least a hundred emails, attended about ten ‘meetings’ and provided a test environment for the buyer to work with. I was told to expect the procurement process to begin (which means negotiating terms and conditions all over again – often another set of humiliations!). But then they decided that they will widen the scope of the project and start the process all over again. They promise to include us as a potential supplier. True, this isn’t exactly failure, but it certainly feels like it.

You simply can’t know everything you need to know when, as technology now makes possible, you can’t really look the buyer in the eye.

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Not Today, Darling, I’ve Got a Headache

Corruption is depressing, especially because it’s more common in countries where there isn’t enough to go around. It’s also a drag on economic growth, because it stifles fair competition and the success of the most deserving and productive ideas. It brings riches to a few, but steals from the many.

corruption

So I’m sorry to read that even those caught red-handed (7 million CZK in a wine-box) in the Czech Republic, the country where I live, can make a mockery of the judicial process. In this case former Czech regional governor and health minister David Rath is seeking a further adjournment of his case, suffering from headaches after falling from a bicycle.

Rath Seeks Adjournment

Corruption in this part of the world is endemic. I’d thought it was in decline. Perhaps it is, but even so Transparency International ranks perception of public sector corruption in the ‘LLP’ countries as follows, with most of our countries disgracefully low in the order (2014 rankings):

9th     Luxembourg

15th   Belgium

17th   USA

47th   Hungary

53rd   Czech Republic

54th   Slovakia

69th   Bulgaria

69th   Romania

103rd Mexico

136th Russia

I joked some years ago, when part of our company won a contract to implement an expenses system for the UK Parliament, that we would heavily discount our software for the Parliaments of countries who fall below 50th in the rankings. The offer is still open.

Read more about Transparency International here

Here’s the full ranking:

1 Denmark
2 New Zealand
3 Finland
4 Sweden
5 Norway
5 Switzerland
7 Singapore
8 Netherlands
9 Luxembourg
10 Canada
11 Australia
12 Germany
12 Iceland
14 United Kingdom
15 Belgium
15 Japan
17 Barbados
17 Hong Kong
17 Ireland
17 United States
21 Chile
21 Uruguay
23 Austria
24 Bahamas
25 United Arab Emirates
26 Estonia
26 France
26 Qatar
29 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
30 Bhutan
31 Botswana
31 Cyprus
31 Portugal
31 Puerto Rico
35 Poland
35 Taiwan
37 Israel
37 Spain
39 Dominica
39 Lithuania
39 Slovenia
42 Cape Verde
43 Korea (South)
43 Latvia
43 Malta
43 Seychelles
47 Costa Rica
47 Hungary
47 Mauritius
50 Georgia
50 Malaysia
50 Samoa
53 Czech Republic
54 Slovakia
55 Bahrain
55 Jordan
55 Lesotho
55 Namibia
55 Rwanda
55 Saudi Arabia
61 Croatia
61 Ghana
63 Cuba
64 Oman
64 The FYR of Macedonia
64 Turkey
67 Kuwait
67 South Africa
69 Brazil
69 Bulgaria
69 Greece
69 Italy
69 Romania
69 Senegal
69 Swaziland
76 Montenegro
76 Sao Tome and Principe
78 Serbia
79 Tunisia
80 Benin
80 Bosnia and Herzegovina
80 El Salvador
80 Mongolia
80 Morocco
85 Burkina Faso
85 India
85 Jamaica
85 Peru
85 Philippines
85 Sri Lanka
85 Thailand
85 Trinidad and Tobago
85 Zambia
94 Armenia
94 Colombia
94 Egypt
94 Gabon
94 Liberia
94 Panama
100 Algeria
100 China
100 Suriname
103 Bolivia
103 Mexico
103 Moldova
103 Niger
107 Argentina
107 Djibouti
107 Indonesia
110 Albania
110 Ecuador
110 Ethiopia
110 Kosovo
110 Malawi
115 Côte d´Ivoire
115 Dominican Republic
115 Guatemala
115 Mali
119 Belarus
119 Mozambique
119 Sierra Leone
119 Tanzania
119 Vietnam
124 Guyana
124 Mauritania
126 Azerbaijan
126 Gambia
126 Honduras
126 Kazakhstan
126 Nepal
126 Pakistan
126 Togo
133 Madagascar
133 Nicaragua
133 Timor-Leste
136 Cameroon
136 Iran
136 Kyrgyzstan
136 Lebanon
136 Nigeria
136 Russia
142 Comoros
142 Uganda
142 Ukraine
145 Bangladesh
145 Guinea
145 Kenya
145 Laos
145 Papua New Guinea
150 Central African Republic
150 Paraguay
152 Congo Republic
152 Tajikistan
154 Chad
154 Democratic Republic of the Congo
156 Cambodia
156 Myanmar
156 Zimbabwe
159 Burundi
159 Syria
161 Angola
161 Guinea-Bissau
161 Haiti
161 Venezuela
161 Yemen
166 Eritrea
166 Libya
166 Uzbekistan
169 Turkmenistan
170 Iraq
171 South Sudan
172 Afghanistan
173 Sudan
174 Korea (North)
174 Somalia

Just like riding a bicycle

Some of the motor skills we learn early in life stay with us forever. I suppose that’s why we say ‘just like riding a bicycle’ when we resume something physical after a long pause and find we can still do it.

But such skills must be learned early, if that cliché is to apply. In my case learning to drive a car came too late and I found I couldn’t do it. Driving a car will never be like riding a bicycle for me

But this week I picked up my oboe again. I must play it at the funeral of a friend on Thursday. I hadn’t played for nearly two years, but, yes, to my great relief, it really was like riding a bicycle, and enjoyable too.

oboe

I started to learn the oboe when I was around ten years old, and I suppose the motor instructions are fixed firmly in some indestructible grey cells deep inside my brain. Not that I play as well as I did, but the coordination of lungs, lips and fingers seems to have endured infrequent practice.

I thought of this when I saw this mad high-risk cyclist from a taxi the other day in Prague (the streets and motorists of this city aren’t well adapted to riding a bicycle). If playing the oboe is like riding a bicycle for me, perhaps it’s a bicycle like this one. But I certainly wouldn’t ride one that looked like this. I only hope he lives as long as my 85-year-old friend did.

riding a bicycle

Hockey on Ice

The majority of competitive games were invented by the British: football, rugby, tennis, badminton, ping pong, hockey, golf, lacrosse, cricket, snooker, rounders, baseball, polo. You name it, we invented it, or wrote down the rules.

British Inventions

Not that I’m suggesting that the British are Best. Far from it. Other nations had far better things to do. Whilst the British were playing ball games in the drizzle, others were doing more important things: the Italians were making love, the French were eating frogs’ legs, the Russians were drinking vodka, the Germans were doing things with cabbage, and the Czechs were making dumplings.

So it’s odd, this week, to be in a city where the citizens have gone mad about a game that the Brits don’t play – Ice Hockey. Actually, I have to admit that they simply call it ‘Hockey’ here, and refer to the lovely game we play on grass as ‘Field Hockey’. Ice hockey is a brutal, high testosterone game played with a black rubber lozenge called a puck. It’s not for gentlemen. The best at it are the Russians,, the Czechs, the Swedes, the Finns, the Americans and the Canadians, and they’re fighting it out in Prague and Ostrava for the annual World Championship.

hockey crowd

So the streets of Prague were empty last night as the Czechs played the Finns in the quarter finals, from time to time the pubs erupting with raucous cheers, presumably for the Czech team, who won 5-3..

The problem is that the O2 arena, where the biggest matches are held, is the building our office overlooks, so our working day is punctuated with the bellows of the crowds, the amplified shouting of the commentators, all broadcast to a big screen just beneath my window.

But, if you can’t beat them, join them. Everyone is wearing the padded shirts and armour that go with the game, whether players or supporters, so this is how I’m going to work today.

ice hockey

Correspondence Accounting – The Russian Way of Debits and Credits

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Have you ever heard of correspondence accounting?

If you’re not an accountant, or financial systems consultant, stop here. And if you’re an accountant and you’ve never had to debit or credit your accounts in Russia or the Russian-influenced world then you won’t need to know about this either.

Correspondence accounting is the Russian way of accounting, and it’s the bane of ‘Western’ financial accounting systems and of companies like mine, since we struggle to make the systems we sell work in Russia. My company, LLP Group, works with SunSystems, a British-born financial system that works more easily than most systems almost anywhere in the world  Indeed, we’ve implemented SunSystems for international companies in the USA, South America, Asia, Africa and Europe, ensuring a consistent view of finance even if local rules differ markedly.

But Russia is more difficult (any surprise?), and I write this in the hope that someone can tell me WHY!

Most accounting systems have a chart of accounts that lets you debit and credit to any series of accounts as long as you end up with a balance of zero. So you might do this for a sales invoice:

DEBTOR          1,000   D

SALES              800 C

TAX                   200 C

You can have any accounts in your journal, and any number of them (two credits and one debit in this case) as long as the final journal balance is zero.

But in Russian correspondence accounting each debit must be matched by a credit, and the two accounts involved must ‘correspond’. Indeed, the state issues a list of accounts that are permitted to ‘oppose’ each other. A Russian journal would look like this:

DEBTOR                1000 D                    SALES                 1000 C

VAT ON SALES    200 D                      VAT                      200 C

Each line, debiting a single account and crediting a single account must balance.

Most financial systems can imitate this style of accounting by imposing constraints on the way traditional journals are structured, but the real difficulty arises when you try to construct your statutory reports, since these rely on the corresponding account being known for every debit or credit. There’s even a kind of cross-reference report, a vast table, showing the values that have been posted between corresponding accounts. Statutory auditors, when not soliciting bribes, need only glance at this table to determine if the rules have been broken, and if fines are therefore due.

auditors

A small team of Russian auditors

All this is possible in ‘Western’ financial systems and in our company we’ve worked out a method that makes it possible. But it means that implementation time is longer and more expensive.

What is it all for? Who benefits? What possible management benefit comes from all of this? What statutory benefit?

Can someone tell me?!

And then there are ‘negative’ credits and debits!

What’s Information?

Information can have a very academic definition (just take a look at the Wikipedia entry on the term – Information), and I’ve no doubt it keeps some kinds of philosophers exercised, but it’s also a term at the centre of the occasional legal dispute.

information

There’s an interesting case raging at the moment (‘raging’ might perhaps be an exaggeration!) as to what constitutes ‘information’ under the Freedom of Information Act in the UK.

IPSA (the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority) is in charge of checking MPs’ expenses and determining if they are justified in respect of MPs fulfilment of their Parliamentary duties. You will remember that some years ago a few MPs were found to be putting forward expenses that would nowadays be difficult to justify, such as the cost of cleaning a moat.

As a result of those scandals all MPs’ expenses are now published for the general public to review. They are made available through a website but, crucially for this case, without images of the original invoices and receipts that MPs present to IPSA, so the public can’t see the additional text, or logos, that might also be found there. Expenses are published in summary form, presumably containing the ‘information’ that IPSA believe is relevant for justification.

IPSA’s Publication Website

Some years ago, a journalist from the Daily Telegraph asked to see copies of original receipts and invoices and IPSA turned him down. The Daily Telegraph then appealed to the Information Commissioner, who ruled that IPSA should provide the copies he asked for. IPSA, in turn, appealed against the Commissioner’s ruling twice and the case reached the Court of Appeal a month or two ago.

Now, finally, the Court of Appeal has ruled in the Information Commissioner’s favour. Their view (detailed here) seems to be that ‘information’ means more than just a summary published electronically. It also means logo, layout, additional text, or handwritten notes on any invoice or receipt provided to IPSA by MPs, the kind of information that could only be obtained from examining a copy.

They make use of a general distinction between ‘information’ and the ‘record’ that contains it. The sheet of paper on which a receipt is printed, is ‘record’, the printing on the paper is ‘information’, but they also acknowledge that the distinction is not an easy one to make. The physical properties of the paper are properties of the ‘record’ but logos, layout and additional text, whether printed or handwritten, are ‘information’, especially if they influence IPSA’s judgement as to the genuineness of a document and therefore whether it is a justifiable expense. IPSA are obliged by law to publish information but not the record itself. Thus original documents need not be made available, but electronic copies must be.

This may seem like a scholastic and academic debate, but the implications of this ruling on information publication in general are huge. Philosophers (of a certain kind) would probably reject this exercise of meticulous definition as bound to fail, and would challenge the separation of ‘record’ and ‘information’. They would point to the struggle to place a property in one or the other category as symptomatic of its ultimate uselessness. True, in the digital world, where ‘information’ is carried by 1s and 0s it’s easy to see the separation, but in most contexts it’s not. Try defining any concept precisely in another form of words. Try ‘chair’.

It would make better sense to frame the law in terms of purpose, but I am no lawyer so there may be insuperable difficulties in doing so. Better to say that the Freedom of Information Act requires that everything should be disclosed that can reasonably be held to bear on the decisions or judgements made, which will differ by context and the purpose of the Government body. This way there need be no debate about the meaning of information. Even matters which their Lordships regard as related to ‘record’ rather than ‘information’, such as the weight of paper, might be relevant in judging the authenticity of a large invoice.

As all parties have discovered, it’s difficult to come up with the precise definition of a word without reference to context and purpose. ‘Information’ is a matter of what you do with it.

See the Guardian’s reporting of the case here.

An App for the Altruist

How much time do you spend on your phone doing something for other people? Not much, I suppose. I don’t.

Apps for News, Gaming, Emails, Dating, Shopping, Travel, these don’t benefit mankind directly.

eyes

But, actually, there are some altruistic Apps out there. A friend of mind came across a wonderful one the other day called Be My Eyes. It’s an app that connects blind people with volunteer helpers from around the world via live video chat.

Be My Eyes

Try it. Volunteers currently outnumber blind users, but you might still get the call.