This Is How You Should Manage Your Software and System Vendors

Tuomas KestiHaving a third party vendor or software system provider is often a good choice for small and midsize companies to implement certain system or a part of it. Companies of this size often lack the special skills or time to run projects solely by themselves, perhaps of internal nature.

However, selecting vendors and managing vendor relationships can be quite challenging. The big vendors might rely on their name and offer resources that don’t always reflect the expected level. On the other hand, the resources of smaller vendors could be highly skilled but also in high demand, and in the end they will not have enough time to allocate to your project.

Recently I visited a company that uses a customized Microsoft Dynamics CRM system. The customizations are mostly done by a third party, i.e. their CRM supplier. Certain functionalities of this CRM system had started to work slower and slower. This affected their CRM usage so severely that certain daily tasks were impossible to complete. When the end-users do not use the system and they don’t enter any data to the CRM, naturally the system becomes useless and meaningless for the management and for the organization as a whole.

As in many performance issues in CRM, the first place to start looking for the cause of the issue is the database. In this case, database indexing was not implemented after certain customizations were deployed. The client company had specifically asked their CRM supplier to check the “basic stuff”, including the indexing. Of course the answer was that such a basic thing had been checked. However, running certain checks against the database revealed the issue immediately.

No vendor does this on purpose but so often the lack of time means that certain things are not done at all or are done in a great hurry. The vendor is of course responsible for this kind of negligence. But how should the client manage vendors to avoid these issues?

  • When the vendor has been selected and it is time to negotiate the contract, good management and judgment is needed. Do not trust the promises given in sales meetings: make sure that what you expect from the vendor, is clearly documented in the contract.
  • Be sure that the vendor’s team assigned to the project includes professionals from different areas.
  • The team on the client’s side, who works with the vendor, should include people with technical as well as business backgrounds.
  • Preferably a few of the client team members should have some experience of the system. This puts some extra pressure on the vendor, as they now know that their suggestions are not taken for granted without validation.
  • It is also extremely important to manage the invoices and contracts you receive from the vendor. If this comes to your mind later, as an afterthought, you have probably paid extra already.

What are some of the warning signs a client should be aware of when selecting or managing the vendor?

  • If the vendor’s solution is not documented, it’s your first wake-up call. Documentation is always left undone if the solution is implemented in a hurry.
  • If the client’s staff can’t maintain the solution themselves, something is probably not right or the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) principle has not been followed in implementation.
  • If you are running a huge, global enterprise system, it is probably not a good idea to deploy a customization from a vendor, who doesn’t have experience of a system of that scale.
  • When a generic implementation is deployed to a system that has other customizations affecting each other, it should not be taken for granted that the implementation performs well in all scenarios. In some cases, even a small change in data structure could have unexpected effects. So make sure that the vendor has deployed the implementation to similar systems before trying it on yours.

If something goes wrong in spite of all, it is a good advice to consult a third party. Just to have one fresh pair of eyes to check the situation.

The writer is Cloudriven’s Chief Deployment Officer, CRM Architect and an ironman, who is practically invincible in any sport you can imagine.

Virta CRM Is Now Powered By Azure

Clouds in the skyWe did a lot of work in the cloud during the winter and spring 2014. Seven years ago we started to develop our sales-friendly Virta CRM, and now we wanted to make it compatible with the Microsoft Azure cloud services. This way we would be able to offer Virta CRM to our customers from the public cloud.

Why the Public Cloud?

The most important KPI for us is customer satisfaction. We continuously strive to improve our services to make our customers even happier. During the past few years it’s become obvious that the demand for B2B cloud services has also increased, and the services that used to run in closed environments are being moved in to the cloud. The primary reason for the transition is money: it’s expensive to maintain your own IT infrastructure and resources, and cloud can really save a buck.

At the same time it’s clear, that maintaining bigger systems in the private cloud requires expert resources that are automatically included in the public cloud. In addition, confidence towards public cloud services is in general on the increase among companies. The Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and information security policies public cloud services offer are already on a level that can be difficult to achieve in private cloud or in company’s own infrastructure. This is why we wanted to make it possible for our customers to access Virta CRM also from the public cloud.

Why Microsoft Azure?

After doing some benchmarking between different public cloud services, we decided to use Microsoft Azure. There were many factors that affected the decision, but the most important criteria were the following:

  • Azure makes it possible to scale server resources according to our needs. We can, for instance, increase capacity during the weekly rush hours, which provides better performance for the applications.
  • Azure automatically saves all the data to multiple stand-alone servers, so even if one rack brakes down, customer’s data is still safe. The system also makes an asynchronous copy of the customer data to another data center situated in the same geopolitical area. This further decreases the risk of losing business-critical data.
  • Azure always has the most up-to-date versions of all the operating systems and platforms (SQL Server etc.).
  • The information security of Windows Azure is top-notch.

Based on our research, Microsoft has already made big investments on Windows Azure cloud platform and will continue to do so in the future. The investments will ensure wider possibilities and better user experience compared to other Windows-based cloud service providers.

Final Results

We finalized the planning of the Virta CRM Azure update during early spring and the environment was deployed by the end of May. As a result, we’re now able to run our Virta CRM service in Microsoft Azure, and we can offer our customers high SLAs and a secure and risk-free service environment.

Our cloud team encountered many positive surprises during the project. For example, Azure makes it really easy to back-up data and optimize settings related to information security and performance. All the monitoring features can be configured straight from the web interface and setting up service alerts is just as simple as our team hoped for.

We strongly believe that Cloudriven’s customer satisfaction will increase with this update.

Virta CRM offered more than Fleet Innovation had expected

Fleet InnovationFleet Innovation is the only independent outsourcing partner in car-related matters in the Finnish market. Fleet grows its business with active B2B sales.

The sales management team of Fleet had defined the company’s sales process and they were looking for an easy-to-use system to support the process. Based on prior experience, the management felt that CRM deployments usually were challenging and painful which they wanted to avoid this time.

Fleet innovation deployed Cloudriven’s Virta in only a couple of days. Fleet’s sales process was configured to the system and the salespeople were trained to use Virta CRM.

“The easiness of the deployment had us all surprised. The customer service has worked very well and all our questions have been answered fast and promptly”, says Fleet’s CEO Pekka Piipponen.

The salespeople have also been satisfied with the new sales management system and many have been surprised of how easy it is to use Virta as a sales tool.

“CRM system has to be user-friendly and it has to support customer’s sales process. Only this kind of system has the requirements to boost business growth and provide support for sales monitoring”, explains Cloudriven’s Business Director Antero Törhönen.

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History of Gamification of Sales in Finland

The history of gamification in Finland started in spring 2007. I got a chance to lead a product development team which had the goal to implement a CRM system for salespeople. In other words, we had to figure out how to make this interesting:

CRM-järjestelmä vuonna 2007

How would we get the salesperson to become interested in using CRM so that she would log all her activities there? How to build an attractive user-interface which would at the same time show all the relevant information? What if the application would be game-like, even addictive:

BLARPin ensimmäinen ulkoasusunnitelma

The above layout design appeared on my desk in April 2007 (check also the marketing video!). My team’s task was to disguise the boring CRM system as a game in which the player would be guided towards the organizational goals by providing incentives from the system. Gamified CRM sounded like a utopian idea six years ago. Not that we wouldn’t be able to technically implement it, but would the Finnish sales organizations be interested in buying it?

Anyhow, the application was implemented and in the end of the year 2007 the first BLARP demo saw daylight. The application was named BLARP which was an abbreviation of the words Business Live Action Role-Playing. The first demo version didn’t look exactly the same as the above layout but it had all the necessary elements for playing the game. The first customer deployment was carried out in the beginning of 2008. Some of our customers still use BLARP, although most of them have migrated to the next version which is called Virta (Flow).

There are a few chilly stories to tell concerning the first BLARP deployments in the winter 2008. During one of the many deployments I was on a trip in India. One of my team members was performing deployment tasks in Finland and ran into trouble. It happened to be so that I was just experiencing the rough reality of Indian traffic on the backseat of a local taxi when my colleague called. Our driver Desai defied the laws of physics with his two-cylinder Tata while I was at the same time discussing on the phone about the status of the BLARP deployment. I was afraid that we would run over some Indian family and get all of their belongings on our car top. Meanwhile in our cozy Helsinki office, our unit’s supervisor was breathing down my team member’s neck and I could almost hear his heavy sighs on the backseat of my Orient express. In any case, we pulled through the situation and BLARP was successfully deployed for the customer (and the customer in question is still using BLARP!).

Lots of water flowed in Ganges during 2008 and 2009 and our product development team continued to work on the development of BLARP. We released a new version of the product four times a year which is the practice still today; new version is released quarterly. Gamification itself proved to be a concept only rare organizations were ready for. The main attraction of BLARP was the new user-interface and gamification and the gamified elements of BLARP were very unfamiliar in sales organizations. The concept of giving points for reporting sales activities didn’t arouse a lot of interest.

Major milestone in development was achieved in the summer 2011 when the user-interface of BLARP was completely redesigned. The name BLARP was also abandoned and the new version was named Virta (Flow). The basic principles of Virta were the same as in BLARP. The gamified elements, such as points, player card and leaderboard, were still part of the product. The legendary motor used for counting points in BLARP was also retained. The component was designed to manage all kinds of calculation tasks even remotely related to points from the very beginning. You just had to input the arguments for counting points from one end and you’d get a completed player card or leaderboard from the other end.

Virta contained numerous new features compared to BLARP. However, the biggest investment was the new user-interface which was made as simple as possible, it guided the user and worked also in mobile devices. A couple of years ago gamification still wasn’t a familiar concept in the Finnish CRM scene. Most of our Virta customers were yet again mostly pleased with the fresh and different UI compared to traditional CRM systems. At the same time gamified business applications started to arouse interest in the global market.

The development of Virta has continued from the summer of 2011 until this day. New versions and features are introduced every quarter year and we’re proud that the foundations of the product were laid as early as 2007.

Globally the interest in gamified business applications is now very high. We’ve acquired a lot of useful experience in gamification during the six years we have been developing BLARP and Virta. Our customers have given us valuable feedback and we’ve tried to implement new gamified features based on the feedback. Although one strong concept related to gamification has been missing: namely the idea that the player could do something with the points collected. This has been one of the reasons why we’ve been developing a new product called Habit.

Habit helps you to gamify processes traditionally performed in business applications, for example in CRM. Players or teams set goals and the game is to strive to achieve these goals. The application guides the player or team to carry out activities relevant to the set goals. The concept of Habit also includes the Points Store: organization can define what single player or team can do with the points collected. For example, if you could buy work with the points, a hardworking employee who has collected enough points could outsource her tasks to other employees by buying work performance from the Points Store.

Since the birth of BLARP, social media has become ever so popular. A social wall similar to Facebook was implemented in Virta, so that the activities concerning customer management and tasks could be more easily found by users. The social features in Habit are taken even further: content can be shared and you can receive points from sharing. Organization gets valuable publicity and users get valuable points.

This is the third gamified system I’ve had the pleasure to work with in my career. It is absolutely amazing to be part of the team working on this application and to use all the experience we’ve acquired from BLARP and Virta over the years. Instead of looking into the history of gamification, we can now concentrate on the future!

Tuomas is in charge of Cloudriven’s customer deployments and project delivery. You can follow his thoughts also on Twitter.

The Stingy CEO Opens His Wallet

I wrote this blog post a couple of weeks ago to be published in September. When I wrote this, I couldn’t have hoped that Windows Phone would become such a hot topic during the first week of September. Today’s newsfeed has been full of articles covering Microsoft’s Nokia acquisition. I hope this means that in the future the Finnish partner companies will have more and better opportunities to sell and distribute applications in Finland and in the global market. This way we can ease the life of the information worker and increase our customers’ productivity as widely as possible.

From our and our customers’ point of view the morning news is a concrete example of how people have different needs to use information systems which require devices and applications that are appropriate for the situation. The acquisition increases our opportunities to develop and offer solutions which improve our everyday lives.

I had been very pleased with my Nokia Lumia 900 mobile phone for almost two years. It fitted perfectly to my needs. Calls, text messages, social media services, quality photos, working browser, a good navigation application and a bunch of other useful features repaid the price of the phone quickly. Despite the excellent Windows Phone 8 operating system I had not updated my phone. Instead, I had bought new Windows Phone 8 powered Lumias for our employees whenever their old phones had reached the end of their working life.

This stingy CEO decided to splurge some money

Anyhow, a few weeks ago this stingy CEO changed his mind and decided to splurge some money. I decided to give up the Lumia 900 which still worked fine and invest in Lumia 820 instead of the sturdier Lumia models. The market price for the phone was around 300 euros.

The operating system and other features in the phone are most likely more developed than in Lumia 900. However, taken into account just the new features, the ROI wouldn’t have been high enough to make a profitable investment. What I did is that I haggled with my supervisor, the chairman of the board, for an application called CRM Call Tracker which costs only 1,99 euros in the Windows Phone Store. The application elevated the ROI to a whole new level. What level, you ask. So high that I don’t want to publicly brag about the percent. You wouldn’t believe me anyway.

That wondrous application offers all the contact details I want from the CRM. In addition to all the other contact lists I have, I can for example easily access the contact information of all the people I’ve met during the last three months and all the people I’m going to meet the following weeks. When I call a customer to confirm some details, CRM Call Tracker tracks the call to CRM. After the phone call I can add a call memo or even a calendar reminder, if the customer wants me to call him back or I didn’t reach him the first time.

I admit that I can be sometimes lazy. I didn’t track any phone calls to CRM before CRM Call Tracker. This was the case despite the fact that tracking calls would’ve helped me to predict sales. On average customers want to be contacted from time to time. Often a phone call leads to a meeting which leads to an offer which leads to a deal if you remember to call the customer after delivering the offer. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself.

Ps. I bought another Lumia phone at the same time for our Business Director Antero. It’s yellow. The phone, I mean, not Antero.

Pps. I wasn’t stingy even with the CRM Call Tracker. The application is now in heavy use and has its place on Antero’s start screen.