Sunday, 22 June 2008

Getting the Most from a Software Demonstration

You can buy Microsoft Office from any authorized dealer. When you're considering accounting software however, half of your time should be spent evaluating the consulting firm. There is a lot of skill involved in fitting accounting software to a company in terms of determining requirements, examining business processes, converting data, training staff and staying within the budget. Obviously, you want the best consultant you can find.

In the past couple of weeks I have attended two demonstrations of Microsoft's new reporting package, Performance Point. I will have more to say about the actual software in a future post. Right now, let's concentrate on the demos.

Both firms are experienced at what they do. They both say they have a large number of happy clients. They both are represented by a seasoned sales representative who knows how to run a demonstration confidently, with no errors or software issues. The problem is that the demos were virtually identical. How is a customer to decide between two firms when their presentations are so similar? I have two pieces of advice for companies who demonstrate software: customize the default demo and don't tell me, show me.

Customize The Demo

It was no coincidence that the two software demonstrations were so similar. When you sell Microsoft software you are provided with a sales toolkit, including scripts for demonstrating the product and cool examples of what it can do. It's all there for you to follow. All you have to do is practice until you can do it without stumbling or software problems. This material is golden, particularly if you have a technical or accounting background and you have not ever actually had to sell anything before. It helps a small firm reach the level of professionalism that a sophisticated market demands.

If you are a seasoned implementation firm however, then you have actual client experience. You can enhance Microsoft's cool examples with some of your own. Why would you want to do that? Three reasons:

  1. Microsoft's examples are aimed at an international audience, whereas you will want to show you're in touch with local needs,
  2. It gives you a way to show your expertise, and
  3. It differentiates you from your competitors.
Even if you decide not to go to all of the trouble of creating the sample data and turning a specific client report into a generic example, you can still talk about your experience, in other words, show, not tell.

Tell & Show

If a consultant tells a prospective customer how good they are, the customer will at best ignore the statement. If the same consultant shows the prospect what they have accomplished with other customers, particularly if the other customers have something in common with the prospect, then they will have the customer's attention.

In an individualized sales demonstration of course, the sales person will have done their homework and explored the real or perceived needs of that particular prospect. I would argue that even when you are just buttonholing people at a trade show, it's important that your presentation be tailored to show your expertise, because your competitor may be in the booth right beside you. And they have everything you have, unless you focus on your specific customer experience.

Tailoring the presentation does not have to be that time consuming. For example, Performance Point includes financial analysis software. Let's say you did a project for a company importing goods from China. The demonstration script could include a paragraph like:

Many of our customers import products for resale here. Recent large fluctuations in foreign exchange rates have made pricing their products difficult at best. To address this issue we not only helped a customer create a report that showed the effect of foreign exchange rates on gross margin by product, but we also added a parameter to allow them to see the effects on forecasted rate changes.

Faced with that kind of practical experience versus an out-of-the-box demo, I know which consulting firm I'd choose.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Customer Relationships - Wide AND Deep

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software makes it easy to view customers as statistics. "How many calls have you made?" "How many answers to our email blast did we get?" Similarly, sales management software encourages pipeline analysis, e.g. "How many suspects, prospects, customers do we have?" "What is our conversion percentage from suspects to customers?"

Don't get me wrong. I'm in favor of tracking the stats. The reports are a good indication about whether things are going well or not. But quantitative analysis only tells part of the story. While it will tell you how many relationships you have, you have to dig deeper to determine the quality of those relationships. CRM software will give you some hints. If you see either old or a large number of unresolved issues with a customer, that's a sure indication of a deteriorating relationship. Similarly, if you see a large number of referrals you know your relationship is healthy. The problem is the 80% in between.

The older I get, the more I believe there is no substitute for human to human interaction. Human relationships are just too complex to be automated. You have to visit a customer to see what's going on. You find out things that would never otherwise come to your attention. Visiting a customer gives you a chance to celebrate with them, such as when they have just landed a huge new deal or your contact gets a promotion or achieves a higher level of education. It also gives you a chance to say, "Did you know we have a way of dealing with that issue?" about a challenge they didn't even consider asking you about.

How do you do this? Either you visit them or invite them to visit you. As I've said before, I never charged customers for phone calls or emails, because I WANTED them to call. Maybe I was giving up a quarter hour of billable time here and there, but I more than made up for it by being able to bill for a whole day when I visited them. But getting them to visit you is a whole other matter.

At my former firm, we struggled with getting customers out for events. Accountants can be a tough crowd! They shy away from anything that might be sales related. They tend to stay in their offices. You have to give away a significant amount of practical content to even get their attention. Charging them to attend a customer event is problematic at best. Then, when you finally get them to come, you have to crack the whip with your own staff to be sure they actually talk to the customers instead of to each other.

At the end of the day, there is no better relationship than knowing your customer so well that they view you as a trusted business advisor rather than just a vendor who uses CRM.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Be True to Your School

Yesterday I attended an alumni event at PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), where I spent my formative years as an accountant. It was my first alumni event in longer than I care to admit, which was a big mistake. Several people I remembered from the good old days attended and I met several others. It's easy to meet people when you have so much in common. I actually ran out of business cards. My advice to you: if a firm you used to work for has an alumni event, go! Of course they see it as an exercise in relationship building (i.e. selling services), but it is a relationship that is mutually beneficial. You get to strengthen personal relationships as well as getting some Professional Development hours.

While we're on the subject of PD, could we talk about accountants presenting to accountants? Yesterday's talk was "The Economic Downturn: Practical Strategies and Ideas to Protect Your Business." It was an excellent subject presented by John McKenna, a partner in PwC's Corporate Advisory & Restructuring Group. McKenna is clearly an experienced, roll up the sleeves and get to it kind of guy. He had a bank of slides that analyzed the topic, dividing it into long term and short term tactics. He emphasized the defensive side of protecting your business, then he turned it around and gave some great tips about using a downturn to go bargain hunting.

The thing that was missing was the war stories. I love it that he broke down the topic into logical chunks and put them on the slides, but I can read slides too. What keeps me on the edge of my seat is the real life kind of stories, like the entrepreneur who was down to financing his company on his personal credit card and was about to call it quits when he landed the big sale, or the little company that managed to swallow the big one. I want to hear about the personalities of the players and the cool solutions to apparently unsolveable problems. The sort of story you'd tell to a bunch of colleagues over a beer.

One thing I'll say about McKenna is that he really came alive when asked a question. Someone wanted more information about dealing with bankers. McKenna had an excellent response off the top of his head and he had some good advice about how it's not enough to present a plan to the bank, you really have to believe it. Bankers are good at what they do; they can smell BS a mile away.

This change when someone gets off-script is actually normal. Many people are too formal when making presentations. For example, a lawyer friend of mine had to make a presentation to the International Olympic Committee as part of a bid. There are no second chances in something like that, so all the participants were professionally coached in how to make presentations. Here's what he had to say about that experience:

"At first they told me that they had to set up the cameras, so we just talked. They asked me questions about my background and the bid. Then they started filming and I did my presentation. Afterwards we had a long debrief using the footage they had just shot. They showed me that I was too stiff and wooden in my style. Then they said they had some video of how I should do my presentations. It turned out to be me answering questions at the beginning. They had been filming the whole time. They showed me how my hand motions and tone of voice were much friendlier and sincere when I was just talking. And that was the style I needed to maintain when giving a prepared speech. Really, I just had to be me."

It isn't easy presenting to accountants. We tend to be an unresponsive audience. It is often difficult to get us to participate or ask questions. But it's worth it. If you can just be yourself and talk as though you were among friends, it's surprising how quickly the audience will warm to you and what you have to say.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The Narrative Budget

If the budget is viewed as a pointless exercise inflicted on a company by its accountants, then that is all it will remain.

If a budget is viewed as a plan, a blueprint for the future, then that is what it will become.

Nobody was born with the innate ability to budget. It is a discipline and, like all disciplines, the harder you work at it, the better you become. Experience, intuition and skill combine as you get better and better at honing in on what can reasonably be accomplished in the next twelve months.

A common weakness with budgets is that they are presented as a column of numbers with the focus on the bottom line. But what if more attention were paid to the story behind the numbers? The numbers by themselves will not energize a department or motivate a team, but a story can.
  • If we hit our first quarter sales goal, then there will be money for getting that hot new prototype into production.

  • If we hit our cost reduction target, then we can pay bonuses.

  • If we all support our environmental initiatives, then we can be both responsible and profitable.

In 1999, an Interchurch Stewardship Committee of eight major churches looked at church budgeting and realized that the mission was getting lost in the numbers. Church budgets did not engage church members. In their publication "The Narrative Budget", they made some powerful points that speak to organizations of every size and type:

  • A budget should tell a story.

  • A budget should reflect your statement of purpose.

  • When people feel that their involvement is vital to the success of the organization, they will actively support it.

What then is a narrative budget?

  • A way of presenting a budget in descriptive terms, not just numbers.

  • A way of presenting the financial needs of the organization while demonstrating how the mission is being supported.

  • A way of helping people relate their time and talent to the ongoing mission.

Narrative budgeting doesn't replace the numbers; it supports them. Normally budgets are broken down by department, which is necessary for departmental reporting. Having done that, try recasting the budget in terms of goals. Support the goals budget with a narrative describing how everyone's contributions add up to achieving those goals.

Final words: be patient and persistent. These are new muscles that you're asking people to stretch.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Getting The Most From a Conference

Whether you're an attendee or a presenter, here are some tips to help you get more out of a trade show or conference.


  • Get it in your calendar! I don't know how many times I've said, "Oh yeah, I meant to get to that" when a friend has mentioned going to a conference.
  • Decide ahead which booths / presentations you want to see. It will help you focus on what's important.
  • Stay away from the beer nuts. [Inserted by my editor/wife.]
  • Go with an open mind. Sometimes the banner across the booth is just what the company is promoting now. If you talk to them about what you need, you may find that they have something else to offer you.
  • Don't worry about giving out your card. The worst that can happen is that you have to say no to a follow up phone call or unsubscribe to unwanted email. Networking is more of an art than a science. There is no way of knowing who is in a position to help you, but I can guarantee that if you never give out your card, you will miss important opportunities.
  • Talk to other attendees. By definition, you have a common interest. Use the opportunity to make a few contacts. If there is a reception or meal, I look for the people on the edge of the group or sitting by themselves. They usually welcome some company.
  • Get the presentation notes electronically. If I'm handed a big binder full of material, it ends up on a shelf and will eventually migrate to the recycle bin. If I have the material in a pdf file, I'm more likely to find it when I need it.
  • Be an active listener. It REALLY helps the presenter if you nod your head occasionally (I don't mean the sleepy kind of nod) to show that you are following along. Feel free to ask questions and participate. Everyone will get more out of it.
When you get back to the Office
  • Sort through the business cards you received. Enter any new contacts into your contact software (you DO have contact software, right?)
  • Send an email to your new contacts so they don't forget you. If you can send the answer to a question they asked or point them to a web site they'd be interested in, so much the better.
  • If you received any material of interest to co-workers, send them a copy! That way your company gets a lot more bang for their money.
  • A consulting firm I worked for had the rule that anyone who went to a conference had to do a presentation at the next company meeting. It was a good rule.
  • Many of us are technical experts in our field, but not seasoned presenters. At the very least, practice your presentation in front of a critical audience.
  • Don't believe them when the event organizer says that you will have access to high speed internet. Really. This is from experience. Make sure you have a local or cached copy of everything you want from the web.
  • Dress for success. [Inserted by my wife/editor.]
  • Give out your card and collect as many cards from your audience as you can. Act on these contacts while they're still warm, even if it's just to tell them where they can get an electronic version of your presentation.
  • Get multiple uses from your material. You put so much effort into creating it. Try reformatting it into an article for a magazine that serves your industry. If you then reprint it after it's published, it can be a powerful marketing message for your customers.
  • Don't cram your time too full of material. There is only so much that an audience can absorb in an hour. Limit yourself to three key points, but make sure you give your audience a way to find out more (i.e. your web site or contacting you).
  • Be interactive. Get to know your audience. Try to find out where their interest lies. Ask them questions, e.g. Have any of you faced this situation before?
When you get back to the office

[See above!]

At the end of the day, conferences are all about relationships, oh and maybe a little learning as well.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Who Feels for the Accountant?

Yesterday marked the end of three weeks of grueling cross examination of Gordon Eckstein, the Chief Financial Officer of Livent (short for live entertainment), a company whose founders, Myron Gottlieb and Garth Drabinsky, have been accused of a massive fraud. Their defense? That it had been perpetrated without their knowledge by their accountant.

Eckstein is not innocent. He pleaded guilty to fraud a year ago and is the key witness for the prosecution against his former bosses. He has testified all along that he knew that what he was doing was wrong and made copious notes for the inevitable prosecution. He was quite aware that his bosses would turn around and blame him should the proverbial mud hit the fan. Brian Greenspan, lawyer for the defense, has dismissed Eckstein's testimony as "Nuremberg" (i.e. I was only acting under orders).

Eckstein has withstood attacks on his credibility and his character. He has been accused of being the solo mastermind of this nefarious plot. Viewed from the outside, this smokescreen by the defense is laughable:

  • Gottlieb didn't know about the fraud because he tended to sleep through meetings
  • Gottlieb couldn't have known about the fraud because he didn't sell any of his shares (although the way that the owners removed millions of dollars from the company has been well documented)
  • Gottlieb delegated all of the financial dealings to Eckstein (but somehow got the reputation of being a financial wizard on Bay Street - the home of the Toronto Stock Exchange)
The fact is that the defense was unable to show any way that Eckstein profited personally from being the financial mastermind behind the fraud. If he was such a criminal genius, why did he not keep any of it for himself?

Three weeks of cross examination by one of Toronto's best paid lawyers is a substantial punishment all by itself. The accusations of lying and cheating by themselves are soul destroying. Yet nobody in the courtroom takes the side of a witness to the prosecution. There was nobody to object to this farce on Eckstein's behalf. It sure makes you think twice before becoming a whistle blower or agreeing to testify for the prosecution, doesn't it?

The best thing to do would have been to just walk away the second he was asked to do something he knew was wrong. No matter how high the salary, your life is worth more.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Accounting IT Conference

I have just come home from the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants IT Solutions Conference. What a great conference! Alas, I haven’t learned how to self-virtualize, so I was unable to attend all the sessions, but here are some quotable quotes. Feel free to contribute yours (even if you didn't go to the conference).

Dan Lyons (Fake Steve) a writer for Forbes magazine who started writing a parody blog about Steve Jobs that became extremely popular – “I’m like the host at a dinner party” (context – he was making the point that many of the people who responded to the blog were talking to each other as much as to him. The key to blogging is interaction with your audience.) Also: "The old business models are blowing up. We don't know what the new models will be."

Barry Levine (RSM Richter) "Anything that doesn't contribute to the end goal is waste." While the context was Business Process Improvement, it led me to wonder how often we're unclear about what the end goal really is. Also: "Whatever you think the training budget should be, double it!" And: "Where there is a lot of people there is a lot of risk." I loved his advice that if you really want to change an organization start with a small group of keen people who want to prove they can improve.

Ian Clark (3 Peaks) "The key to a successful project is a QUICK ROI (Return on Investment)." I liked his session because he kept throwing in tips about free software, such as if your company purchases a Microsoft Office license, it includes home use by your employees.

Andrew Pridham (CGI) "We have fallen for the idea of shrink wrapped security." Andrew emphasized the need for people to be awake at the switch if you want good security. And: "Losses due to financial fraud (i.e. phishing) have overtaken viruses." He also poked fun at security consultants, calling them the "business prevention department" because they're always saying no.

Joshua Fireman (ii3) "Tagging is the most exciting development in document management." That's tagging as in Facebook pictures. I kid you not. You might have thought all that time on Facebook was being wasted, but someone was actually observing and learning. If you want to know about document management, contact Joshua. He lives and breathes it.

Catharine Devlin (devlin) I have to give Catharine full marks for interactivity. She was one of the few presenters who kept checking back with the audience to see if they wanted more about each topic. She made a terrific point about using eNewsletters, blogs, podcasts and web sites: "Buy a business card scanner and use it." She said that the business cards people trade at conferences end up in desk drawers where they're no use to anyone. Buy a scanner and make a habit of getting those cards into your contact database ASAP so they get the next copy of your eNewsletter before they forget you.

Microsoft didn't present, but I spent some time with a couple of consultants talking about PerformancePoint. I thought I was pretty up to date on Microsoft products, but I hadn't seen this one. It's actually a suite of products and several sources, e.g. FRxBuzz, have said that it will be replacing FRx, the reporting workhorse for Dynamics GP (Great Plains). A big advantage PerformancePoint offers is that it is based on OLAP cubes, meaning that you can define exactly which dimensions (i.e. fields) you want to include in your analysis. Personally, I like this approach because you can extend your analysis beyond the GL (unlike FRx) without having to expose unsuspecting users to ALL of the tables (unlike Crystal Reports).

Best Tag Line The best company motto I heard at the conference was from David Kilbourn of Blue Ridge Information Group: "We want you out of the office by five" and when he explained what he meant by that, I began to think it just might be possible.

What I loved about this conference was that it was accountants talking to accountants. They stayed away from the buzzwords and I felt that I was talking to people who have the same concerns and priorities as I do. I came away with tons of ideas. Watch this blog for future articles!

Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Sojourner

Last Sunday, a fifty-seven year old woman died of cardiac arrest in a hospital in Ohio. I never met her and didn't even know her name, Karen Gans, until I read the news of her passing, yet she had a profound effect on me and so many others.

I knew her as The Sojourner and she ran a group called ShockProof in SecondLife, an online community. She worked with stroke survivors to help them deal with the trauma they had faced and re-engage with life. SecondLife was perfect for her. Everyone could create the kind of person they wanted to be. There is unlimited potential in the programming tools you get. It didn't matter where you were. As long as you had a computer and high speed internet, you could get to the meetings, without any physical stress.

She was a woman of unlimited creativity. She would teach her people how to build (i.e. program) objects in SecondLife then turn them loose. She had all kinds of contests, like who could build the best tree fort, waterfall, haunted house or Mardi Gras float. She had a sandbox where you could build whatever you wanted. There were always friendly people hanging around Dreams, ready to help a newbie or just have a chat. I met her through one of the Dreams events, a fair where all of the community minded groups could set up a tent and invite others to join them.

I was one of the newbies who hung around Dreams for a while, learning how to function in an online world and meeting the people. Watching Soj, as we called her, in action was inspirational and opened my eyes to what could be accomplished in an online world. After meeting her and learning about Dreams, I wrote the poem at the top of this post. Soj was herself a stroke survivor and it is a testament to her spirit that she was able to transform her own struggle into such an inspiration for others. We all miss you, Soj.

Karen Gans (Derk), age 57, passed away May 25 after an extended illness. Her life revolved around being a loving and loyal wife to Donald and a devoted mother of Andrew. She is also survived by her parents Ernest and Rose Derk, mother-in-law Dorothy Gans, siblings: Theresa Smith, Rosanne, Diane, Dave, and Mike Derk, and a host of uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews, all of whom she dearly loved. She was raised in Perry, Ohio and earned bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees at Kent State University. She worked with stroke patients and multi-handicapped children early in her career and later taught and managed a federal grant at Kent State. Most recently, Karen developed and ran internet support communities for a variety of medical disabilities. She donated her body to the medical school in Rootstown, and a memorial service will be held Saturday, June 7 at 11 am at Saint Cyprian Church, 44223 Middle Ridge Road, Perry, Ohio. (RC 5/28/08)

Labeling Co-Workers

"He is always goofing off."
"She never gets it right."
"He's always late for meetings."

People get labeled: the office clown, the slacker, the flirt. My spider senses start to tingle whenever I hear the words "always" or "never" applied to someone else on the team. It usually indicates that an unsubstantiated accusation is about to follow. As quickly as I can, I steer the conversation into specifics:

  • What actually happened?
  • When was the last time it happened?
  • Is there any documentation?
  • Were other people involved?
  • What behavior do you want the other person to change?
As a young manager, I was put in charge of the accounting department after a downsizing. As part of the restructuring I promoted an older clerk so that a younger one reported to her. What I didn't know was that the two women didn't like each other, to the point that what had once been an uneasy truce turned into open warfare. I tried to solve the situation by working it out with both women in the same room. Big mistake! First there was a stony silence, then the accusations started to fly. I ended the meeting and sent the combatants back to their corners. In desperation, I appealed to my father for help. His advice was, "there are some problems you just can't solve." The problem eventually solved itself when the younger clerk quit.

What did I do wrong?

As I look back at the situation, I let it escalate to the point where neither party was willing to negotiate. If I had to do it again, I would talk to the people individually. I would get them to stop using labels and be specific by continually asking for more details. Instead of "that old [censored] is so controlling, she won't let me do my job", I would encourage something like "when I proposed we move to issuing payments once a week, I didn't get any response". Instead of "that young [censored] never gets anything right", I would want to hear "the last two times she reconciled accounts payable to the general ledger she left an unexplained difference." They might never have become friends, but maybe we could have preserved the uneasy truce.

Another place where you see labels is the press. The article's title was Lost boys: Are we raising a generation of Peter Pans? and it was based on the research of Dr. Leonard Sax. Dr. Sax identified five reasons why young men seem to lack motivation:
  • Video games. These addictive activities disengage boys from the world. Some young men even seem to prefer online porno to the prospect of sex with another human being.
  • Teaching methods. Girls develop intellectually up to two years ahead of boys. Boys in grade school are naturally rambunctious. They need ways to express their native energy. They are being taught to read and write too early. Their mostly female teachers prefer compliant, dutiful girls.
  • Prescription drugs. Hyperactive, frustrated boys are increasingly being medicated. This we all know. What Sax claims is that these drugs shrink the motivational centres of the brain and that the effect of this lasts years, well after these kids stop taking their meds. I hadn't heard this before but if it's true, it is truly frightening.
  • Endocrine disruptors. Chemicals from plastic bottles, canned food linings and some shampoos mimic natural estrogen, the female hormone. Boys' testosterone levels are half of what they were in their grandfathers' day. Also, their bones are significantly more brittle.
  • The devaluation of masculinity. Boys don't know how to become men. They no longer have appropriate rights of passage. Once Father Knows Best was the paternalistic model but now he has been replaced (and mocked) by a dopey Homer Simpson. Sax likes the old virtues of courage and temperance, with a good measure of intelligence.
These are all observations based on study. They are unbiased and objective. The writer of the article, however, leaps from these observations to the emotionally loaded label, Peter Pan. Let's say you read the above article and have a young man in your department who seems to fit the mold. Use the information, but resist the label. Your job is to help one person, not save a whole generation.

In my experience, when people behave irrationally, the reason is probably emotional. Viewed through their eyes, their behavior makes sense. As a manager, your job is to understand the situation as your team member sees it, even though you may disagree with him or her. As Stephen Covey says, "Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood."
  • The person who keeps making mistakes may feel they're stupid. Try walking them through the procedure and getting them to make their own notes instead of following material prepared by others. That will help you understand where the problem lies.
  • The person with no ambition may feel there is no hope of promotion. When reviewing their performance, try to give them a sense of where they could progress to from here.
  • The person who can't meet deadlines may feel overwhelmed. Help them learn to prioritize and to work with their supervisor when they have too much on their plate.
When your team feels understood, then you have the opportunity to show them your view, and you're well on your way to re-energizing the department.