A few months back my company FireLogic had to work on perhaps one of the oldest combinations of hardware and software in recent memory. And by “work on” I’m not referring to merely regular maintenance support. This was akin to more of a disaster waiting to happen. This particular customer had asked us to perform a time-sensitive migration for a nearly 20 yr old invoicing/database program that was not supported by its vendor for nearly 10 years (a vendor which has already gone through one buy-out, to boot). A ticking time-bomb right?
Luckily, we were able to migrate the customer off their archaic platform running on a Windows 98 home desktop to a new server with a support warranty running a modern Windows OS. We also managed to move their invoicing system to industry-standard Quickbooks software which also has full support from its maker. A major disaster on this crippled Windows 98 “server” was avoided, and the customer is happier than ever. Stories like this are abound in the world of technology consulting, so this customer is not alone by any means. And for the curious readers, we were only called in recently by the above customer to handle their IT needs – I wouldn’t be caught dead pushing a Windows 98 server into 2012 and beyond.
Keeping old software & hardware running is great for keeping a customer’s replacement costs down, but there has to be a fine balance that technicians like ourselves need to be mindful of. Industry magazine Redmond recently ran an excellent article that presents both sides of the argument about software obsolescence titled “Keeping Dead Products Alive: Tips for Supporting Legacy Software.” The article highlights feedback from both sides of the aisle, with many of the technicians quoted as having frustration with the vendors’ products they have to support. A few took sides with the vendors, understanding that software support cannot be eternal for practical means.
While I’m on the fence with where I stand in the debate, I do know that however you feel, your customers still depend on you for sound and solid understanding for how to handle the idea of lifecycles for the items you support. Depending on the customer and their needs, you need to determine how to handle lfecycles so you don’t lead them into situations more dire than the one I experienced above.
Here are some tips for formulating your own customer-centric policies on lifecycles:
First and foremost, understand your customers’ needs
Every technician can have his/her own professional opinion, but remember who you are ultimately serving. Customers depend on you for experienced input but generally need to make their own decisions on the products that go into their homes and offices. If the customer doesn’t have full buy-in for the items they will be using, the onus will be quickly placed back on YOU when things go awry. If a customer wants to go against your professional opinion on when a piece of technology should be replaced, respectfully disagree and move on. As long as they are aware of the choices and consequences, they are making their own informed decision.
DON’T formulate lifecycle opinions solely upon what vendors say
Vendors have agendas too. I’m not calling them evil in any way, but I’m merely telling the truth here. Products don’t sell themselves, and marketing budgets these days are big. There is always an ounce of truth to what vendors tell you about their products, but as the technician representing your customers, it’s up to you to decipher the fact from fiction. If you’re pushing customers to upgrade desktops merely based around, for example, Intel’s claims about increased processor efficiency, you may have customer opinion backfire when perceived benefit falls short of what they were expecting. This goes for software too.
DON’T base your professional opinion solely along partner program lines
Partner programs from vendors are a nice way to keep margins high, but they shouldn’t dictate what you’re recommending to clients 100% of the time. No two situations are the same and you need to determine whether or not a product will fit into a customer’s scenario. Technicians pushing product solely because they are awaiting a fat commission check are easy to detect and will ultimately be punished by word of mouth when product proposals fall short on customer needs.
DO the research your customers depend on you for
ROI. Cost/benefit analysis. We can go on and on, but the key thing to remember here is that as the trained professional, customers depend on you to do the research which they may or may not be able to handle on their own. The tech world has its own veil of secrecy when it comes to marketing gimmicks and actual vs theoretical benefits, and computer technicians need to be keen to consider all possible options for clients and base judgement in that lens. How long will a new product be supported? How much usable life does a customer’s current server or software platform have? These are the questions you should be asking and answering when sitting down with customers.
Offer alternatives when necessary
The economy is improving slowly, but tight budgets are still abound for residential and business clients. While your ideal vision for a lifecycle plan may be keen on technical accuracy, economically it may be a different story. Don’t stick to your guns when a customer rejects your proposal. Take any rejection as a chance to counter with a hybrid or alternative plan of attack that takes into account lower costs or other differentiating factors.
Being dynamic in times of economic uncertainty are a big plus – customers will remember when you came back to them with a reduced proposal that still met a majority of their needs and kept them running smoothly. Don’t forget that your long term relationship with a customer should be the foremost item of interest and NOT just short term profits.
As technicians, we need to remember that customers’ needs and our opinions on their technology usage may not always match. But a best effort to mend the void between reality and economics should be in everyone’s best interest for the sake of keeping and gaining long term customers. Vendors have their stances on lifecycles, as do technicians, and likewise with customers. That fine balance between the three comes down to the trusted professional in most situations, and I’m referring to none other than yourself.
If you have any tips about how you manage lifecycles for customers, feel free to post them in the comments section below. The rest of us would love to hear your insight.