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by Gordon Graham, Editor, SoftwareCEO
This time we bring you a free SEO checker that creates a detailed report on your website.
Hate paying legal bills for lawsuits? Join a Canadian initiative to prevent lawsuits, or minimize their fallout.
A new survey on tech support turns up an intriguing lack of consensus, plus tips on re-thinking support for better profit.
And now you can study online courses from Stanford free... plus check out some seriously funny cartoons about programming.
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Prevent lawsuits; save money, time, and customers
Those Canadians, they're so nice. And you know what? Being "nice" can save your firm millions of dollars.
Ask any software CEO which bill they most hate to pay... and many will say their legal bill. And it can be a whopper.
The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) took a survey at the end of 2007 that turned up some amazing numbers. Out of 90 companies surveyed, two-thirds had suffered more than one lawsuit in the past three years.
The average lawsuit cost them $17 million in legal fees. And four our of five vendors lost the customer involved.
Talk about a lose-lose, for everyone but the lawyers.
Now there's some light on the horizon. A new conflict management guide is being drawn up by CATA that offers practical, innovative ideas on how to avoid costly legal wrangling.
Here are some tips from the draft guide.
Lessening litigation tip #1: Conflict is inevitable, so learn how to deal with it
"Most business people have been educated in the use of accounting tools, technologies, and analytical tools, but few about the use of sophisticated methods for dealing with conflicts," says the guide.
Talk about a lose-lose, for everyone but the lawyers.
So whenever we get tangled up in a conflict — with an employee, a supplier, or a vendor — most of us resort to the same old "boringly predictable" process.
These traditional steps include demands, negotiation, claim, defense, mandatory mediation, discovery, pre-trial, trial, and then appeals. But these just intensify and worsen any conflict.
"What could have started out a small issue mushrooms into a broadly based dispute as the parties jockey for position by creating issues which can be used as bargaining chips."
Instead, the CATA guide proposes taking different steps to "start early, solve it sooner, reduce the costs, and limit the acrimony."
And these steps can be learned by managers and taught to employees. And the payoff can be huge. Read on.
Lessening litigation tip #2: Don't buy into the mindset of warfare
"The language is business is war-like," says the guide.
"It is predicated on winning and losing, defeating, crushing, annihilating, and overwhelming. All of these terms are focused on the competitive rather than the collaborative aspect of dispute resolution."
And this black-and-white thinking hinges on "the admission of guilt or error, and the exposure to liability as a result of such admission."
How does this posturing help anything get solved?
"This is the nature of the business world," says CATA president John Reid. "We tend to be pretty litigious, and to engage in conflict without thinking about the ripple effect, as well as the dollars involved.
"It can be a significant drain on resources, and it can damage relationships. So maybe we can encourage people to use some common sense instead."
Do you really want to go to war with a client, or supplier, or even a former employee? Don't we all have better things to do with our time and our money?
Do you really want to go to war with a client, or supplier, or even a former employee? Lessening litigation tip #3: Don't expect the same people who caused the problem to solve it; but don't expect anyone else to care
Big companies operate differently from small companies.
"In the case of a small company, it is frequently impossible for the author or participant to distance themselves from the issue," says the guide.
"Within larger corporations, at the very outset of a dispute, it may be farmed out to another division which has no investment in a prompt or productive resolution."
In other words, one size does not fit all.
It's important to "depersonalize" the conflict to lessen the emotions, yet stay focused on solving it promptly.
A low-level legal aide or purchasing person may not realize how much is at stake. They can unwittingly drag out or worsen the dispute because they are not personally involved.
Lessening litigation tip #4: Set up alternative ways to deal with conflicts during the "courtship" stage
Here's the meat of this idea: the alternate steps you can set up to prevent and lessen lawsuits from the get-go.
While these are too long to discuss in detail here, they form a full menu of options, including:
- A defined dispute resolution process
- Rules for negotiation
- Voluntary information exchange
- Internal escalation
- An ombudsman
- A trusted third-party referee
- Joint fact-finding
- Neutral experts
- Non-binding arbitration
- A mini-trial
- Binding arbitration
And the time to agree on all these steps is BEFORE you get into hot water.
The guide provides suggested wording for contracts "that embodies a strong commitment to a different way of resolving disputes. Typically, these provisions can be created and inserted while the partied are in the 'courtship' phases of contract negotiations."
It can even help your sales pitch if you frame this properly. How many other vendors have the maturity, the foresight, and the concern for a smooth relationship to suggest such things?
Lessening litigation tip #5: Join this movement towards better ways to solve problems
You can request a copy of the 18-page guide from CATA by calling (613) 236-6550 or e-mailing reid-at-cata.ca. A forum is being established to discuss these ideas; you can request access to it as well.
CATA intends to promote these ideas far outside the Canadian borders, since they apply everywhere.
"This is not just Canadian, you can't be an island onto yourself," says Reid. "We understand these practices are global in nature, so we'd like to see this embodied in governance around the world."
To that end, he says CATA is working with some of the best-practice associations in the U.S. to further these ideas. And watch for other technology associations to pick up on these ideas.
Re-think tech support for better service, more profits
A new survey on tech support turns up a surprising lack of consensus among software firms.
"Trends in Fee-Based Support" just came out from the Association of Support Professionals, based on interviews with 141 companies, most of them software firms.
The key finding: Even though maintenance is a major revenue stream for most software firms, there's no clear industry standard for how to deliver it.
"It's a myth that most companies have adopted a standard bronze-silver-gold model for their support plans," says ASP executive director Jeff Tarter.
"In reality, there's a wide range of business models for delivering support, and some of these models seem to be much more successful than others in terms of customer satisfaction and revenue generation."
The report describes six different models, as shown below.
One standard plan *
Basic, plus add-ons for a fee *
SaaS or managed services
* could be counted together as 30 percent
The report describes each model, with trends and tips on how to optimize it for best results.
And here's a few more tips from a quick chat with Tarter.
Tweaking support plans tip #1: Either it's free or it isn't
"I find that even if a firm doesn't have a formal plan to give away support for free, the sales guys do," says Tarter. "That's really an issue.
"And the typical CEO reaction is, 'Gee, look at all the money we're giving away here.' But the sales guys have a different perspective; they see it as essential to give it away to sell any licenses."
You may need to clarify your firm's position: Either you give away support, or don't. Don't let it be a bargaining chip for your sales force to toss in on a whim.
Tweaking support plans tip #2: Don't start charging for what you used to provide free
Who wants to pay for something they used to get free? Especially when they were promised "free support forever"?!
Either you give away support, or don't. Don't let it be a bargaining chip...
"I find one of the biggest problems people have when they start moving away from free support is that they just take the crappy support they were giving away free and say, 'Now you're going to pay for it.'
"And in terms of buyer psychology, that's a lost cause," says Tarter.
It's more effective to reduce the costs of providing your current level of support, and then tack on premium services you can charge extra for.
(In other words, move from the "mostly free" model to the "basic, plus add-ons.")
For instance, beef up your self-service options. Open your knowledge base — which you already have — to all your users. Set up a community where users can help one another with common issues.
And always spell out the specifics of what's free and who's covered, and what's not and who isn't.
"Even if it's free, customers resent terrible support... It's best to deliver limited, but great support, rather than unlimited, crappy support," notes the report.
Tweaking support plans tip #3: To really cash in, develop premium services
"The real money is in premium services, professional services, training, assessments, tune-ups, customizations," says Tarter.
Hint: Look at these while your code is compiling.
"So basically, step one is to go in and ask customers what they you really wish you did. Nine times out of 10, they'll start telling you they've got some real pain issue, and they sure wish you could design reports for them, or provide some data, or do what to you seems like some simple little thing."
And this simple little thing usually goes beyond what your support team is supposed to be doing.
For instance, a support rep can tell a customer how to design a report in generic terms, but they can't really take 45 minutes to go through field-by-field while the customer steps through the process, inserts their company logo, and does five test prints.
But you can likely bill for that time as a premium service.
If you're in charge of support for your software firm, you really need to see this 13-page report. SoftwareCEO readers can download the report for no cost from this page (registration required).
Study computer science at Stanford... anywhere, anytime
Would you love to attend Stanford? Only you don't have the time, the money, or you're in the wrong part of the world to get to classes in Silicon Valley?
Now you can access some of the university's most popular courses in computer science and AI online, anytime, anywhere, free.
Check out the listings for the first 10 courses here.
You can get video lectures from Youtube, iTunes, or through torrents. You can download zip files with course handouts and tests.
Of course, you don't get direct contact with the professors, or any credit from Stanford. But the price is right.
And if you want to feel more like you're on campus, you can always look at the slideshow tours on this page.
More LOLs for programmers
Even if you're not a programmer yourself, we can't resist telling you about this site packed with programmer cartoons. And you can submit your own cartoons, and vote them up or down.
There are some Dilbert gems here, and links that lead to many web comics where you go through archived editions. Hint: Look at these while your code is compiling. ;-)
Called Stack Overflow, the site also has a serious side.
It's intended to be collaborative Q&A site for programmers, regardless of platform or language. You don't need to register or create an account to participate. And one of the people behind it is author/developer Joel Spolsky, a leading light of the developer community.
You can also access podcasts of Spolsky and Jeff Atwood discussing how the site was built, covering various technical design decisions, and riffing on programming in general.