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Fat Guy in Salesforce hell

September 27, 2007

From time to time in the blogosphere (ie, 24/7, including holidays), you'll find people like me bloviating about the Big Picture. Recently, for instance, I've written a series of posts about how business software is changing as applications come to be delivered over the Net. Now, the Big Picture is important. A lot of folks have been hosed by their failure, or refusal, to see the Big Picture. But the problem with the Big Picture is that it's necessarily simplified and idealized. No one actually lives in the Big Picture. People live in the Little Pictures of their own lives, which are ruled much more by Murphy's Law than by Moore's Law. And just as there are dangers in failing to see the Big Picture, there are dangers in failing to see the Little Pictures. Sometimes, it's good to be brought down to earth.

Enter the Fat Guy. Scott Chaffin, a small-business owner down in Texas who writes the Fat Guy blog, recently let loose with what he later described to me as "a boozy rant after a long old week." A post I had written about Salesforce.com and its success in pioneering the software-as-a-service model had stuck in his craw because, as a Salesforce subscriber himself, Chaffin had been struggling with what he views as a lapse in the system. Apparently, there was recently a break in subscribers' ability to sync data automatically between Microsoft Outlook and Salesforce, a problem described in this discussion thread on Salesforce's community site. For some of the small-business owners who rely heavily on Outlook but also use Salesforce, this has been more than a nuisance, as Chaffin colorfully describes:

Until something better comes along, Outlook is the one and only calendaring, contacting, to-doing, and emailing application. I cannot stand Outlook, but there it is. It’s there, where it is, because it syncs with my Palm Treo. My boon companion. Only leaves my side when I lay my fat head down to sleep. I re-charge, it re-charges. Simple enough, right? So that’s two devices that must talk to each other, and hey, lucky old me, I found a third that works into that simple little network of thingies, and that’s the CardScan machine, which simply scans business cards, for the low price of about $200. This is vital, as I will be at a trade-show next week doing about 20 different, isolated meetings, with about 50-60 different people, and I have zero desire to spend a day typing those into Outlook by hand ...

I chose to spend a significant sum and network with SalesForce, which once did sync with Outlook quite loverly, but has decided not to anymore. Oh, they’ll tell you they sync. Problem is, you have to go to SFDC (their cute shorthand) and enter everything in by hand first and then they’ll send everything to your Outlook database, which can then be sent to your Treo. As noted, I have zero desire to spend a day typing those into ANY FUCKING THING by hand ...

Point is, I’ve been doing exactly the above since at least 1999. It gripes my ass to no end to have Salesforce come along and say to me that “Hey dude, you just spent major bucks with us and you identified syncing as a MAJOR MUST-HAVE to make the choice to spend those bucks, so we’re going to cripple our software and make you do everything on our website first before you can do anything else.” Well, I’ve been doing this a lot longer than Salesforce has, and frankly, I’m not going to stop entering contacts into my Palm on the plane, and entering contacts into my Outlook at home, and scanning 100 business cards in one hour at the office, and then SYNCHRONIZING them all between each other seamlessly and easily with no loss of data — just so I can get a Web 2.0 drag-and-drop Ajaxed interface into mail-merge. You ain’t that good, daddy-o.

Chaffin's experience, and annoyance, has a couple of broader implications - maybe even some Big Picture implications. First, the people who own small businesses - and who have recently become a big target for many large software companies - have often hacked together their IT "systems" by hand with the tools that have been available and affordable to them. These systems may not be elegant, but they work, and the best way to alienate these people is to force them to grapple with a time-consuming workaround to adapt to some new product or service (unlike large-business managers, they can't dump the crap work into someone else's lap).

Second, don't underestimate the lock-in power that programs like Outlook and Excel and Quickbooks and Peachtree and their associated files still hold, particularly in smaller businesses. Someday we may have standard document formats and easily transportable data, but we don't yet. The competitive battle for the future of software is going to be fought out at the level of the Little Picture as much as at the level of the Big Picture. Lose sight of either one, and you'll be in trouble. In other words: It ain't over till the Fat Guy rants.

Comments

Finally, a post that makes sense, and is not so much science fiction!

thanks!

Posted by: dubdub [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 27, 2007 01:36 PM

The fat guy HAS ranted, and it's all over for companies who cripple their customers and waste their time.

The times are changing fast. It's all about synching, and the poor guy should dump his Treo and get a BlackBerry or even an iPhone, and use their add-ons and Google's services.

Posted by: Norm Potter [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 27, 2007 04:44 PM

User Experience is the big picture, the little picture, the alpha, and the omega. If you screw it up, even SaaS and Marc Benioff can't save you:

http://smoothspan.wordpress.com/2007/09/27/user-experience-is-the-most-important-thing-its-the-only-thing/

Cheers,

BW

Posted by: BobWarfield [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 27, 2007 06:20 PM

Open source development practices and economic patterns excell at nailing lots of "little pictures" because labor can be deployed close to the site of end-customer need.

What if Fat Guy could spend $500 or $1000 to have some third party modify the server-side CRM app to restore sync functionality? And if Fat Guy and that third party could then resell or even simply share those changes?

Some trends, like SoaS, are pretty clear and even have Big Incumbants already. Still, I think the business models that define how these things are maintained, administered, and extended -- those models are still a jump ball.

-t

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 27, 2007 07:40 PM

I'm not sure I'm familiar with Fat Guy himself, but I've got a couple of uncles pretty close to that: Outlook was the last cool thing they've used, maybe a scanned--until Linked-In. I'd rather have a link to the guy I met then his address at the time I met him.

Web2 is probably overblown, but it sounds like the end of cripleware--not that I even used any of those. Actually someone tried once. Bad idea.

Posted by: Bertil [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 27, 2007 11:04 PM

Thanks for highlighting my dilemna, Nick.

Bertil, I can assure you that Outlook is not the last cool thing I used. I'd love to get all my crap online and webbified. However, when I'm out at a drilling site or an Air Force base, and the closest cell tower (never mind broadband) is 50 miles away, what then? How do I manage my business, if it's all online? It's impossible to do that. I defy you to do that.

I think all you folks who never leave major metro areas with lots of net options don't truly understand the utter necessity of information at your fingertips. Like it or not, there's still billions in business that gets transacted a long way from even the luxury of dial-up. That's mostly my problem, of course, and that's why I stick to systems I've made work over the years. And why I'm still, in 2007, leery of the networked Nirvana, however much I wish it were so.

PS I would be thrilled to spend $1000 on something that APIs into my stuff, OSS or not. I've already tried it, of course, not OSS, but now it's broken. Experience tells me that such a thing would have been just as broken, sooner or later, and my genius programmer would be writing Facebook apps and too busy to fix my API.

Posted by: Scott [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 28, 2007 01:22 AM

Intuit was one of my clients, and whenever I visited them, I was impressed to see they had case studies of their small business clients (much like Scott) plastered on their walls, with a detailed description of how they work and even photos of their workspace. Somehow I doubt you will see that at Salesforce.com.

Outlook is not a roach motel for data - it's actually fairly easy to write plug-ins to get the data in and out (I wrote my Outlook to Apple OS X Address Book export myself, despite minimal Windows programming expertise). Heck, even virus writers manage to do it. That makes Salesforce's attitude all the more inexcusable. Outlook will remain a hub for the near to medium term future, but it doesn't have to be the only, or even the primary hub for synchronization.

Posted by: Fazal Majid [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 28, 2007 03:21 AM

Chaffin's experience highlights another problem with the SaaS model - upgrade control, or more accurately, the lack thereof.

With regular enterprise/desktop software, the user (or more often, the company's IT department) can trial a new version and decide whether to upgrade to it or not - and if there are interoperability issues with other products, the upgrade may well not happen. For those packages which are licensed at the time of upgrade, the revenue implications of this will help keep the provider honest.

By comparison, with SaaS, all users are at the mercy of the product management decisions of the provider.

Posted by: Timh [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 28, 2007 04:21 AM

One other downside to SaaS that I don't think any commentors have mentioned: lack of control over your upgrade cycle.

If Fat Guy had purchased (and installed) SalesForce, and they offered a new upgrade that as a "feature" got rid of Outlook syncing, he could have politely declined the upgrade.

But, with software as a service, the user rarely has that choice. Software gets upgraded when the provider wants. Usually, this is a good thing (the user is spared the hassle of performing the upgrade). But there can be unintended side effects, like those that Fat Guy experienced.

Posted by: Dan Ciruli [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 28, 2007 06:42 PM

@Dan/@Timh -- great point (worth reading twice :) ) that indeed I didn't think about too much until I recently got nibbled in the a** by a payroll service upgrade (only a minor problem, worth mentioning only as an example of what you are talking about).

It could be that SaaS results in even more bloated, less-responsive software, as vendors are forced to maintain backward compatibility, or maintain/support several versions of the same product on their cloud.

The true costs of this model may not be apparent yet. All I can say is if you own/run a business, keep your options open!

Posted by: dubdub [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 08:54 PM

Wow! Fat Guy sounds like mad guy. But this is not unusual. Where I work we spend every day solving problems for people like Fat Guy; people that are trying to do business and could care less about the technology they use to get that done. They get balance sheets, inventory and payroll and could care less about .NET, Java or XML.
The problem is most technology companies miss that. They fail to realize the reason they are in business is not for the sake of creating the next Microsoft killer or the next Oracle slayer, they are in business to serve their customers. It’s not our fault; we were bought up in a society that thinks technology is cool. Blame it on John F. Kennedy I guess. Math and Science, not Accounting and Economics.
At Pervasive we build integration tools. A lot of times we are involved with ISV’s or SI’s that are also caught in the technology trap. It is our customers, like Fat Guy, that are the ones who suffer. Recently we started building some solutions that are not about technology, but about business solutions. I have never been more proud of our team.
Hopefully Fat Guy finds a solution to his problem, and hopefully more Fat Guys will speak out and more technology vendors will change their approach and focus more on Fat Guy’s problem. Technology is cool, but technology that works is even better!

Posted by: Bill Jacaruso [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 11, 2007 06:40 PM

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