Erin Freeburger, Simply XML
Reprinted with permission from Simply XML

At last month’s the Best Practices 2012 Conference, a small group led a thought-provoking session called “Influencing the Software Vendor’s Development Roadmap”. We’ve included a few key points and a few thoughts of our own on how vendors and customers can communicate and work together more effectively.

1. Do your homework before you come to the table
If you are not sure if you want a mobile home in Alabama, a high rise in New York, or a ranch in Wyoming, a vendor can’t quote the price of a house. We’ve seen many 100+ page RFPs, where the client requests fixed pricing and time frames, yet they aren’t able to define their information architecture, workflow, or other basic tenets of authoring and publishing. By understanding your own needs for metadata, publishing, legacy import, and more, vendors will be able to have more detailed, articulate conversations about exact time frames and prices to meet your needs. If you are stuck trying to figure this out, there are many reputable consultants that can help.

2. Be flexible about the solution
Explain your problem with the functionality and results you are trying to achieve, rather than proposing a technically specific features list. Albert Einstein had a wise view on solving problems. He said, “If I had sixty minutes to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.” By articulating your situation and defining clear use-case scenarios you open up the possibility of a solution that may be even better or faster, or cheaper than if you had just specified an explicit feature.

3. Work as a team
Following up on #2, it is important to know that you and the vendor are on the same team. Once you feel comfortable that you are working with a trustworthy, competent vendor, keep the lines of communication open. Talk early and often! Also, expect some pushback. Good vendors do not do this to be mean. We are often trying to help you see the implications and true cost/benefit of your suggestion. And the cost may not just be in direct dollars. We always try to consider ease of use, training time, cost of potential mistakes, future support costs and other costs.

4. Prioritize the list
Once you have done your homework and described some use cases, it is time to look at your list. Go through each item you have deemed necessary to your solution, and prioritize by wants vs. needs. This is not always easy, and group consensus can make this nearly impossible, but it is crucial. Nolwenn Kerzreho from Componize emphasized this point in a recent conference. “Once you have separated the must-haves from the nice-to-haves, take a second look at the must-haves, and prioritize by time. Decide what do you need now, what’s next, and what can wait until next year. At some point, you have to take the leap and just get started,” said Nolwenn. Remember, any customized product will take time to build, and if you don’t map a preferred plan for feature releases, the vendor will be forced to do it for you.

5. Speak up
“Just because it’s not on the menu, doesn’t mean you can’t ask for it,” said Paul Wlodarczyk of EasyDITA. Vendors are continuously working on their next releases. What you are asking for may already be on the list of what is in the next version. And if not, vendors respond well to similar needs from multiple customers, so by asking, you are contributing to the user community’s voice overall and can potentially bump up the desired capability higher up on the list. Like they say, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Your Turn
Vendors, what did we miss? Customers, any tips on how vendors should be talking to you? Join the discussion on LinkedIn.