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“High-tech/high-touch. This principle symbolizes the need for balance between our physical and spiritual realities.”
John Naisbitt, MegaTrends,1982
Our LinkedIn world provides many “high-tech” ways of exchanging ideas and gathering industry knowledge. But 28 years before Facebook, futurist John Naisbitt brilliantly anticipated that more virtual interaction would need to be offset by greater “high-touch” personal contact.
It’s no surprise then that private user conferences sponsored by software firms have become a great way to put a handshake to a Google+ profile.
I just returned from two well-organized user conferences. One was a U.S. event put on by Razorsight in Washington DC and the second was a global conference sponsored by WeDo Technologies and held in Portugal. So with the lessons of these events fresh in mind, here are some tips on how users and software vendors can best leverage these events.
Because a user conference is highly targeted at customers and prospects, it’s one of the most cost effective and personal ways for a software vendor to spread positive industry buzz and pave the way for sales. It also becomes a great way to please the vendor’s consulting and other partners who present in sessions at the event.
WeDo pulled out all stops. The venue in Portugal was a 5-star beach-side hotel surrounded by a golf course. Users who hailed from operators in 40 countries paid for their own air fare, but WeDo picked up all costs once they arrived in Portugal. WeDo even had a branded welcoming booth in the Lisbon airport to greet users and get them on vans for the one-hour ride to the hotel.
Razorsight spent much less money, but still pulled off a good conference. Of particular note was its skill in including partners such as IBM and GCS in the event.
If you’re planning to buy new RA or fraud management software solution, attending a user group meeting is a great way to see your potential software supplier in action. And if you’re negotiating a new purchase from the firm, they can hardly refuse your request to attend.
For the prospective customer, the beauty of an event like this is that you can informally meet customers and discuss the pros and cons of working with the supplier.
And customer loyalty being the way it is in our industry, even current customers need to be periodically reassured that their software supplier is financially stable, has a good product roadmap, and continues to attract quality customers. The user event is an excellent way to evaluate these virtues.
For the software vendor, of course, the risks are high. It’s akin to getting a full body scan from airport security. The software vendor opens itself up to either criticism or praise depending on how well it organized the event and satisfied user needs.
I would have loved to have been the printing shop that supported the WeDo conference. WeDo’s branded banners, signage, postcards and welcome bags were displayed everywhere around the hotel and it was tastefully done. With all the orange and black colors you would have thought a Halloween party was going on.
OK, so why is handling these details so important? Because they point to a software vendor’s ability to execute. Did they anticipate my needs at the conference? If they made a mistake, did they recover quickly? All of these are indicators of the kind of service you are likely to get as a customer.
For the software vendor, it’s always tempting to get the salespeople actively involved at user events. But if salespeople play too active a role, the user event will suffer. Five years ago a software user event I attended turned into a circus because two-thirds of the people attending were the vendor’s salespeople and partners. The vendor also played loud music during coffee breaks and cocktail hours — a great way to muzzle user-to-user conversations.
Spending too much time soliciting user feedback or discussing company roadmaps is another downer for most users. Feedback is better handled via a well-designed survey instrument after the event.
Telecom software can be a pretty mundane subject. That’s why it’s important to get people smiling and laughing early and often. On the first day, Razorsight accomplished this by planting a few hundred dollar bills and asked people to stand up and see if there happened to be any Benjamin Franklins under their chairs. In the evening, it hosted a popular “casino night” cruise on the Potomac River.
WeDo hired TMForum’s Tony Poulos to act as its master of ceremonies. Tony was the perfect choice because he’s a great stand-up entertainer and industry expert in one package. An ability to fill both roles came in handy during a panel discussion where Tony served as both moderator and active participant.
Before the event takes place, it’s wise for the software vendor to court its users much like a lover sends his beloved flowers and chocolates. Remember: a good 80% of the people invited will not actually attend, yet with good upfront promotion, the brand is enhanced for these people at a fraction of the cost it would require to have them actually attend.
If the event costs $100,000 to pull off, spending $5,000 in pre-event promotion is well worth the investment. And this can come in the form of formal invitations, postcards, event calendars, brochures, even surveys.
WeDo had its event covered with a crew of video pros and photographers. These guys not only recorded the sessions but filmed users as they attended informal events such as the tour of the local medieval castle and town.
The effect of having photographers gave the happy illusion that we were all getting awards at Cannes. Likewise, the spotlight glitter and cameras made the customers who gave presentations look like industry stars. Another key benefit for the vendor sponsor, of course, is the ability to use videos as sales props after the event.
Vendors have different goals when it comes to the conference program at these events. Razorsight had it easier for the simple reason that almost everyone attending was from North America, a common culture and market. The conference program was much harder for WeDo to pull off because the people attending were from all over the world and all had different English accents.
I’ve attended user conferences where the vendor only selected speakers who would say great things about the vendor’s software. Users see through this bias pretty easily.
Often the best speakers come from outside the telecom industry. Razorsight invited a retired Marine Corps general, a former commander of U.S. forces in the Iraq Desert Storm campaign. The general gave an inspirational talk about leadership, whose message was subtle, powerful and relevant to anybody in the room who manages people.
Likewise, other subjects off the software management path also get good reviews at user conferences. On the first training day, WeDo gave a talk explaining many of the fraud and security dangers that LTE networks will eventually bring to telecom. It’s was a highly interesting session that informed many minds in the room.
In addition to the formal presentations, surveys and roundtable discussions are effective at getting people involved and promote professional learning at the same time.
When I was in the U.S. Navy, we used talk about the 6 P’s -- Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. The 6 P’s lesson applies equally to user conferences. Users who want to meet other users should get a list of people likely to attend the event. With that list you can begin to explore LinkedIn to check their bios. At the welcome dinner, if you would like to sit near people from a certain operator, you can let the organizer know in advance.
Bring a stack of business cards, but remember that it’s not the number of cards you exchange, but the relatively few quality interactions you have. These are the people you are most likely to share professional advice with for a long time to come.
Business assurance is a small enough niche in telecom that private user events will probably grow in the sector. “High touch” private events are the perfect complement to “high tech” social media. So plan for your next event wisely.
Copyright 2012 Black Swan Telecom Journal