While your shiny new cloud-based app may be elegant and user-friendly, businesses often prefer to stick with the familiar.
Have you created an outstanding app for an industry or vertical market that will allow organisations to dispense with the messy mass of spreadsheets they’ve relied on to run their operations up until now? Telling the target market that this is the reason for purchasing whatever it is they’re selling is a popular marketing strategy for software entrepreneurs who are trying to build critical mass for their cloud-based programs and platforms.
From someone who’s tried it, I’d like to say good luck with that.
Because, despite the armies of high-tech trash talkers who continue to draw attention to its shortcomings (“clunky”, “manual”, “can’t be used to collaborate remotely” — yes, we all know the spiel), the Excel spreadsheet remains an indispensable tool for millions of enterprises of all stripes and sizes, here in Australia and around the world. Given Microsoft continues to invest heavily in optimising the functionality of Office 365, of which Excel is an integral part, I can’t see that changing any time soon.
The killer consumer app trap
This may come as a surprise to developers who’ve come of age in the “there’s an app for that” era, also known as the 2010s. The emergence of the cloud computing model, coupled with the rise of the smartphone — now owned by an estimated 86 per cent of the Australian population, according to Statista — triggered an extraordinary surge of software development activity and the launch of thousands of apps aimed at the consumer market.
Almost all of them promised to save users time, money or trouble by ameliorating or eliminating so-called pain points.
Those that succeeded — here’s looking at you Uber, Airbnb, et al! — did so by delivering compelling value propositions and user experiences so intuitive and straightforward that even the most diehard of laggards and technophobes had no issues downloading and navigating them.
Horses for courses
Little surprise then that developers whose apps are aimed at the corporate market should use similar selling points — elegance, interoperability and ease of use — to spruik their offerings. The trouble is the business-to-consumer (“B2C”) marketing playbook doesn’t necessarily generate the same sort of traction over in business-to-business (“B2B”) land.
Yes, business users are pleased enough if the software is user-friendly. They may also be interested if a solution appears to simplify processes. But those factors alone won’t necessarily be sufficient to secure you a sale. And nor will the suggestion that whatever’s on offer will allow them to say adieu to the spreadsheets that, in many cases, have supported their fundamental business processes and functions — think workflow, database gathering, financial analysis, treasury modelling, KPI reporting and more — for close to 40 years.
Au contraire. The “allows you to scrap Excel” argument is actually a barrier to adoption for many customers; those whose users are open to efficiencies but have little appetite for learning something entirely new.
For them, it’s easier — and far less risky — to stick with what’s already working, suboptimal though it may be.
Working with what they have
At Forbury, we learned this lesson the hard way back in 2014. As a start-up shooting for the stars, we developed and marketed our Software-as-a-Service (“SaaS”) property valuation technology as an Excel eliminator but realised soon enough it wasn’t going to fly in the commercial real estate industry. In an environment in which almost everyone knew a little bit, or a lot, about how to use spreadsheet technology, suggesting it should be consigned to the high-tech dust bin wasn’t the popular move we’d naively imagined it would be.
That’s why we switched to what we’ve dubbed a “hybrid strategy”, one which sees us using Excel as the primary interactive tool that taps into and accesses our cloud-based software. Its familiar feel has made many of the established property sector players — at which the Forbury solution is aimed — far more willing to give it a try.
If there’s a lesson in all this for young players, it’s simply this: the best products in the world won’t persuade customers to jump ship if they’re comfortable using something that works well enough. Find a way to sell the benefits of your solution and bring users along on the journey, and you’ll likely find it a very different story.