Written by: Jonathan Goldstein, Senior Vice President, Cyber Group Inc.
One of the great advantages of being a consultant is that I work with multiple companies every year. This is the value-add of hiring someone like me to take a look at your organization. In your fiscal year, you will likely see one company. In my same fiscal year, I might see 4 or 5. This gives my colleagues and me a unique perspective.
Lately, many of my customers are queuing up portal projects. Either they are entertaining fixing what they have, adding a portal capability (e.g. for a different user persona) or scrapping what they have and migrating to something new. Portals are an extremely vital aspect of a Retail Energy firm’s business technology topology. They are the start and finish point of a customer’s journey and they represent a level of import that approaches business-critical. You could have all other aspects of your enterprise fully operational – pricing, supply, forecasting, product development – but if the portal is down, none of those other core capabilities mean anything because your customers – residential users, commercial customers and brokers – cannot transact with you. Your business is down.
Before we venture into a review of the various portal technology options, let’s first have a discussion around project approach and software selection paradigms. Prior to selecting technology platforms, I believe the more important consideration is what your organization is capable of supporting. This part of the decision-making process revolves around the core question of build vs. buy, e.g. do you pull from a configurable framework? Or, do you source an end-to-end solution from a provider? The answers are never simple, nor linear, but there are some things you can consider in your decision:
I have blogged about this aspect of decision-making before. This is the single biggest decision framework that companies fail to consider, but the answer is so critical. If something is core to your enterprise, you really should own it. It’s the secret sauce. It makes or breaks you competitively in the market. If something is non-core, you should use a pre-packaged framework from a company for whom such endeavors are core to their existence and/or you should flat out outsource it entirely. HR, IT and Accounting often get lumped into this. A great example is Desktop Support. This is a critical function. Your employees need computers and peripherals that work, but how you make them work (e.g., how you provision that service is something the market will never know nor care about) is irrelevant. It’s not that they aren’t important. They are extremely important. It’s that the execution of these functions doesn’t impact the firms’ competitive stance in the marketplace.
To this end, perhaps having a portal or series of portals for your various users is core to your enterprise, but maybe owning the underlying technology is not core. In other words, just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should. It’s a trite phrase but very useful for this core vs. non-core discussion. You and your IT team probably could do it all yourselves. You have the knowledge. You have the training. You have the experience. You could do it. But that might not be what is best for the firm.
The strongest corollary I have in the core vs. non-core debate was really the first time I ever got fired. It was by my wife. I had this fanciful notion that I could be our lawn service, so I purchased all the lawn equipment and the fuel and supplies to run them. I learned how to use them. The challenge is we have a big property, so mowing, edging and blowing took about 4 hours all in. Not bad for a Sunday. Joe Landscaper came in, though, with a crew of three and much more knowledge than I ever could amass, and they were done in 45 minutes. My wife fired me and hired the landscaping firm. It was a low point for me, for sure, but a very important lesson.
What happened? Well, it was a little bit of how I started out this blog. As a landscaping company, they see what? 20-30 homes per week? I saw one. They developed expertise that made outsourcing a viable option. It was core. The lawn had to be manicured to HOA standards with or without me, but my industry knowledge was not sufficient to warrant taking it on myself. I certainly could do it but, the outsourcer could do it better.
Secondly, the cost-benefit did not work in my favor. At that time, we had young kids. My time was better spent with them than mowing the lawn.
Time is the biggest commodity we all wrestle with. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Where are your time, energy and budget dollars better spent? What drives value for the firm and ultimately, what yields revenue dollars or process efficiency? Whatever the answer to that question is forms your core competency and defines for you what you should invest your time into.
As technologists, we know that there are many things we need to run our firm that we could easily pull a team together and build ourselves. But, as we know, the product lifecycle starts at the v1 release; it doesn’t stop there. You must continually fund and invest in any product you give life to. So, you have to ask yourself: “Is the firm willing to fund continuous innovation in this portal? Are they willing to keep a team and support staff assigned to it to ensure performance is fine-tuned and develop new features and capabilities? If the answer is “No!” then the next best thing is to conduct a software evaluation and select a vendor whose business is structured around continuous innovation and support of a portal technology.
Let’s assume the answer to #2 is “Yes, we are willing to invest.” The next question to ask is, can you keep up? Salesforce consulting is the largest growing segment of our business because they are a huge multi-billion-dollar organization whose DNA is CRM. Even if you could build a better box (doubtful), the likelihood that you could keep up with Salesforce’s development velocity is slim to none. At this point, you would not only have to engineer the core CRM capability, but you would have to somehow replicate the ecosystem they have built. It’s important to be extremely real with yourself in this discussion. In general, there will be far more utility in acknowledging your limitations and focusing on your secret sauce.
Also, be vulnerable with yourself enough to realize that maybe it’s not the portal technology that is differentiating, but it’s the careful attention to the user journey, the look and feel of the website and the forward-thinking focus on the customer experience that makes you different. These are absolutely things you can control and are irrespective of the bits and bytes of the CRM technology. Give that responsibility to somebody else. You’re a REP. Your product is providing creative products and services that help firms optimize their energy spend. This is what differentiates you: Products and Prices and on the backend supply and forecasting. That’s your core. Everything else is gravy that you can focus on once you have those primary activities down.
We will continue this discussion next week as we take our decision framework for a spin by evaluating some portal technology options you can consider for your enterprise.
Until then, make it a great week!
Jonathan P. Goldstein, CSP-SM