You Can’t Sell a Platform to Users

imageBeen working on building a new, solid, backbone for AIIM’s information since I joined as CIO. We finally reached the stage for detailed demos last week. While extremely time consuming, it was also extremely educational.

One of the things I hadn’t expected to be so obvious is the right and wrong way to demonstrate a solution built upon a platform. In fact, the dichotomy was so severe that almost every person not giving the demo commented upon it.

I thought I would share the two approaches that we witnessed and then relate it back to the Content Management industry of the last 10+ years. Before I get into that, I’ll provide some context in the form of the project background.

AMS Project Background

Since joining AIIM, I’ve been focusing on acquiring a new AMS (Association Management System) to manage the data about AIIM’s members and programs. This is the software that tracks membership renewals, training, certification, and events attended. It is what you log into when you come to our website to access all of your benefits.

This is a very common piece of software in the Association space. It is essentially the plumbing that makes an Association able to focus on its mission, to serve its members. When it works right, an AMS helps staffers deliver value to members and allows members to take a more active part in the Association.

When it works right.

When it doesn’t, it is like any old piece of software. Data is hard to get out, it doesn’t play nice with other systems, and things never seem to be as easy as they should.

The need to address our AMS challenges were identified before I was hired. I came on board and agreed with the assessment and charged headlong into selecting the AMS for the future. I hired an experienced firm to guide us and keep the project on track.

Last week was demo week. Two of the vendors present were built on platforms. One of them knew how to sell, the other didn’t.

The Two Demos

For the record, there were three vendors, but it was only two of them that were based upon platforms, the other was a “point solution”. The type of platform in question for both platform solutions is a CRM (Customer Relationship Management). It makes sense as Associations have a lot of relationships to manage.

Vendor A came in and tried to sell AIIM an AMS. They demoed the features of their system and focused on what AIIM does every day. They hit our pain points and everyone was very excited. The platform was mentioned and discussed, but it was discussed as a feature, not the purpose.

Vendor B came in and tried to sell AIIM the platform. In fact, I felt like we were being sold a CRM system with a few AMS features rather than the other way around. Our internal sales team liked the demo but everyone else was wondering how this system could be deployed without making our lives worse.

This is when the reality sank in for people. The first is that you can’t just add a few AMS features to a CRM platform and have an AMS that will work for a mature Association. Taking it one level up, we didn’t want to buy the platform. We want the solution.

That is the same for every organization. Users don’t want a platform. They want a business solution. If you try and sell them a platform, you will fail before the end of the demo.

Trust me. I saw it last week.

Platforms and the Content Management Space

This tale is especially poignant for me given the history of the Content Management space. The Content Management industry wasted 10 years trying to sell a better platform without the innovation needed to make projects more successful. They tried to sell the platform. It worked with IT but not very well with users.

imageTowards the end of the last decade, the focus shifted to Case Management, but it was still a platform play. It is only now that vendors are starting to realize that switching to solutions that focus on specific business problems is the only way to sell to the business.

Users want a business solution. They don’t want a Content, Case, or Information Management system. They want a Claims Processing or Automated Mailroom solution. They don’t want Big Data, they want a Sentiment Tracking Tool. You can tell users that it is built on a platform which will allow them to leverage [insert benefits A, B, & C], but if it doesn’t solve their problems with minimal configurations, they’ll keep looking.

If you are going to sell a platform for Content Management, or any system, you have to find partner companies that understand how to sell solutions to the market. They have to build a solution on your platform and then sell it to the business users. Those partners will be your key to success because they live the market and understand it in depth.

Without those solutions, platform vendors will have to settle for selling to CIOs and CTOs that have development shops. when you get to smaller organizations, or those that don’t have a collection of developers, the sale won’t happen.

Platform is a Feature

Remember this, if you remember nothing else at all, A Platform is just a Feature. Unless you are building solutions, you don’t want a platform. You want a solution.

Understand your clients. Know their business. Sell them a solution. Do not try and sell them a platform to build a solution on later.

8 thoughts on “You Can’t Sell a Platform to Users

  1. Hi Pie – Having been in the ECM Application business for more than 12 years I couldn’t agree with you more.

    I was curious that you didn’t mention SI’s or vendor PS teams providing custom solutions on a platform as an option (as opposed to internal development shops) but not surprised you didn’t choose that route.

    Many ECM vendors are now extolling the virtues of line of business applications as a means to cost justify the platform selection as if they have discovered something new 🙂


  2. I totally agree with you. What happens is that the best demo wins not the best solution. It is up to the CIO and IT people to make users aware when they look at GUI and nothing else. A lot of IT is about flexibility and maintainability and users do not see that at all.

    They also prefer to take the ‘demo’ that is the closest because they think that the changes will be the smallest. That is obviously a grave mistake.

    The next problem is that the business does not need ECM at all. The business needs a ‘System of Engagement’ as John Mancini proposes in his presentations. ECM in itself is utterly useless. It is a combination of functionality sold in seperate silos today – ECM, BPM, CRM, BRM, and EAI and a few more if you want. So analysts tell me: ‘But Max, Papyrus can’t be all of these things …’ and while it may be true if you look at it from a silo -market fragment perspective, it is not the user or business perspective.

    So the business user says: ‘Hey, I want this Papyrus ‘thing’ because it does all I need!’ And then the CIO says: ‘Sorry, but we already have CRM, ECM, BPM, ….’

    IT is today a disabler and it is about time that it takes IT-educated, business perspective and not either or.


  3. Good Post! From a content and records management user perspective, I agree that we want business solutions — not platforms. But isn’t selling a platform exactly what Microsoft is doing with SharePoint; and are they not doing it quite sucessfully? How do you account for that other than they are MS so normal rules don’t apply?


    • They don’t sell it as a platform to users. They sell it as collaboration with workflow. They sell it as a Community. Whatever the client is looking for, they can create a simple demo that shows the solution that the buyer wants. They sell the flexibility of SharePoint and how it solves many problems. When talking to business users, the word platform isn’t as heavily used. It is used when selling to IT or developers.


  4. 100% agree with your post, and it hits several raw nerves. In particular your statement: “If you are going to sell a platform for Content Management, or any system, you have to find partner companies that understand how to sell solutions to the market”, hides a multitude of implied sins:

    1. ECM is a platform, not a solution. On its own, it does not solve many business problems.
    2. ECM vendors are good platform vendors, not solution vendors. Solution vendors need a solid ECM platform and can’t build one from scratch. Very difficult to see one vendor doing both.
    3. Good ECM vendors are very good at selling the *vision* of a solution, that the platform can deliver. Someone still needs to build that extra layer before it delivers value to the business.
    4. The difference between a good platform and a bad platform, is the cost and effort needed to deliver a solution on top of it. Better platforms, have shorter “Time-to-value”.

    ….and you can substitute ECM for Workflow, Case Management, Collaboration etc. in the above. All platforms.


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