Sex, Lies and Backup Tape

It started a few months before this year’s NAHB Show. A phone call here, an e-mail there and a quick question in a hallway: “We’re going to NAHB to find a really good software package—what do you recommend?”

By Scott Sedam | March 31, 2001


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It started a few months before this year’s NAHB Show. A phone call here, an e-mail there and a quick question in a hallway: “We’re going to NAHB to find a really good software package—what do you recommend?”

As the show date neared, it turned into a crescendo. It seemed like every builder I knew had the same questions on their minds. Some wanted a basic scheduling system, some a sales system, still others a service management system. But most were after what I’ve come to think of as home building’s “Holy Grail”—a comprehensive, fully integrated system that does it all.

Now, before all of you software and system suppliers pick up your cell phones and call to tell me you’ve already got that, let’s talk about the components of “does it all.” That would include, at a minimum, the following:





  •  back-office system for accounting and financials—ledger and balance sheet.



  •  a complete purchasing management system including support for purchase orders, accounts payable and accounts receivable.



  •  a scheduling system as part of a construction site/ office management system.



  •  warranty and service management.



  •  sales, contracting and management system including options, plans and selections.

    All of this, of course, is Web-enabled so we can communicate continually, seamlessly and painlessly with customers, suppliers, manu- facturers and trades.

    Pretty crazy, right? How could we ever ask for that in one system? Simple. That’s what we’ve been promised. A whole lot of people for a whole lot of years have waxed eloquent about the brave new world of comprehensive, one-size-does-all-and-fits-all miracle cures to what ails us. In their ads and in their speeches, they make this sound really sexy—leaving builders with the distinct impression that everybody’s doing it, and if you’re not, you’d better get with it. It reminds me of those sex surveys that always make you feel like everyone else is sure having more fun that you are. Who are those people and where do they find the time?

    Now make no mistake—the day will come. We will see the comprehensive, everything but shine-your-shoes system. The airlines are perilously close to having this now, with schedules, reservations, frequent flyer tracking, boarding passes online, tracing lost baggage, etc. But meanwhile, I know a whole hard-drive full of builders who are angry, frustrated, bewildered and just plain sick and tired of all the hype.

    The truth is, and I hope suppliers listen up here, almost no one is really happy with their system. I hear it continually wherever I go. They are inadequate, inflexible and infuriating. The only “in” that doesn’t apply is inexpensive. Oh, some of them do a decent job with general ledgers, purchase orders and such, but just try to write a special routine to get a report the way that you want it. Take three Excedrin and leave a message for your programmer.

    Some of the biggest names in this business are associated with some of the biggest horror stories. At a conference not long ago, for instance, a representative for one of these suppliers asked, “How many in the room have tried the sales portion of our program?” About 20 builders raised their hand. When asked how many thought it worked, every hand dropped but one—and quickly! The rep pointed to the one hand, representing five percent of his sample and said, “See there! It works!”

    The whole room broke out laughing, but the rep didn’t get it. He was dead serious. In his view, there was something wrong with the other 19 guys.

    Now I have looked at this particular program extensively, and I can tell you that a huge part of the problem is training. It stinks. They do a lousy job training and an even worse job in after-the-sale support. Does the sales part of the program work? Well, their glossy ads and slick salespeople sure tell you it does. But on a practical basis, the answer is no. Training and implementation is as much a part of the system as the computer code. Nineteen out of 20 can’t be wrong.

    This scenario gets played out in package after package. Ten years, ago, I participated in the development of a very simple warranty management, tracking and reporting system that worked great. We trained everyone, but did something very differently in implementation. Of course, we trained the operators on how to operate it, but we also trained the management teams on how to use the system as a management tool.

    The impact was huge. For the first time, the firm really understood, community by community, plan by plan, house by house and trade by trade, exactly where the problems were and how the money got spent. But this same company, in an admirable effort to unify all of their systems, had to abandon the old program, substituting it with one of the well-known, off-the-street brands written in more up-to-date computer language that could communicate with its new general ledger system. The result? Comparatively speaking, the new program doesn’t cut it. I have spoken directly to several of the operators and they hate it, and what’s worse, the managers no longer use the data for decision making. They want their old program back! That’s what ten years of progress got us.

    At another industry meeting, the well-known president of one of the biggest software firms made a presentation touting his company’s system. As he talked, you could feel the undercurrent of frustration flow through the room. Several times, he was interrupted in a less-than-gentlemanly fashion. During the Q & A, it bordered on hostile.

    The gist was simple: Where is all of the cool stuff you’ve been promising for the past few years? When are you going to deliver? His inability to give a clear answer was a major topic of conversation at that night’s cocktail jag. I truly felt sorry for him, but you reap what you sow.

    The home building landscape is littered with failed systems, and there will be more in the coming year. Some will be left holding some very expensive bags, so keep your ears to the terminal. But I’m in the habit of being able to refer a client—or just a casual caller—to someone who can help, whatever they are looking for. Need marketing help? I know who to call. Need building science studies? I know where to go. Need land mapping? I know a good software vendor. But need a good, comprehensive, home building management system? I am at a loss. So is everyone else I know. You can see us wandering the tech side of the NAHB show. You can hear us at every BIA event, asking everyone we know if they’ve got this system stuff figured out.

    Yes, we are paranoid. The vendors scare us, the tech-talk bewilders us and we live in mortal fear that everybody else is getting some but us.

    So here’s my challenge. If you are a supplier and you think you are really there, send me the e-mail and I’ll gladly take a look. But you are going to need some testimonials from some line types to convince me, such as a couple of veteran salespeople and a few grizzled superintendents. Ad copy and claims by anyone with a financial tie to your firm won’t do it. Give me some proof and I’ll send you a boatload of business. And no, I don’t want a cut of the action. I figure if my clients quit blowing so much money on lousy software, they’ll have more money to spend with me.

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