Selling Software for Three Decades — Has It Changed in the Digital Era?

by Joe Franco May/June 2020
Joe Franco has been selling software since the 1990s. He explores how the process has changed over the years and explains why the industry must move beyond the concept of disruption, standardize technology and leave legacy systems in the history books.

Joe Franco, CLFP,
Senior Sales Executive,
FIS Global

Some principles of selling have always been the same. For me, listening and confirming what a customer/prospect is asking for is my golden rule. But what is being sold today and the value proposition, technology and approach are significantly different than in the past. This article summarizes the last 26 years of selling lease accounting software, both in the U.S. and globally.

The 1990s & Y2K 

In the 1990s, the scenario resembled the present day situation. The difference is back then it was simply a jump from manual ledger tracking to automation. Companies were eager to learn about automation but expressed doubt that software could handle their business. Lessors were building proprietary systems but also looking at commercially known software. Three companies dominated the market but each took a similar approach. The focus was on business versus technology.

The key in those days was accessibility of data and the reporting that allowed visibility to the customer (lessee). The other critical aspect was asset tracking and accounting associated with the product type. Overcoming the skepticism that technology could track the accounting led to multiple presentations and proof of concepts. But this focused on the technology as a replacement for human capital. The salesperson had to adapt to a “consultative sales” approach to listen to and confirm the skepticism of the prospect/customer. During this period, automation from legacy systems became the standard and was needed to set a precedent for “mission-critical” software that would last for three decades and become entrenched in the industry.

The 1990s were also exciting for other reasons, including Y2K and the dot-com era. Selling became frantic as the paranoia of Y2K disruption became a concern for the industry. The dot-com era not only brought exciting new prospects into play but also welcomed the era of casual attire for meetings. Not many prospects survived, but it was, in my opinion, a predecessor to the fintech era.

Changing Sales Approaches for the New Millennium

The 2000s were fundamentally an era for a change of sales approach. Legacy systems (hard-coded software) were the industry standard. But technology was advancing, and the landscape of software firms in the industry was changing. A few companies took the leap to swap out their legacy software for more advanced or current technology but encountered both costly and time-consuming implementations. The sales process changed as well; it became more of a consultative approach than before since the technical side became as important as the functional side. It became apparent that terminology had to be defined in advance of the demo; concepts such as “extensions” and “configurability” replaced “hard-coded” and “custom enhancements” as words of the day. The lines between technology and business began to gray. Technology personnel began to learn the business and business people began to learn technology. Configurable systems with extensions started to change the platform landscape.

The Digitization Era

Today, new players have entered the market to challenge the legacy players. But the climate is changing rapidly. What is considered new technology is constantly changing — now digitization is key. Service providers must change with technology, but changing technology should not be considered a “disruption.” Disruption is a term that companies would rather avoid. You do not want to disrupt your existing customer experience, you want to “enhance” your customer experience.

Service providers should not cause business disruption and the process of digitization should not interrupt your business either. The goal is to update your technology so you can serve your customers more efficiently. But this requires changing platforms to catch up with changes in technology. Patchwork solutions attached to legacy platforms do not serve your company’s best interests.

The Equipment Leasing and Finance Foundation recently published “Going Digital: Current Activities & Future Expectations by FIC Advisors” and surveyed several companies which understand the patchwork of applying digital technology to legacy systems is insufficient to reach total digital efficiency.

A statement from the survey indicated, “Few companies approach digital with a fundamental relook at their business model. An independent executive summarized that ‘going digital’ requires a company ‘to reimagine how we work with customers, vendors and internally.’ This reimagining is critical to achieve the full benefit of digital.” The article continued, “One company commented: Our challenge is the legacy systems we need to address before we can offer more advanced digital technology…we really can’t have a detailed three- to five-year road map.”

The challenge is the “reimagination” or displacement of legacy systems to achieve the goal of a digital platform. The industry has been discussing advanced technologies for some time now, and although it has made some headway, there is a need to catch up to technology before it’s too late.

Certainly, there are benefits to moving legacy systems to the cloud — a patchwork step that brings you closer to new technology. But this patchwork approach only works as a bandage on a major wound.

Moving Beyond Disruption 

Has selling changed since the digital revolution? Yes. Prospects, customers and lessors have educated themselves, and they must continue to do so. Thirty, 20 and even 10 years ago, the marketplace offered very few options. Two of the largest software companies in the world tried to challenge the landscape in the early 2000s, as previously indicated, and had little effect. The good news is thought leaders in the industry realized the industry was challenged. Today, we are focused on disruption. In the last few years, disruption has been the mantra, both by organizations and consultants in the industry.

We need to move beyond the concept of disruption. The industry must standardize technology that allows companies to move swiftly in the direction of enhancing the customer experience. This can be achieved not only by developing self-service portals and drivers license or facial identification but also by providing additional products that can be assisted by the back office. Lessors should not overlook the back office for increased automation and efficiency.

Companies must adapt to this changing environment, and that means catching up to technological changes. It is not a disruption to stay in or change to current technology, rather it is flat-out a catch-up process. The question is when do we leave behind legacy technology and embrace new technologies? The answer is now. Companies that take advantage of new technologies like artificial intelligence, facial recognition, block chain and so on will grow and better serve their customers. The time to catch up is now. •

Joe Franco, CLFP, is a senior sales executive at FIS Global.

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