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ON MINIMIZING SOFTWARE COMPLEXITY.

Greg Gianforte's four-year-old company, RightNow Technologies, sells customer service automation software--a product category that's become notorious for out-of-control implementation costs. But RightNow almost never gets bogged down in complex customization projects, says Gianforte, because the software has been specifically designed for "fast implementation and fast ROI."

"Historically, software that meets enterprise needs has been complex and has required long implementation periods," he points out. "Yet often 95% of the customer benefit can be obtained with 50% of the complexity--and if you make the product 50% more complex, you may only deliver another 5% of benefits."

Moreover, enterprise customers seem to be increasingly willing to give the kind of flexibility they once demanded in applications, and instead see the value of well-designed, desktop-like products. "We've sold $34 million in enterprise software to 1,100 clients in the last three years, and we did it with minimal professional services and even limited on-site visits," says Gianforte.

Gianforte recently explained some of the key development concepts that have helped RightNow grow so rapidly:

* Offer configuration options, not customization: Gianforte says RightNow contains some 200 software switches--options that can be turned on and off "to make the product act like a chameleon and take on whatever personality the customer desires, without any custom programming." Moreover, the configuration approach tends to produce a more solid code base. "Configurable options can be tested and verified and easily upgraded," he points out.

* Create an "out-of-the-box" set-up: Even when software is designed around configurable options, installation can still be a hassle if customers have to make decisions about "hundreds if not thousands of various settings and parameters," says Gianforte. "Why not set them all to reasonable default settings right out of the box for common customer applications? For example, build a dozen or so common reports that can become the starting point for later, more customized work."

* Avoid one-offs: Creating customized features for single customers "is never really hard," Gianforte says, "but the result is almost always "islands of customers who are a continual nightmare to upgrade and keep happy." If a one-off feature can't be avoided, "be absolutely sure that it's done in a generic way and that it's incorporated into a standard release of your software."

* Identify "sponsor" customers: Gianforte says his company has a firm rule: "We won't kick off work on a major feature without sponsor customers--identified by name, company, and phone number. This forces the lead engineers to speak with customers to get first-hand knowledge about how the software is to be used. And it means we only add functions that customers actually want."

* Know when to say no: "We don't like to do this, but when a request for a feature would add undue complexity or be impossible to support-- we do sometimes say no," says Gianforte.

* Become an ASP: Another way to reduce the customer's perception of complexity, says Gianforte, is to host the software remotely. "We've developed significant expertise about operating our own software, and the ASP option lets the customer avoid the cost of duplicating this same knowledge in-house," he says. "About 70% of our clients choose to host with us and we're currently serving about 30 million Web pages a month on their behalf."

* Get buy-in from the whole company: Reducing software complexity can involve some tough tradeoffs, Gianforte warns. "Often, professional services associated with installation are viewed as a significant revenue opportunity," he notes--in fact, many enterprise software companies bring in more dollars from services than they do from product licenses. Thus, it's important to identify how easier implementation will help boost sales and close deals faster. "For RightNow, the payoff is that we can guarantee a 15-day implementation period."

Greg Gianforte, chief executive officer, RightNow Technologies, 77 Discovery Dr., Bozeman, Mont. 59718; 406/522-4212. E-mail: grg@rightnow.com.
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Publication:Soft-Letter
Date:Jun 15, 2001
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