Right to reply

User groups are a valuable asset for customers trying to get the best from their HR systems. Danny Bradbury looks at how they operate

The customer is always right, or so the saying goes, and to keep revenue rolling in at a steady rate, suppliers need to look after them. Different companies have different approaches to supporting clients, but everyone agrees on one fundamental business rule: building customer relationships ensures repeat business.

User groups have been a vital element in the customer relations business across the IT sector, and the human resources software industry is no exception. Creating a community of users theoretically enables them to share their experiences (both good and bad), and provides a valuable source of feedback.

“What I wanted to do was draw people together and put them in a position to set up a partnership with the supplier,” says Roger Bartropp, a customer of software developer Northgate (formerly MDIS), who took on the task of creating and running an independent user group eight years ago.

Bartropp’s organisation is an example of an independent user group, with an agenda separate to its supplier company.

The group is financed by member subscriptions, although he admits the supplier donates 10 per cent of the cost of the user-group conferences he runs. In spite of this declaration of independence, he maintains a partisan approach to Northgate. He warns that the user group frowns on negative comments from delegates during the conferences, instead creating a constructive atmosphere in which companies exchange experiences and talk about new ways of using the software.

Problem solving

This doesn’t mean the user group is toothless or sycophantic in any way. Rather, it motivates itself to solve specific end-user problems.

Bartropp recalls one incident when a user group member was having problems getting the Inland Revenue to read data records that had been produced using the product. “Because that member was a member of our group, we took that to the IR,” he says. “I involved that user, myself, the IR and Northgate. That took four months to resolve.”

Northgate deals with customer complaints outside the conferences, putting them before a committee to decide whether or not they should be upheld. If they are, then the problems are resolved, and, if appropriate, the resolution incorporated into the product.

Managing director of Northgate, Malcolm Aldis, explains that from a vendor perspective, user groups are a good way of getting product feedback and adds that getting customers together in one place makes it easier to gauge user perception.

Other companies are less interested in independence, and run their user relations in-house.

Hugo Fair, managing director of Software for People, argues that in his experience customers simply don’t want user groups. The only reason they might be in favour of them, he jokes, is the time off work to attend user group events.

Extra workload

The extra workload involved in the running of an independent user group is another downfall of the option. Morag Morrison of Snowdrop Systems admits it would be difficult for group members to manage such an administrative task while doing their day-to-day jobs. It would also be awkward knowing whether to pay them or not, she says.

“It’s better running it inside the company because we know our future better,” she argues. “Clients wouldn’t come to the user groups if we thought we were just trying to sell them things.”

Morrison’s belief that users might suspect a sales pitch is something all vendors have to face when running their user groups. They have to ask themselves the question: to sell, or not to sell?

Vendors with independently-run user groups generally paint a passive view of their involvement in those organisations, often describing themselves as nothing other than benevolent supporters who keep themselves at arm’s length. But realistically it must be difficult for them to avoid getting involved in a user group and using it as a proactive sales channel, given it focuses exclusively on their customer base.

An event where customers are gathered in a single place is also a good opportunity to set their minds at rest, addressing complaints about late product releases, for example.

Generally though, customers suggest that over-involvement in user group conferences is a bad move. For one thing, says Jenny Oakley of HR software company KCS, you rarely – if ever – get all your customers into a single room. She would rather notify all her customers directly, she says.

Certainly, Aldis and Bartropp both agree that there is little leeway for gung-ho vendor chats at these meetings.

Phil McTeer, marketing executive at InfoSupport, admits that the company will present at the user conference, but stresses that it needs to be invited, and won’t just storm in with a sales pitch. “Often we describe new developments with the company, keeping the customer informed about what is going on from our end,” he says.

“If all we did was try to sell them more and dominate the event, it would be unpopular as a move.”

Different structures

User groups are structured in different ways. Some groups, like the one associated with HR software supplier Compel, tend to be run on a regional basis. Others hand responsibility over to a single, national group.

Compel managing director Chris Berry explains that his user group was originally national, but was broken down into regional groups to allow the groups to become more focused. Some members had special interests, he says, such as those working in specific markets.

Bartropp has taken this industry-specific view further, forming four special interest groups as offshoots of the main user group. Customers that want to be members of these groups have to be a member of the main group first, he explains.

KCS’s Oakley used to run regional meetings, but she argues that the smaller groups would quickly become stagnant because the same faces would turn up time after time.

The company now runs the occasional regional meeting, but those have a different agenda to the main user group conferences, and don’t happen that often.

McTeer gives similar reasons for running a large national group. “If you have one central user group, you might lose a few people from, say, the north of Scotland, but they were too small, those regional groups,” he says.

Often, the agendas for such meetings are similar. Independent guest speakers are a common trend, for example. McTeer brings in legal experts to talk about issues such as employment law.

Speakers also feature at the KCS user group conference alongside workshops and chat desks, where customers with expertise in a particular area of the product can pass on tips and techniques on how to use the software more effectively.

Such issues show a different level of expectation between HR software user group members, and those users of other software products within the industry. User group conferences for, say, development software products are often filled with people who are more technical in nature, often from the IT department.

McTeer, for example, claims that most of the people attending his company’s user group sessions are from the personnel department and are clearly less technically-oriented than IT users.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of crossover. Infosupport’s user group carries a certain level of technical and user issues, while Oakley explains there is a mix of personnel staff and technical support attendees from customers at the KCS shows. “The technical person will go and talk to our people, while the payroll people will talk to the payroll people,” she says.

On-line forum

As user groups evolve, they will doubtless use new technologies more to keep customers more closely connected with each other. One obvious approach here is the introduction of the “bulletin board” as a means of communication. Compel, for example, already has an on-line forum for customers, although as this is part of the company web site, and so isn’t entirely independent.

Berry argues that HR departments are often the last in the company to gain access to new technologies, and that some of his customers consequently don’t have access to the Internet.

He goes as far as sending an entire copy of the web site out on CD to customers, just to make sure they get all the information they need, but of course this doesn’t give them the facility to access on-line forums.

Bartropp is marching ahead with technology options for his user group. The company operates a web page which is also a password-protected extranet, he explains, giving user group members the chance to post-specific grievances against Northgate, for example.

Just like their member companies, user groups come in all shapes and sizes. The most useful ones are those that serve as an independent forum for their customers and complement traditional lines of communication with the product vendor. Such groups can serve as a good way for customers to increase their understanding of a product, and hopefully to implement better systems based on collective experience.

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