Published: 08 January, 2013
No matter where you are, cries of ‘the stupid computer doesn’t work properly’ are increasingly common in this day and age. Lynn Sencicle reports.
Asking an information technology (IT) developer to build an IT system for a merchant can sometimes be akin to asking an architect to make a wedding cake. One might end up with the most marvellous of wedding cakes, complete with flying buttresses and gravity-defying tiers, but the sponge might crack teeth and it would probably arrive three months after the honeymoon.
At least, this is the perception that many have. Another perception is that the construction industry has a reputation for being backward in moving forward, and merchants are regarded as a sub-set of the construction industry that seems to reflect this well because they respond to their customer bases.
“From a marketing point of view, the merchant industry is quite traditional in terms of its customers,” says Chris Parker, sales development and marketing manager of Kellaway Building Supplies. “Technology uptake on marketing emails and social media is fairly slow and steady but it does get there. It is frustrating because you see the benefits happening to other companies in other industries.”
As Kellaway so ably demonstrates it’s not actually true to say that merchants are not moving forwards in terms of IT, but the speed of it is certainly diverse.
Some merchants have embraced technology and are working hard to develop it in all its forms, from stock management to online sales to social networking. But there are others who will barely allow a computer to so much as darken their door. The majority of merchants stand somewhere in the middle, with horror stories from the brave terrifying the timid, and realisations from most that IT is pretty much essential to compete in terms of efficiency, especially as builders and installers slowly consider jumping on the bandwagon of mobile devices.
One of the main sources of these horror stories seems to be communication between a merchant and its IT provider.
“’IT is notorious for not understanding the needs of a business and then delivering a poor solution late.’ This is a statement that has probably passed the lips of many a merchant,” says
Simon Blaxill, managing director of Kent Blaxill. And it is easy to blame the IT provider for this. But it is not purely an IT issue, it is also a merchant issue.
“In fact, the answer inevitably lies partly in the hands of the merchant who needs to assign resource and time to project managing IT,” says Mr Blaxill. “The challenge is to ensure that a specification is understood and agreed by both the software house and the merchant at the outset rather than to assume that all understand the issues without discussion or documentation.
“The latter leads to huge frustration and despair that huge amounts of time, energy and resource has been wasted.”
IT providers have had to learn the same lesson. “There used to be a wide gulf in terms of communication, between merchants and their respective IT suppliers,” says Glen Jewell, sales director of Blue Rock. “Historically this was exaggerated by merchants being IT inexperienced and software suppliers talking industry jargon not in plain English. This stance has changed as merchants gain experience with IT in business and in their everyday lives and software suppliers. And those accustomed to dealing with merchants have dispensed with the acronyms and jargon.
“In addition, several software suppliers appoint dedicated account managers to ensure a regular contact point other than the support desks. There is a big value to having regular face-to-face meetings as opposed to trade shows or at open days – this, for us, has enabled us to keep ‘a finger on the pulse’ with regards to customers’ requirements.”
Communication is key to negotiating IT projects, but the irony is, that IT is supposed to be the ultimate tool to make communication, global, simpler and speedier.