This post is the second in a series of posts aimed primarily in helping small businesses understand how to better pick a consulting company for their ERP, Inventory Management, Order management or Sales software implementation. We’re doing this by discussing with a different consultant or consulting company in each post.
This time we’re talking with Chris Bliss, Operations Manager for VM Associates.
Tell us a few words about you or your company and your personal role in it.
I’m a partner at VM Associates, a New York City based IT consulting firm. We help small businesses implement awesome software - CRM, ERP, accounting, inventory, you name it. We deal entirely with web based applications, which means engagements are quicker, cleaner, and less expensive (we don’t have to fly somewhere to install a server). The software is better too.
As a partner, I do a bit of everything - project management, vendor relationship management, product design, etc. I like client work best though. Watching a business take off after you’ve re-hauled their IT infrastructure is really gratifying.
Do you have expertise in a particular brand of ERP software or are you totally brand agnostic when it comes to your consulting? Why did you make such a choice?
We’re brand agnostic, deliberately so. The old model - consultants reselling software - just doesn’t make sense anymore, especially for web based applications. Businesses don’t need IT guys to install patches and updates, and software vendors don’t need consultants to make sales or install product. Cloud computing changed all that.
Being vendor neutral lets us deliver real value to clients. We can objectively match software to a client’s unique needs, and clients don’t need to sign up for costly maintenance retainers. Likewise, vendors get a good deal because we’re only sending them clients who are suited for the software. That helps lower churn and boosts buzz. It’s just better for everyone.
Do you specialize in a particular part of the total spectrum of ERP functionality (CRM, inventory, manufacturing, distribution, financial, Project Management etc.) or do you offer a broader service?
CRM is our bread and butter - it’s what most small business need most but don’t have, and the software options are pretty mature. We do some full-blown ERP jobs, though ERP solutions have been much slower to move to the cloud (though folks like Megaventory and Brightpearl are changing that). Of course, we also implement customer service solutions, accounting solutions, and project management software, so we’ve got a little of everything. It all depends on the client.
Honestly, the limiting factor isn’t expertise, but software options - business software has been slow to move to the cloud. Even the most robust solutions out there are less than 8-10 years old. A big part of our job is identifying the best contenders, then forging a relationship that makes sense for everyone.
Do you have certain tools and/or approaches you use when working with your clients?
Definitely. We begin engagements with a “Discovery” session - this is a workshop that focuses on who the client is, what they have in place and what they’re trying to achieve. The goal is to really clearly map out their pain points and objectives.
After Discovery, we produce a roadmap for going forward, which the client is free to implement internally, with another consultant, or with us (we provide an implementation quote). Implementation projects really vary client to client, but include everything from data migration to custom development and configuration.
We always end with training. Software is only as helpful as the people using it, so we make sure everyone who will be using the software has a good understanding of what they’re doing and why it’s helpful. Lot’s of Skype sessions...
Do you focus on particular industries? (do you have a proven track record e.g. in apparel, food and beverages, hardware, etc)
Not really. Software needs are remarkably consistent across verticals. We see lots of demand from real estate, professional services, and contractors, but we’ve also worked with furniture distributors, lighting manufacturers, fishing rod franchises...
In what ways is your role changing due to the broader cloud adoption for business uses and the abundance of online ERP vendors?
We’ve always focused on web applications, so broader cloud adoption is great news! That’s not true for everyone though - resellers have struggled to find an alternative revenue model, and that’s only going to intensify. We think the right way is via top-level strategic consulting and training - ie matching software to business process, then training on it.
Maybe the other thing to mention is that integration between services is an increasingly big deal for small businesses. No one wants multiple disparate services - it’s our role to help connect them all.
What is the role of the ERP consultant when it comes to helping a small business which is on the market for an ERP solution?
I largely agree with the words of Pemeco Consulting, who you interviewed last week: “If there is one key takeaway for a small business, it is this: choose a consultant that focuses on defining your business’ unique requirements and matching a system to those requirements.”
That’s absolutely, 100% right on. I’m probably beating the drum to death, but consultants should focus on what a business does and needs before running off and implementing some pet software solution. Optimized process should dictate your toolset, not the other way around.
To add to that, ERP consultants should also manage the transition. Changing software systems is stressful and confusing and a headache for most business owners, never mind their staff. Consultants should do everything they can to ease that pain and make the transition easy. Users first.
What do you think are the major problems/challenges in the ERP consulting industry?
Consulting is still too expensive for most small businesses, and it’s still too vague - business owners don’t know what they’re getting, so they can’t balance the value against the cost. That’s our problem, not theirs. We (professional service providers) need to package services in such a way that the deliverables, cost and value are all 100% clear. Until that happens, small businesses will keep keep making the same mistakes (wrong software, poorly setup), and consultants will keep losing money.
How do you see the business software evolve? What should a small business keep in mind and expect in the next 12 months?
Cloud based ERP systems are still young: expect more of them, offering more services, and expect more on-premise solutions that offer hybrid cloud solutions.
Also, expect more “specialist” systems, as opposed to “generalist.” ERP as a concept is the idea that a core set of tools - CRM, inventory, accounting - can all live under one roof. That’s a generalist approach, and it’s pretty difficult to execute well. Software vendors are increasingly turning to the specialized approach - making one tool extremely well. So you get accounting tools and inventory tools, but not both under one roof. Integrating them becomes the main challenge.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for having us, and enjoy the fruits of great software!