The Worst CMS Salesperson in the World
I have the good fortune of talking with many organizations in the early stages of evaluating web content management systems and planning complex projects to implement and manage these new platforms.
In most cases, these companies are talking to multiple vendors and consultants at once to gain perspective, compare platforms and evaluate service providers.
Sometimes I feel like the worst CMS salesperson in the world.
Instead of telling people how easy and magnificent the new CMS will be, I try to be upfront about the path to success including many often overlooked and complicated areas to navigate. Content strategy, governance, change management and staffing – You know, the messy but necessary parts of any large-scale CMS project. These don’t all need to be figured out at once, but there has to be a plan to address them at some point.
It’s not that I want to discourage folks from embarking on CMS initiatives. Quite the opposite. But I’ve seen enough train wrecks to want to make sure organizations are going into the projects with eyes wide open. As an agency that relies heavily on references and word of mouth referrals, we simply can’t afford to take on new relationships that aren’t set up for success.
I was recently talking to a large organization seeking to re-platform on an enterprise CMS in a very short time frame on a relatively modest budget with zero internal resources. It was an exciting project, but one that had very little chance of meeting their success criteria without one or more of those variables changing. Unfortunately I was told with no uncertainty there was zero wiggle room.
The project lead at the company found my feedback on their approach inconsistent with what he was hearing from another vendor who was assuring him it could all be done just as he asked. In fact, he actually told me that he didn’t appreciate how our proposal introduced “messy” things like risks, considerations and scope prioritization.
The other vendor, he said, was positive and upbeat about achieving the desired results working within all the constraints. Not exactly a vote of confidence for our services, he added.
He was exactly right. I was introducing friction into the deal for both him and myself. He had already sold a specific type of project internally and was boxed into his rules of engagement, a fixed budget and success criteria developed well before he sought external input. He was past the point of being able to unwind that narrative and didn’t need to because he had found other external sources who supported this story and vouched for the outcomes.
Like I said, this is where I feel like the worst CMS salesperson in the world sometimes. But then of course we’re not selling CMS. We’re helping to facilitate change within the organization and realize a set of new processes and outcomes that are the goals of the platform change.
He also wasn’t interested in talking to reference organizations I was providing that had tackled similar-sized engagements (Regular CMS Myth readers know how I feel about missed opportunities in calling references).
Only time will tell whether that specific project will unfold as they both envision. I am hoping there is happy ending. What often happens with underestimated projects is that they reach a point – often a painful junction – where the real scope is realized. The Band-Aid gets ripped off, timelines get extended, budgets get increased (or vendors absorb costs) and the project charges ahead on a new path.
Sometimes the relationship recovers fine and both parties understand the efforts were vastly underestimated. “What’s important is that we do this right” someone on the project team states setting a new tone for the rest of the relationship. After all it’s hard to reverse the path and both parties are locked into the platform and the decisions made. There’s a shared sense of survival at stake.
But other times the damage has been done and is too severe to unwind. Corners have been cut on the important parts, technology is blamed, and budgets and political capital are exhausted. The project may get completed but enters what we call the CMS Death Spiral which may include a search for a new partner to help salvage the implementation and strategy.
Unfortunately the latter scenario happens far too often. In my experience the vast majority of organizations significantly underestimate the effort involved in CMS projects. This isn’t because they are stupid or don’t understand the web. It’s simply not a process most folks have the luxury of experiencing often. It’s the type of project that comes around every 5-7 years inside most organizations.
Conversely, on the agency and vendor side, there is enormous pressure to fit the sales narrative to align with what the organization is asking for. While most good agencies practice consultative selling, it takes a strong vendor to walk away from revenue in the face of significant project risks and an unbending client. It’s easy (and admirable) to approach challenging opportunities with a glass-half-full mentality. This includes optimism that success can be achieved despite little evidence from past experiences and projects to support it.
The silver lining is that organizations that engage in those open discussions upfront overwhelmingly have the projects and relationships with the best outcomes. There are always bumps in the road, and no organization has unlimited budget and resources. The reality is that CMS is hard and it requires a lot of work to prepare organizations for long-term success. This is why we emphasize the thinking around CMS Readiness over CMS Selection. Thankfully more and more organizations seem to understand this and are asking for it upfront.
There also ends up being a kind of Darwinian matchmaking effect where the good organizations find each other and go onto have success together. While the vendors who jump at any opportunity with unrealistic expectations win the deals from the organizations that set them in the first place and refuse to listen.
Success can be incremental, but the smart organizations know that CMS is not a project. It’s a program and process that requites a sustained commitment and plan. It’s always a shock to see how many organizations still purchase (very expensive) CMS software licenses before doing any due diligence on what the actual implementation, internally staffing needs and rollout will require.
The time to have these conversations is before you’ve signed on the dotted line, not after.