The Worst CMS Salesperson in the World

Closing Time

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.

About the Author
Jeff Cram

Jeff Cram is Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design), a digital agency based in Portland, OR and Boston, MA. As the Managing Editor of the CMS Myth, Jeff is passionate about all topics related to content management, digital strategy and experience design.

More articles from Jeff Cram


8 responses… read them below or add one.

  1. Jeff – great post!

    As a channel manager for a CMS vendor, I don’t want my development partners shoving iAPPS into every deal they come across. Instead, I prefer to work with my partners to make sure that our tools are the good fit, and then assist in any way possible to earn the business.

    At the end of the day, if there is an issue with the implementation, a customer usually see the difference between a development problem or a platform problem. Instead, they became frustrated with everyone involved, which is completely justified.

    Vendors and partners need to make sure that they enter into projects with clear goals and understanding of any “gotchas”. This makes sure all metrics for success are met, and there’s a new happy customer praising both the vendor and the partner.


  2. David Hobbs says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for the great blog post. As someone who does early planning for website changes for a living, it can be tough to convince people that they need to think about their site long term as opposed to the magic that many vendors are selling! Before looking at different CMSes for example, clients should be clear on what they want. If they don’t, then of course each vendor will tend to steer toward what the vendor can do best (and not perhaps what the organization needs!).

  3. Kris Mausser says:

    If you’re the worst CMS salesperson in the world, then I’m definitely the 2nd worst. Our company helps clients define their CMS requirements, and if we’ve done our job right then they get to narrow their parameters and ultimately spend less money on the technology. It’s just too bad companies will invest tens of thousands of dollars on the technology without adding at least 20% to their budgets for the planning and strategy. Great post!

  4. Hi Jeff,

    that sounds like a real life story and resonates well with myself. When I learned something in 10+ years of my former life as a project manager it is this: it seems to be virtually impossible in many organizations to get the budget to build “a fence around the well”. But once “the child has fallen into the well”, money is no problem.
    Honesty is not always easy, but failing projects aren’t helpful to anybody.


  5. Debra Loggia says:

    Jeff – wonderful post and one that resonates to most of us who works with clients on CMS selection or re-platforming. We too are often presented with unrealistic expectations and told that another vendor has told them it could all be done in no time, with limited budget, no planning and only a few resources. Then, like you, we hope there is a happy ending for them but our experience tells us it’s going to be a painful, expensive project.
    Also, I’m always saddened by how often content is at the bottom of the list as though it’s an afterthought.
    So stay true! As you’ve said, our reputations are only as good as our references and we live and die by our reputation.

  6. A great post Jeff.
    I thought it was just me! Some years ago I presented a huge and well planned document that covered the structure required to implement a series of websites for a national organisation – each site was linked but separate, referred to, and shared information in the form of PDFs / Videos and straightforward content. They had been through the process with another company and got 50% of the way there before pulling the plug. It was obvious to me within a day or two of poking around that the wrong starting point had been chosen. They had started from the needs of the organisation without first assessing what the resources of the organisation were. The fully integrated system they had dreamed of never got implemented because they could never have trained enough staff to keep the content up to date and did not appreciate the time it would take to gather, write, get approval and add content. I suggested ways they could rescue their sites and trim back the scope of their content but nothing fitted. I felt very sorry for them as I spelled out the logic of the situation to them and I could feel their pain as it dawned on them that they’d wasted time and a great deal of money on something that could not possibly work. I used a very simple diagram to make the point. They thanked me and paid me for my time so from my point of view I lost nothing but I dread to think what the conversation was like after I had left.

  7. Bob Scheier says:

    Am actually struggling with this issue with a client’s use of an existing marketing automation platform. Slightly different technology, and they already have the platform in place, but same issue: Don’t worry about the strategy, or even defining success — let’s just start writing stuff. Even that “ad hoc” effort is bogging down due to lack of attention.

    I’m wondering if those of us on the services side should create a “commitment check” for customers telling them what they need to invest (in terms of time, energy and attention, not just money) to do anything successful with content?

  8. This customer will probably come back after their project blows up and they come to realize the value of your honesty.

    I once had a string of four consecutive clients who initially went with someone else and then came back after failing.

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