How We Found the Right Communication Solution to Collaborate with Our Team and Support Our Customers
Now is the time for your company to be fast. Customers demand constant innovation, and your organization will fall by the wayside if you can’t keep up. Look at the social media industry: For a few years, one company gains prominence, but then something newer and better comes along and steals all the users.
For something as critical as ERP software—which helps automate all of your core business processes—the customers can’t be as fickle as Facebook users, but there is an even greater need for speed. As a software engineer at OpenZ, the open-source ERP platform, I know that when a customer reaches out to me, it’s urgent because the issue impacts the fundamentals of their business.
Stefan Zimmermann founded OpenZ in 2010 with the idea that ERP systems could—and should—be more affordable, easier, and smarter. He was frustrated by his experience at big companies where projects seemed to take forever. Stefan designed OpenZ so we could deliver quickly and enable our customers to run better businesses.
We are a small company, but our size—and the fact that our software is open-source and web-based—means we can be agile. At the big ERP players, you hear stories of the long tail of progress: Getting a new feature takes time because there’s a long chain of people to work through. Customers have to deal with that to get any sort of customization. Not with us. We are a small team, so we can develop fast, with exactly the same quality and at an even better price.
The nature of development is that it requires communication. You need a fluid, back-and-forth conversation. A halt in that conversation can hold up everything up. At OpenZ, we have a philosophy of true collaboration with our customers to find the best solution for them. But the problem was that our communication systems didn’t reflect that philosophy and were in fact slowing us down.
Playing the Waiting Game
OpenZ is a compact team of six, but we’re not always in the same location—which can compound any issues with collaboration. We’re based in Worpswede, a small town between Bremen and Hamburg, though not everyone on the team works from there. Additionally, sometimes one of us will have to travel for a client. The dispersed nature of our team puts increased emphasis on the importance of communication software to tie us all together and hold us close to our customers.
For a long time, we tried to shorten those distances between us using Skype for internal communication. However, this created as many problems as it solved. For starters, Skype is intrusive. It’s not a program you can have open in the background while you do your work, like you can with email. It’s at the front of your screen, limiting your ability to work on more than one task at a time. As a result, you probably close Skype and only open it when you want to make a call. But then what if it’s an unscheduled call and the person you’re trying to reach doesn’t have Skype open?
Skype might work if you scheduled an appointment with someone, but it’s ill-suited to the kind of fluid communication that’s a natural part of operating a business. For example, Stefan is my superior, so he has to know what I’m doing. And if I have a question about a line of code, for example, he’s the person I ask. I can call Stefan on Skype, but what if he is on the phone with a customer and then Skype rings in the background? That’s a mess. At the very least, it’s an interruption to his day, when I might be asking a very simple question like, “Where can I find this info?”
Alternatively, I can send him a message on Skype, but then what if he doesn’t see it for a while? We all know that in software development, waiting on a simple question can create a big holdup. I’m waiting and waiting, and I don’t want to bother Stefan if he’s busy, because he’s my boss. It’s frustrating.
For communicating with customers, whether for sales or troubleshooting, we used TeamViewer, which had its own set of issues. The technology was outdated and onerous to use, especially for customers who were new to it. Keep in mind that when we are dealing with customers, we want the technology to be as seamless and invisible as possible. We want no hurdles in our path as we try to share the story of OpenZ. It would be a nightmare to create further IT anxiety in our clients if they are already having technical issues.
TeamViewer was the polar opposite of this ideal. We would have to give customers a code over email or phone, and then they would have to open TeamViewer and paste the code—it was a lot of steps just to talk to us. On top of that, the customer would encounter this outdated technology when talking to us. It left the wrong impression when we wanted to inspire confidence that we offer the best ERP solution for their future.
Lots of Options. Which One Fits?
We realized we had to change something, because we couldn’t go on in such an inefficient way. As we searched for the right solution, we had a key set of criteria an integrated solution should meet for communicating both internally and externally.
Our salespeople might have up to 10 appointments by video-conference every week in which they present our software to potential customers, so the most important feature was screen sharing. It had to be comfortable for our salespeople to use. Additionally, it needed to be easy and intuitive for our customers when we invited them to join us in the conference.
Internally, the software would be used for communicating within small teams, whatever medium, so that was an important feature as well. Finally, the solution had to work on Linux, because that’s what we all use on our laptops, and it also needed to be easy to maintain, since we’re a small company and we want to focus on our key priorities.
We looked at Microsoft Teams, but it came bundled as part of Microsoft 365, which we didn’t necessarily want to buy into. Then there’s Google Hangouts, but we found it awkward to use. Finally, we discovered Circuit. We were thrilled when we saw it met all of our criteria.
After we came to the conclusion Circuit suited our needs, we set up a small internal test. The conferencing abilities, in particular, were excellent. We progressed to using it in troubleshooting with existing customers, then our salespeople, and finally the whole team.
I had great support from Circuit through this whole process. Us software engineers are quick to see the advantage of new technology and adopt it, but even within a technology company, there are team members who are slower to see the benefits of a new system. At first, making a change might feel like an inconvenience to some. Circuit’s support people who worked with us, Katia and Thomas, fully believed in what Circuit could do for our organization. Their enthusiasm and support helped me win over the rest of the team.
Communication That Catalyzes Collaboration
One year in, everyone sees the benefits of an integrated system. My colleague Thomas, who makes these great online presentations to tell the OpenZ story, loves it. He gives a presentation and people can ask questions in the chat, which he can answer immediately or hold onto them for after.
He can also invite potential customers from many different places into the same demonstration. The interface is very user-friendly. As for inviting the customer to the presentation, it’s easy. Thomas has all his appointments in Circuit. All he has to do is send the customer an email and, click, they’re there. More people want to join a bit later? No problem. It’s a much more effective sales tool than TeamViewer ever was.
I’ll give you a recent example of how beneficial Circuit has been when it comes to speaking with our customers. I had a call with a customer who wanted to show me his issue on his screen. I solved it, rewrote the software on the server, and then showed him my screen with the browsers side by side, before and after. He could see the difference. This conversation and screen sharing all happened within Circuit. Compare that to a year ago: the customer and myself both trying to describe what’s on our screens. It’s night and day.
And unlike Skype, Circuit can live in the background while I get on with my work. If I have a question for Stefan, I have a better course of action. Maybe he’s busy in a meeting. But if I send him a message on Circuit, I know that as soon as he’s available, he’s going to see I could use some help. It’s vastly more efficient.
We used to have phone calls separate from messaging, which was separate from Skype. Now, every medium is gathered in this one space with Circuit, and it’s the same technology for talking to Stefan as it is for talking to our latest client. Having our communication in one place means I don’t have to look all over for a file. I just search for it in Circuit, the file’s right there, and I can get on with my work. If I need to loop another person into the conversation, that’s easy because my contacts are right there too.
I love my work and I find it rewarding, but I want to use my time at work efficiently. I want to know immediately when there’s a problem, and not waste minutes chasing down bits of information here and there. When it comes to ways to spend my time, I’d rather be at home in my garden or at a concert.
Frictionless Communication: Now Nothing Holds Us Back
ERP gets to the heart of any business. Our customers rely on us, and I’m the one they call if something goes wrong.
They stay loyal because they like how we approach their problems, not just as partners—but as one great big team. Our customers see how our software has improved their company, reducing their needs for IT personnel or equipment, and in turn, their costs.
OpenZ has grown so much as a company since we went to market in 2010. I see our focus in the years to come still being on ERP systems, but making it even easier for customers to use, so they get all the benefits of the software’s complexity without having to think too much about it. We want to help our customers find their way to their best work. We aren’t the largest ERP company by any means, but our customers appreciate how we do business: our commitment to open-source, web-based software and a collaborative approach. Now with a fully integrated, easy-to-use communication system, we can work together even better.
Turning a customer’s vision into software is ultimately about making lives easier. Knowing I’ve listened to their needs and delivered on that end is a great feeling. The biggest compliment for a developer is when you’re talking to the customer and they have no more issues or questions. At the end of the day, I can enjoy the quiet satisfaction of a job well done.