Three CEOs each review a different business software package--HR Task Counselor, WebTalk,
New software packages help you position your products, manage your people, and cut your phone costs. Our CEO reviewers take their measure* * *
CRUSH from Hands-On Technology, Burlingame, CA (800-772-2580; price $499), a marketing-analysis program. (Crush 1.1, released after we went to press, is a CD-ROM with direct Internet access and industry-specific data. Owners of the original CRUSH can get free upgrades to version 1.1.)
Jordan E. Ayan (firstname.lastname@example.org), president of Create-It! Inc., a technology-consulting firm based in Naperville, IL
486/50 MHz IBM compatible, or 68040 or faster processor running Mac OS 7.1 or later; 12 MB RAM; double-speed CD-ROM drive; 13-inch color monitor, minimum 256 colors; 12 MB hard-disk space; SoundBlaster or compatible audio system
A well-developed marketing-positioning strategy can mean the difference between a product's success or failure. Marketing-consulting firms can help you develop and periodically update a plan, but the service may carry a hefty price tag. Now there's a tool that not only helps you develop a strategy and keep it timely but also lets you tap the expertise of one of the country's leading marketing strategists, Regis McKenna, all for much less than you might expect. The software, appropriately named CRUSH, combines state-of-the-art multimedia with analysis tools and expert advice to help you crush your competitors.
CRUSH defines new levels of quality and interactivity for CD-based business multimedia. Using audio and video, the program leads you through a series of interactive questions about your product, competing products, the market you're targeting, and the business climate, and directs brainstorming sessions on marketing trends that may affect your offering. Finally, based on your input, it creates a positioning map that compares market factors, along with a detailed report and an action plan. It also helps you develop a database to keep the plan current.
Key to the effectiveness of the program is the excellent coaching available through a module called Mentor. When you need advice, you simply click on the Mentor button, and video footage of marketing consultant McKenna pops up with suggestions. Interesting case studies about how Coca-Cola and other companies have dealt with each step of their marketing plans make the concepts easier to understand.
I used CRUSH to help my company position a new Internet-training seminar and workbook we're launching. The program first had us generate a list of broad market trends in categories like New Technology, Economy, and Politics. Under New Technology, for example, we came up with the Intranet, the falling cost of accessing the Web, and the speed of change on the Web, among others. The program summarized the trends we'd noted in a chart, from which we could easily select those we felt might affect the launch.
CRUSH also helped us identify competing products and compare their strengths and weaknesses with those of our product. Then we rated how our product and our competitors' products address the market trends we'd already identified. At each step in the process, we were able to feed information about our competitors into a database; the information could be included in a final report or accessed in the future.
The positioning map CRUSH ultimately generated made it very clear that our customized product is the best choice for companies that want to offer in-house training because it is highly flexible -- a quality that goes a long way on the Internet, given how rapidly the technology is changing. On the other hand, some of our competitors' products -- like off-the-shelf books and and nationwide courses -- are fairly difficult or expensive to change. That information was critical to our sales and marketing plan.
The only problem we had with CRUSH is its interface: it's very awkward to navigate, especially if you're used to Windows or Windows 95. For example, the Help menu is neither standard nor intuitive. Clicking on Help reveals a screen with just three pages of information, not the searchable Help database that is usually found in today's Windows environment. You can't enlarge most of the text windows, making it impossible to see some screen data. There is no spell-checker, and the fonts seem to change for no discernible reason after you've entered information. Changing CRUSH to a standard Windows interface would give an extra boost to an otherwise fine offering.* * *
HR Task Counselor from Jam.LOGIC Designs Inc., Englewood, CO (800-750-8113; base price $499), human-resources software for small to midsize companies
William Floyd (email@example.com), executive vice-president of Investors Financial Group Inc., a $50-million financial-services provider based in Atlanta
486/33 MHz IBM compatible; 8 MB RAM; 11 MB hard-disk space; Windows 3.1
Need help tracking your employees' performance? Confused about how to comply with government regulations? Wondering if it's appropriate to ask an applicant how she spends her spare time? HR Task Counselor, the equivalent of a human-resources manager on disk, can handle those daily personnel functions and more.
The software is a boon for companies in the 15- to 200-employee range, where the HR role is often performed by the controller, the office manager, or even the owner. A single icon kicks things off, revealing four areas of responsibility covered by an HR department. The Application Counselor sets the scene for evaluating prospective employees, offering everything from questions you can and can't ask in an interview to telephone reference checks. The Hiring Counselor provides a company Rolodex, a kind of storage bin for information on company hires. (An on-line module that feeds into the company network gives managers access to the Rolodex and other records.) The Employee Counselor makes it easy for managers to prepare employee evaluations. And finally, the Termination Counselor offers a standard exit interview and release agreement, and describes COBRA. Checklists help you manage details as small as ordering keys for new employees' offices. Other modules allow you to track inventory (for example, the hardware and software assigned to individual employees), report expenses on-line, and even run an on-line library of forms and procedures.
Not only employers benefit from the program's comprehensive reach. The on-line module lets employees check out new-job and other postings, benefit information, and a company handbook (which can be updated at will). Jam.LOGIC can even add custom documents -- say, quarterly updates on employees' goals. All that, and it's easy to install and use, too.
So what's the downside? There's not much of one. The data handling isn't as sophisticated as it could be in dealing with errors or carrying forward data that have already been entered. For example, several times when I input the wrong information, the program crashed and I was shipped back to the Program Manager. Much more helpful would have been a simple beep or other indicator to tell me I was on the wrong track. Also, there's an inconsistency in the screens, almost as though they were designed at different times or by different people. (On some you use scroll bars to move up and down a form; on others, buttons.) However, those lapses are offset by an annual maintenance contract (available for $300 or 20% of the retail price, whichever is higher) that covers updates for both the software and the government regulations inside. Still, given the nature of the program, it would have made sense for Jam.LOGIC to calculate the cost of updates into the original price of the package.
But those are minor quibbles. Would I buy HR Task Counselor for my company? Two years ago I'd have paid dearly for it. Since then I've hired a full-time HR person. She's looked at several packages that cost two to five times more than this one and don't provide as much information. As soon as she can tunnel through the paperwork on her desk, I'm going to have her evaluate the program. I think it just might make her life a lot easier -- and improve the way our new and current employees feel about their company.* *
WebTalk from Quarterdeck Corp., Marina del Rey, CA (800-683-6696; price $49.95), an Internet audio connection
Garry Kvistad (firstname.lastname@example.org), founder and CEO of Woodstock Percussion Inc., a 17-year-old maker of wind chimes and distributor of other musical instruments, in West Hurley, NY
486DX/33; 8 MB RAM; 3 MB free disk space with your own browser (13 MB if you use the program's); Windows 3.1; Windows-compatible 16-bit sound card; speakers; microphone; 14.4-bps modem; any Winsock 1.1-compatible network stack; FLIP or PPP Internet connection
My business is music, so the idea of software that would let me communicate audibly with customers over the Internet was exciting. I could imagine the benefits of demonstrating wind chimes and drums all over the world at no cost. Billed as a program to "make yourself heard," WebTalk promises to let you "use your PC just like a phone." A phone whose lines were cut would be more like it.
Installation and setup were the first hurdles. For starters, Quarterdeck should supply a reference list of the information you need to register and start up the software: an E-mail account number, an SMTP server, a POP3 server, an NNTP server, and so on. Instead, the program is set up so that when you enter one piece of information, you're prompted for the next. That means time lost scrounging around when you thought you were ready to go. Luckily my IS director was by my side and could readily supply me with the information; most users won't be so fortunate.
Yet even knowing the numbers wasn't enough. While I was trying to finish the installation, a dialog box kept trashing my E-mail address. I called Quarterdeck's technical support but hung up after spending 10 minutes on hold. The Help function was, well, no help: it had nothing to say about why the program kept rejecting the address. Finally, the program accepted the address, and I was able to go on.
At least I thought I could. The next obstacle was connecting with my Internet server. My second try was successful; I still don't know why. The victory was short-lived, however, because the link kept breaking. Without the help of my IS director, I'd still be trying to make a connection.
At last I was able to place a call. The code names of other users appeared in boxes on the screen. I clicked on one that turned out to be a woman in Seattle who was also testing the software. Buttons appeared to indicate the "talk" and "listen" modes. I could hear her -- the transmission was choppy but intelligible, like a bad telephone connection -- but she couldn't hear me. We had to resort to the Chat box to get anything across. After nine minutes of discussion about adjustments on her end that might help, I disconnected.
In a later try (this one with my trusty IS director), I was able to connect to and just about talk with another party -- again the line was besieged by static. My correspondent was using a 14.4-bps modem, which may have been the problem. Perhaps Quarterdeck should recommend a 28.8-bps modem and a specific sound card to guarantee better results. In the final analysis, I suspect that the technology isn't quite ready and that AT&T doesn't mind.