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  How software vendors approach user groups

 

CAP Today

 

 

February 2008
Feature Story

Karen Wagner

Just as the people who compose them have changed through the years, so have information systems user groups. Some have become leaner, while others have increased in size. Some have not altered their mode of communication over time, while others have become more cutting edge. But regardless of their form, user groups continue to maintain the same focus: customer satisfaction.

User groups have changed, confirms Hal Weiner, president of Weiner Consulting Services, Florence, Ore., who has been involved with various aspects of user groups for many years. Rather than having an annual meeting in a hotel, he says, “with the advent of the Internet and blogs and the ability to conduct surveys online and interact with each other, some vendors actually don’t have a formal user group meeting. They do it online. That’s been one of the biggest changes.”

User groups are essentially just that—groups composed of users of a specific software system. Members of the group typically meet on a set schedule to share ideas and give feedback about product functionality problems and features in development and to discuss industry issues. Some groups are run by vendors, while others are run by the users themselves. Meetings traditionally have been held outside vendors’ offices, often in a resort-like setting. However, technology has brought some user group meetings directly to members’ desktops via their PCs.

In an informal CAP TODAY survey of vendors of anatomic pathology systems, 11 of the 18 respondents said they have a user group for their information systems. Of the remaining seven respondents, one vendor reported that it is forming a user group, and three noted that they are open to the idea of starting a user group. The remaining three vendors said they do not have, nor do they plan to form, such a group.

The role of technology
Technology, in general, seems not to have changed the function of user groups, but it has changed how they operate. Some user groups continue to meet via “older” forms of technology, such as teleconferencing and videoconferencing. Others have moved to Web conferencing.

Technology obviously allows user groups to meet more frequently and at less expense than traveling would require. Every year or two, Aspyra, Calabasas, Calif., holds a user symposium that focuses on all of its products. Every month or two, Aspyra also hosts small focus groups for its various products via telephone.

Aspyra is organizing a separate focus group for its anatomic pathology system users, who now meet with the company’s laboratory information systems users. “Shrinking budgets and less time to attend annual conferences are indicators that reflected the need to create the special interest groups that can be hosted telephonically with minimal user day-to-day impact,” says Jay Abrajano, product manager of information solutions for Aspyra.

Likewise for Sunquest Information Systems, Tucson, Ariz. The company hosts an annual four-day meeting at an off-site location. Special interest groups meet quarterly by phone or online for one to two hours to review and prioritize enhancement requests, says Debbie Tillman, senior project manager.

“We have different types of user group meetings because we find that a single meeting or venue is too limiting to provide the type of access and interaction both we and our customers want,” she says.

More recently, electronic mailing lists, such as ListServ, have been gaining ground. The lists offer a more immediate way for users of a system to communicate with each other. Users typically sign up for a specific list and are then connected to an e-mail chain for that list. When a member of the list sends out a question or comment via e-mail, everyone on the list receives the e-mail and can respond. The e-mail list serves some of the same functions as a meeting but much more informally and conveniently.

The user group of Cortex Medical Management Systems, Seattle, operates an e-mail list and holds an annual meeting for users of the company’s applications. The meeting and e-mail list are run by board members of the Cortex user group, an independent entity.

“We can communicate one-on-one with each other,” says Cindy Hegner, president of the Cortex user group and medical practice manager for AnaPath Diagnostics, Cheyenne, Wyo. “And we bounce questions back and forth. If somebody has a question or a particular issue, they’ll throw it to the user group and everyone gets it. We can all answer it, and we all see each other’s answers.”

About three years ago, pathologist Rodney Schmidt, MD, began an independent e-mail list for users of PowerPath software, marketed by Impac Medical Systems, Sunnyvale, Calif. Dr. Schmidt, a professor of pathology at the University of Washington, Seattle, felt the regular user group meetings sponsored by Impac were more about socialization and marketing than discussing the product. “I was frustrated by the lack of a real forum for users to talk to each other,” says Dr. Schmidt.

The e-mail list, called PowerPath Mutual Assistance, has about 250 members, including representatives from Impac, which does not sponsor the list but uses it to communicate with customers. “It’s fairly active, and I think it’s a good, positive forum,” Dr. Schmidt says.

Dr. Schmidt still attends Impac’s annual user group meetings as well. “I think the socialization part is fun,” he says. “I think actually meeting people who are on the list serve is good. And it’s interesting to see what Impac is planning to do.”

Meeting face to face
Many of the vendors that CAP TODAY spoke to indicated that the personal contact offered by a traditional meeting is still important. Even though technology is playing a much greater role in user group communication, all of the vendors with user groups that responded to CAP TODAY’s survey continue to meet face to face at least annually.

The Cortex user group held its 18th annual meeting last September at the Opryland Hotel, Nashville. The meetings are for users of all Cortex products. Cortex user group board members start planning the annual meeting around March and try to find interesting venues, says Hegner. Hegner adds that participation in the annual meetings, which average between 45 and 60 attendees, has increased since she began attending seven years ago.

“You get into a rut where you just use the [software] program like you’ve always been using it,” she explains. “By going to these meetings, you find out, ‘Hey, this program now can do this. How can we implement this in our procedures in our lab?’”

Clients of Psyche Systems often call the company asking for the date of the next user group meeting, says James Gearheart, laboratory sales director for the Milford, Mass.-based software provider. “They look forward to it,” he says. The meetings have been held biannually for about 20 years and between 40 and 50 users attend.

What users want
Like Hegner, most CAP TODAY survey respondents that have a user group reported that clients’ interest in their meetings has grown through the years. They attribute this to vendors keeping the meetings interesting and relevant, especially by adding more training sessions and special interest groups. And as technology has become more complicated, they say, user groups have become more focused on discussing problems and sharing solutions.

“I think the most valuable things out of the user group are the users sharing experiences about how to get things done within the system that, in many cases, the vendor does not know how to do,” says pathologist Raymond Aller, MD, director of automated disease surveillance at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and an advocate of developing user groups in the public health field. “Each domain’s systems are so extensive and have so many capabilities that not a single user—nobody—knows all of the capabilities,” he says.

Technology becoming more sophisticated may be why users, in general, want meetings to focus more on sharing information and less on marketing. Sales pitches, for example, are not welcome at Cortex user group meetings. While the meetings used to include about three hours of presentations by industry vendors pitching ancillary products, the last two meetings have omitted vendor presentations, says Cortex customer advocate Judith Krebs.

“The users told their board members, ‘We don’t want to come to these meetings to be sold something,’” says Krebs. “And since the Cortex user group meeting is created and run by users, their board was able to easily accommodate this request.”

Input from users, in fact, appears to be a growing trend for user groups. Montreal-based MediSolution used to run the user group for its software products. Now the users operate the group while MediSolution hosts the biannual meetings, generally held at the corporate office or off-site at a hotel, says Barbara Hernandez, MLT, MediSolution’s product specialist for TD-Synergy. However, Hernandez says, the company is considering having clients host the meetings instead because users want much more say in general.

“As they [users] become much more sophisticated and knowledgeable, they want to have more of a say in the development and functionality of the product,” she says. “I believe the users want their personality and personal stamp on the products. They want to feel they are making a difference in the direction of the product.”

At GE Healthcare, users participate in the planning of the annual user group meeting, a two-and-a-half to three-day event generally held in a convention-like setting, according to Barbara Mullarky, global product marketing manager, LIS, for the Markham, Ontario-based company. “We think it’s important to hold these meetings,” says Mullarky, “even though attendance has decreased because of budgets and schedules.” Yet, while attendance has decreased, the number of presentations at the meetings given by users, rather than GE, has increased from 10 to 15 percent to 75 to 80 percent, she notes.

“In today’s complex environments, one person or organization is not able to keep up on everything that is available,” Mullarky explains. “User groups also provide a forum for the vendor to obtain the voice of the customer and get consensus on new developments required.”

At Sunquest, the content of user group meetings used to be delivered almost entirely by staff. But over time, Sunquest realized that users have an enormous amount of “native knowledge” that is tremendously valuable to their peers, says Tillman. “Now, a large portion of the content is user presentations—customers sharing their experiences with other customers,” she adds.

A different approach
While advocates of user groups say the meetings provide an excellent forum for vendors to communicate with clients, others say the goals of user groups can be achieved more efficiently via other means, especially for vendors with fewer clients and customized software solutions.

Software that includes customization doesn’t really benefit from a user group, says Gene Calvano, president of Small Business Computers of New England, Manchester, NH. “We tell people, any time they want change, all they [have to] do is call us and we make changes for them,” he says.

User groups have become much less valuable through the years, says Calvano, not only because of increased customization, but also because the number of industry mergers and acquisitions has grown. This, he explains, makes it difficult for vendors to maintain product continuity, which is necessary if a user group is to be helpful. Calvano also asserts that meetings have become platforms for complaining, which is what he experienced while working as a marketing manager for one of the pioneering U.S. computer companies, where he was involved with user groups. “I’d rather have a client that has a complaint call me,” he says, “and we’ll try to fix it.”

Smaller vendors too are wary of adding costs, and traveling to a meeting can add up, Calvano says. “One of the strengths we have is we sell a very low-cost solution,” he notes. “So, we’re trying to keep our costs low also.”

Computer Trust Corp. once had a user group for its WinSurge anatomic pathology system, but it wasn’t useful, says David Liberman, MD, president and CEO of the Boston-based company. Computer Trust prefers instead to work directly with customers by visiting them on site, or for them to work directly with their peers, as issues arise, Dr. Liberman explains.

“WinSurge labs have found that having the vendor come on site, to the lab’s ‘natural habitat,’ is a more effective milieu in which to discuss operational problems, software concerns, enhancement requests, and potential solutions,” he says. “It also provides for broader access to more pathologists, lab staff, and IT professionals than would travel to attend a user group.”

Dr. Liberman agrees that it’s important for customers to be able to discuss issues with each other, but he says online technology, such as e-mail lists, can accomplish this function, again, without the cost of travel. And, he acknowledges that for developing a strong customer relationship, nothing is better than face-to-face meetings. We achieve that by “going to our customers,” he says.

Timeliness is another factor that renders user groups out of date, says Michael Mihalik, vice president of sales for PathView Systems, Anna, Tex. As with other vendors, PathView relies on customer input to enhance its products. However, Mihalik says the industry is far too dynamic to wait for an annual or semi-annual user group meeting to solicit input.

“If you’re waiting for a user group meeting to define the product’s future developments,” he says, “then you are waiting too long.”


Karen Wagner is a freelance writer in Forest Lake, Ill.