Oct 2005


By Bill Allen

This is the 10th article in the Tech Talk series.

Every January, the International Builders' Show provides a venue to rollout all that's new and wonderful in the technology industry. Many builders I speak with put off their software purchases until January when they can see everything and then make a decision.

Underneath all the hype and glitz there's another initiative that's nearly as active as the Show itself. Software vendors and consultants (I confess I'm one) renew their relationships in the hallways of the seminar areas and in vendors' private suites. The outcome can range from an update on a vendor's capabilities and limitations to a contractual commitment to "partner."

Those relationships can affect the way home builders buy software for their businesses. For example, after carefully evaluating what's available in stand-alone products like prospect management, service order, CAD, and financial modeling software, most builders decide what to buy fairly quickly. But trying to decide whether or not to buy an integrated system - and then which one to buy - is another story. After all, an integrated system affects your entire business and all operations.

For a builder, the decision-making process starts with a well-documented set of goals and requirements for an information system. So far, so good. As you get further into it, you realize that most vendors fulfill "all your needs." The further you go, the more confusing and murky the information becomes.

At this point many builders seek the advice of an "impartial source" to separate the wheat from the chaff. Enter the information technology consultant, whose job typically ranges from recommending technology solutions to implementing them. "This person will steer us down the right road, right?" asks the builder. The answer is, "It depends."

Today's world is threaded with alliances of one sort or another, and there are plenty in the homebuilding business. Put plainly, some consultants out there are really software salespeople in disguise. They take commissions and curry favors from the vendors they've cut deals with. In my opinion, that's where the line is crossed.

As a prospective software user, it's important to know where to get straight answers. Many IT consultants are dedicated professionals who are very knowledgeable about the home building industry, its trends, and what to avoid. In some cases their software recommendations come from relatively impartial perspectives. However, it's vital to ask them what compensation, if any, they receive from the vendors they recommend.

All consultants, even those that aren't motivated by money, have biases. And it's simply impossible to be on top of all the existing technology options and still be skillful enough to know how to apply them to a specific user.

In professional circles, it's not unusual for a consultant to accept a modest finder's fee from a vendor for providing a lead on a prospective user. This saves the vendor time and money on marketing and selling to the prospect. However, it isn't ethical when the "consultant" receives a significant commission and the customer pays a bloated price for software of questionable value. That can happen when both a sales force and "partners" are involved.

To prevent you from falling into that trap, here are some tips for evaluating technology at the International Builders' Show:

Gather ideas and information from all available resources. Salespeople can give you as much insight as consultants can, and both can help you.

It's appropriate and in your best interest to ask consultants how they are paid and what compensated alliances they have with which vendors.

Get a feel for a consultant's scope of work. In addition to asking about the vendors the consultant works with, find out which markets they work in and whether they recommend technology solutions, help implement them, or both.

Be a sponge. Ask what else you should be asking about. Maybe you can't ask 20 questions, but a salesperson or consultant can raise some you didnt think of.

Concentrate on what the vendors (and their software) you are investigating have done, not what they will do.

Find out who currently uses the software. Builders who use software you are investigating are your most impartial sources. They have worked with the software in their businesses and know its capabilities.

Decide what software to buy only after you can visualize how it will work for you and your employees. This means you will probably not ink a deal until sometime after January.

Bill Allen is a longtime contributor to NAHB's Business Management & Information Technology Committee and is president of W.A. Allen Consulting ( The Redmond, WA, company provides information technology consulting services and process management assistance to the home building industry. Contact Bill at 425-885-4489 or via e-mail at

For more information about this item, please contact William Heslop at 800-368-5242 x8472 or via e-mail at

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