Spreadsheet support

One of the common issues customers highlight is the lack of on-going support available for their custom spreadsheets.

I see this as a real barrier quite often, in fact previous clients have insisted I avoid VBA to enable their in-house team to provide on-going maintenance. If you have to twist and contort some horrible formulas to do something that is trivial in VBA then this doesn’t necessarily hold true of course.

I always support my own work, and Codematic is now specifically offering to support and maintain other peoples spreadsheets, no matter who wrote them and what state they are in. (this can be quite entertaining!)

What I would like to see though is some sort of cooperative group of developers where we are willing and able to look after each others work (at a price of course). I think being able to go to a client and say:

“If I build this system for you, you have the security of knowing 20/30/40 (or more?) other professional developers are ready willing and able to keep it working for the rest of its useful life”

This was what I had hoped for with PODA early on, but its aims are maybe more general. I think there is still space for a specialised organisation.

I dont really have any firm ideas on what form this might take, but I think it would have to be free/cheap for developers to join. It would be handy if there were a forum for advice and best practice too.

So my questions are:

Have you experienced this lack of ongoing support barrier?

If you were a customer would this offer of on-going support reassure you?

Do you think this is a good idea/ workable idea, and would you join in?

Any other thoughts?

cheers

Simon

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14 Responses to “Spreadsheet support”

  1. Ross Says:

    Hi Simon,

    Yeah I think it is a fine idea. I would also say somthing over at PODA, because it is most likely that’s where you will get most of your membership from? (even if it is outside of PODA)

    I suspect there might be a sigificant skew in location of members though.

    How would it be coasted and how would you cost it for the customer, a tariff? This might prove tricky as I guess there is a range and some dev’s might expect more than others, meaning you’d have to fine a median, which might put off some guys? Tricky

    Then there is the question about how it would work as a business, I guess it would be that company A is the consultant, and company B is a partner of company A who offers the support service. So company B would need to be organised as a separate entity?

    I’m sure it would work though; I think the biggest issue will be providing sufficient geographical coverage, especially during the working week.

  2. Simon Says:

    Ross
    It could maybe work as a subset of PODA?
    I was thinking of something fairly informal, whereby we all agree to look after each others work if needed.
    ie I deliver a 3 month project to client with a support note that says if they get no response from me then contact the group (maybe just some member list on a site?). I disapear, they go to the web site, contact a couple of people, one of whom picks it up, and charges their normal rate.
    I had another idea where you charge the client an extra few days worth of time and pass that money on to someone within the group to review the model ready for instant handover if required.
    I’m open to ideas really
    How about tying it into an open source VBA spreadsheet auditing tool set?
    Oh and I was thinking more on a remote basis than on-site, but that could be up to the client to choose the dev most suitable, at least this way they get a choice.

  3. gobansaor Says:

    Who, where or what is PODA?

  4. Simon Says:

    Sorry
    PODA is the professional Office Developers Assoc
    http://www.proofficedev.com/

  5. gobansaor Says:

    Thank you, never heard of it before, I’ll check it out.

  6. gobansaor Says:

    Tried to subscribe to PODA’s blog RSS feed but it’s not working.

  7. Ken Puls Says:

    That’s not good…

    The feed for PODA’s blog is actually http://proofficedev.com/blog/?feed=rss2

    I’m not sure why it’s pointing where it is, but we’ll get that fixed up. We may actually take this opportunity to snap in Feedburner to monitor the subscribers, actually, so it may take a day or two to get working again.

    Thanks for pointing it out. :)

  8. Marcus Says:

    I also provide support for solutions I develop – it’s almost mandatory. Client’s need reassurance that you’ll be around next year to make changes or simply to ask questions.

    I’ve also provided support to maintain other people’s work (spreadsheets & databases) but only for existing clients who (almost literally) begged. I’m in half minds about continuing. The main concern is not technical but managing expectations. When the solution you’re maintaining is below standard (however you want to define that) it’s sometimes awkward convincing the client that a workaround is required to accommodate poor design or coding practices. I don’t want another supplier’s poor work to mar my reputation with the client. To counter (myself) it probably comes down managing the relationship and expectation with the client (as well as educating them).

    Real world (non-software )example: Friends of the family own a hotel which they were extending upwards. The builder went bankrupt. It took almost 18 months to contract another builder to resume the work. Why? No one trusted the work of the bankrupt builder. The new builders first spent 6 months cutting out sections of the concrete and getting it chemically tested to ensure the job was done properly. No one wanted to bear the brunt of building on someone else’s poor workmanship.

    Could this same moral be applied be applied to a spreadsheet maintenance scheme? How could quality, standards and workmanship be maintain and assured?

    I also agree with Ross’ point about geographical coverage. Many clients wont allow their files to be taken off site (at least until some trust has been established).

    On the upside I think many companies could see the value in a global support framework particularly in banking and large corporate where their time frames are tight and fast turn arounds are required.

    How could this charged? Annual support contracts for maintaining any of their spreadsheets. Many customers may want SLA’s and support agreements.

    It’s an interesting idea, Simon. While in principle I think it could be done, the logistics would need some sound fleshing out.

  9. Simon Says:

    Marcus
    Great point about tradesmen, a few of my mates work in the trades – plumbing, joinery etc. They only really do rip out and replace jobs, for that very reason – lack of trust.

    However I fixed a horrible spreadsheet for a client recently, I told them in clear terms the issues, fixed it up to survive a few more reporting cycles, with a view to a proper rebuild (probably in a db) in the new year – not heard back about the migration yet!

    That would be a key criteria for membership of ths support network – the others would have to be willing to support your work.

    I had proposed fairly stringent membership criteria for PODA for this very reason, but they went with a more open approach.
    Should we move this discussion to the forums there?I’ve lost my login details of course.
    cheers
    Simon

  10. Ken Puls Says:

    Hi guys,

    I’ve fixed up the blog feed at PODA, and installed the Feedburner plugin to boot. The feed on the site, as well as what I’ve given above, both work.

    Simon, re your login, I don’t think you’ve signed up since we moved the site to the new software.

  11. Dennis Wallentin Says:

    Simon,

    Interesting and also a very important aspect You single out. From my point of view I would like to summarize as the following:

    #1 Documentation
    It does not provide clients with a 100 % assurance but at least 80 %. I strongly believe that documentation is a mutual benefit as it gives us consultant an assurance that other consultants can maintain and develop the solutions.

    What we need to fully understand is that, no matter what, it’s always difficult to take over someone else works. After all, our minds are individual and we can never setup a standard that everyone can use.

    The customers who have an insight of the need of documentation are also willing to pay for it and it’s up to us to convince the customers about the need.

    #2 WAN group
    I use the name WAN (Wide Area Network) group to describe to clients how I work. It includes my Swedish network with consultants that cover several areas but also VBA and Office. It also include my international network.

    Upto this date I have only used my Swedish network mainly because customers want to work with Swedish consultants.

    Summarize:
    Both #1 and #2 are strong sales arguments and to a high extend they eliminate the discussion about the risk to hire a micro consultant.

    Kind regards,
    Dennis

  12. Charlie Hall Says:

    Simon,
    I like the concept and do believe that it would provide a benefit to my consulting practice. I have experienced clients that hesitate to accept a more effective solution, because it means VBA and they feel unable to support VBA internally. If I could offer future maintenance support if I became unable to provide such support, I believe it would help – although that would need market research, or at least actual situations, to find out if it is compelling enough.

    And I would not be overly worried about supporting others who also have a passion for good spreadsheet design and best practices. Inherently I suspect the models and code are going to be better than what I see from my clients

    Great idea!
    –Charlie

  13. Bill Benson Says:

    Simon, the idea is one in which I see far more risk than reward. I think while it might be a crutch for the lesser competitive outfit, it would not be a growth lever to a successful consultant or firm. And ask yourself this: After you’ve worked hard to convince them you’re the best their money can buy, do you want to unravel that impression by trying to assure them that your peers can pick up where you left off, should need arise.” Isn’t it better to just tell them that in the unlikely event something goes wrong, you’ll be happy to service them? And that, given your tremendous value-add to them, you’ll be winning so many repeat engagements from them that you’re likely to be on hand in any case, to do the servicing.

    Just my thoughts, good luck!

  14. Simon Says:

    Ken
    ahh – that would be why! now re-signed up, thanks – excellent work PODA btw, looks like a strong organisation getting stronger.
    Dennis
    Good points, I’ll post about my view on documentation eventually, it sounds like you already have the sort of network I am thinking of on a local basis.
    Charlie
    Thats about how I see it, get the right people with the right approach and the rest should drop into place.
    Bill
    Interesting insight as ever, this is a very real possible down side, I guess I’m thinking the benefits may outweigh it, but that may just be on a client by client basis.
    I’ll re-post in a week or 2 to give everyone chance to feedback through the various groups.
    Thanks for your inputs folks
    cheers
    Simon

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