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a student affairs entrepreneur who hates the word entrepreneur

The Time A Fellow Software Vendor Yelled At Me

Many television shows and movies start by depicting a community that already has strongly defined roles and habits. The community does things and continues to do things in a certain way because that's how it always has been. Then, an outsider enters. The outsider challenges the status quo. Everything is thrown into disarray and many of the community members who were formerly in a comfortable position no longer have an entitlement to that position.

Ryan Atwood

I felt like that outsider when I entered the very small group of software vendors within Residence Life. There were companies who had been in the industry for 5, 10, 15, and even more years, and many of them do things the same way because that's what they've always done. They've treated clients the same way because that's the precedent they set so many years ago.

My colleagues in the field of Higher Education are constantly pushing the status quo, especially in regards to social justice. We constantly question our surroundings. Why do we, as a society, do certain things? Why is it acceptable to look down on a certain type of person? "Because we've always done that" is not a good answer.

But we found that folks in Higher Education weren't questioning the status quo when it came to software. And that's okay! There are certainly more important things to question, especially in today's climate.

My job revolves around software, so I am obligated to ask these questions. Why does most industry software still use design that looks like it would fit perfectly running on Windows 95? Why is a multiple-day support response time acceptable? Why should clients be nickel-and-dimed for basic needs?

Windows 95

Some vendors do not like hearing those questions. Some of them appreciate the status quo. They have been very comfortable for years and they are perfectly happy with the way things are, even at the expense of clients.

Two years ago, one of our biggest challenges was making sure Roompact could easily receive updated student roster information from a campus database. The particular database we receive information from is usually called a Housing Management System (HMS) -- a software system that helps schools keep track of where a student is living on campus. We built technology that required the HMS to do very little work to make this happen. We did the hard part. Because of that, most HMS companies made this a very easy process. It took them 30 minutes and a few questions via email to come up with a good solution on their end.

But "easy" is not the way one of the HMS companies did business. They told our mutual client that it would cost $5,000 to set up the integration, along with a $1,000 maintenance fee every year after. When I heard this I assumed the HMS was confused by the requirement. All it would take is a phone call to clear things up.

The phone call did not clear things up.

The HMS knew exactly what they were doing. They wanted to nickel and dime their client. They thought that they deserved $5,000 up front and $1,000 every year after, for 30 minutes of work, maximum.

I don't like when things are unfair. This was unfair. I thought I was in a position to make this right for our client. So I negotiated for our client. I told the vendor that they should not charge for this. We haggled back and forth over the course of several emails and phone calls. Here's a snippet of one of my emails:

Other HMSes do this integration for free for a couple reasons:

  1. It's a very, very basic integration
  2. Client satisfaction -- allowing an institution to access data that they own leads to goodwill and happiness, and better client retention for you

Here was their response:

Matt, I can tell you that we are not delivering this for free.

I kept trying to get this price down to $0 for our mutual client. This all culminated in a final phone call in which I kept trying to explain how simple this process was and how the school should have basic access to their own data at no extra charge. The person from the HMS burst out and yelled at me:

"MATT! THAT'S JUST NOT HOW WE DO BUSINESS!"

Well then...

This experience made me realize that there are two ways of growing a business. At Roompact, we continuously improve and expand our capabilities. Increasing that value year after year allows us to not have to worry about nickel-and-diming clients because we'll keep getting more and more clients. We're able to have a mutually beneficial relationship with our industry. I had thought that this business philosophy was obvious. That there was no other way. This experience taught me otherwise. Some businesses prefer to try their hardest to draw blood from a stone.

Matt Unger

Read more posts by this author.

Chicago

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