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To do, or not to do

July 16, 2013

I could do it myself, but should I? It may be tempting to save a little money by keeping things in-house but this can be false economy, especially when things go wrong.

You could drive around the country to hand deliver your letters, but you wouldn't. You could grow all your own food, but very few of us would. You could build your own email marketing system to send crucial exam results… but surely you wouldn’t?! Would you?

I was astonished to read that Liverpool University were in the press recently after deciding to announce exam results via email. They developed their own ‘system’ for doing this but failed to test it properly, and as a consequence many undergraduates were sent email with other students’ results instead of theirs. This is hardly a trail blazing use of email technology so I can understand why they may have felt confident in building their own email platform. But, considering the important and sensitive nature of the emails and how cheap email marketing platforms are, why risk it?

Email platforms have advanced in recent years and nearly all of them are easy-to-use and competitively priced. So why re-invent the wheel? Personally I think this is a ‘techie trait’. We often have similar discussions in our office and, when tasked with something out of our comfort zone, have to decide whether we outsource the work to an expert or learn it ourselves.

The commercially minded people always look for the quickest and easiest solution, whereas technically minded people always look to fix the ‘problem’ themselves. The techies accuse sales of being lazy and not understanding how simple it would be to fix the problem themselves for ‘free’… that is, if they are given three days to spec it out and introduce a fix. The sales people remind the techies that the entire department spending 3 days introducing the fix is not actually ‘free’!

There is rarely a clear winner in such arguments because both opinions are valid. So how do you decide? Is it simply a calculation of how much time/money is really saved either way? No, the only way to make such a decision is to look at which solution will produce the best outcome for the client. Saving money but doing a bad job is short-sighted and will lose you money over time. But spending money and outsourcing work doesn’t always guarantee a better result as you lose control and need to trust your supplier to make the effort you and your team would.

In the case of Liverpool University, they clearly should have outsourced this work or at the very least, should have used an established, professional email marketing system. This would have avoided immeasurable stress to their undergraduates who, let’s face it, in the age of tuition fees certainly deserve to be treated like clients, rather than students.

But to defend our technical friends for a moment, in my experience, their intentions are always well-meaning. Wanting to fix problems is born of enthusiasm and an eagerness to tackle a problem, whereas the opinions of sales people (and I include myself in this) is all-to-often influenced by what takes least time and causes least work.

All good businesses need a balance of techies and sales people. Were it up to our sales team we’d employ a catering team to make them brews all day so they can focus on selling. Conversely, were it up to the techies, they’d spend several months perfecting some kind of wind turbine system to power the kettle.

Posted by Alastair Campbell

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