Change and Our Annual User Conference

October 23, 2009

At the end of August, I attended a user conference as a vendor. This was nothing unusual, since we are always the featured vendor at an annual conference in the fall that was essentially built around our company and product.

This year, however, we made some changes. Change was due, and it wasn’t a question of what, but more of a question of when. For more than one reason, our conference attendance has been declining, and low attendance doesn’t make you feel great as a vendor. There is simply less energy and excitement to get your blood flowing.

For us, conference attendance has been dwindling for GOOD reasons. We develop enterprise-level software for the insurance industry, and we have made tremendous strides in improving the quality of our releases in the last several years. We also do a much better job of addressing critical issues and adding enhancements on behalf of our customer base.

Needless to say, one unfortunate reason that we had higher attendance in years past was because our customer base wanted to beat us up! They felt that they needed to corner us and collectively press us to address our quality issues and their needs. As we’ve improved our delivery and paid more attention to servicing our customers, they have had less to complain about, which in turn reduces the urgency that customers feel about attending a conference.

Over the years we’ve also increased our on-site customer visits and leveraged the Web, conducting Webinars, posting information to a new Community Site that we developed, and generally have been more open and communicative. Our customers understand what we’re working on, what the priorities are, and what our challenges are because we communicate better. They also appreciate our challenges and the work that we do as a result. And again, this gives them less reason to attend a conference.

They also understand and appreciate that we have a certain capacity to continually add new capabilities to our product line. We’re not a large organization, and these days we are sized appropriately in terms of the revenue that we generate. This does place constraints on us, but our customers agree with our overall vision and direction; the big question now is: How fast can we deliver on our vision?

In general, our customers enjoy the time and dialog with us at the annual conference. But it has become very tough for us to fill up an entire conference with compelling new content on an annual basis. At the beginning of the year when we began planning for the conference, we understood that the economy was down, and we expected that our conference attendance to be down as a result both of these factors.

Fortunately, we had another option! We used to be an independent operation, but now that we are a part of a larger company, and it was advantageous all the way around to combine into one conference that represented a larger suite of sister products under one one corporate umbrella.

Of course, this change had some impacts on us. The date for the combined conference was ahead of our usual conference date, so many of us scrambled to prepare presentations and demonstrations. Not that we didn’t scramble in years past – after all, does anyone ever have as much time to prepare as they would like? I found myself scrambling in August, the month when I take a week off to enjoy the short summer that we get in Maine.

My role at these conferences is always as a speaker on one or more topics, and I typically am involved in putting together rolling PowerPoint presentations for our booth. I’ve also done my share of booth-duty in years past, demonstrating products and answering questions.

This year, the change in location and the moving up of the date changed our original planning. I was slated to co-present on QA Automation. As a development manager, I have been involved with QA Automation efforts at our office this past year, in part because I allocated a developer to assist in this effort.

Changing of the timing and location of the conference left me in to my own devices – I was suddenly the only presenter! Fortunately, I have given my share of presentations over the years, so this did not produce any anxiety. I did need to spend some time thinking about just what the heck I was going to present, however…

Next post, I’ll cover my thoughts about QA Automation, using material that I pulled together to present at the conference.