Earning the trust of nontechnical clients

Sometimes you run into business managers who still long for the days of manual typewriters and carbon paper. How do you convince those folks to trust technology?

I need your help. I'm pitching a technology upgrade contract to a couple of small business owners, and I'd like to know what you would do in a similar situation. Here’s one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of progress: One of the employees has threatened to quit if a computer should ever show up on her desk.

One nontechnical apple
Recently, I completed some freelance developer work, and the company liked that I came in at my original estimate and delivered results in a timely manner. I liked that their check cleared.

I could have settled for a one-check-and-out deal, but I like the owners. They don’t know a bit from a byte, but they’re good people. And their technology is so out-of-date, their methods so crude, and their paper-pushing waste so great, I couldn't resist the temptation to offer some help. "You know, you could get more work done more efficiently if you'd let me set you up with a couple of new machines, a LAN, and a laser printer."

Oh, they knew that their IBM Series 1 system, 386-class PCs, and the nine-pin dot matrix printers were out-of-date. But if you mentioned adding a hard drive to the old boxes or buying new equipment, these folks became petrified. One said, "Oh no, that would mean changes, and then there'd be problems...." The other said, "And besides, [so-and-so] will quit if we try to give her a computer."

I had two strong reactions to that conversation:
  • First, I was surprised by this pessimism from two people who had, the week before I met them, ordered a DSL line to be installed in the office. Never mind that they didn't have a computer to which they could connect the DSL line! (One of their clients, weary of shipping tapes every week, suggested that a DSL line would be a better way to transmit the 3-30 megs of data.)
  • Secondly, I couldn’t believe that the owners would let their business operation be hobbled by one bad apple. But they weren’t kidding. I offered to talk to this person and sell her on why getting a PC would be a good thing. But the owners wouldn’t hear of it. (She isn’t even an owner or a relative of an owner—she’s just been with the company forever.)
Subscribe to Jeff's View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you'll get a bonus of Jeff's picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for our TechMail subscribers.
What do you think of my pitch?
Here’s how I pitched my proposal: I estimated that upgrading the system would save thousands of employee-hours every year, resulting in increased productivity and higher profits. I started by addressing the issues of cost and transition:
  • I put together one Visio diagram that showed their existing configuration and another diagram that showed my proposed configuration. I acquired estimates from three different vendors, and I included in the second diagram the lowest cost associated with each piece of equipment and software purchase.
  • Then I created a flowchart illustrating the path data takes under the existing system. I put together a separate flowchart that showed the leaner, more efficient process under the proposed system, which would result in less retyping and fewer pieces of paper for the staff to handle.
  • Finally, I put together a transition calendar that uses the time-honored method of concurrent systems. This client has six major client (database) projects, and my plan is to keep all of the old systems running exactly as they always have, and to convert one project (database) at a time to the new system. After we’ve run both systems concurrently for a month, we’d evaluate the results on the new system, and start converting another project the next month.

As far as the rogue employee is concerned, I decided not to fight that battle. She’s obviously been able to do her job without a computer for a long time, and the owners definitely didn’t want to call her bluff about quitting. So I said, “Don’t let her stand in the way of upgrading the system for the benefit of everyone else in the company.”

At this writing, the owners still haven’t made up their minds about whether to upgrade their Stone Age system. But I have won one small battle—I got them to replace one of the dot matrix printers with a laser printer. Even the employee who refuses to use a PC commented that the new printouts “are much easier to read.”
Have you been forced to deal with a nontechnical client or manager who was too afraid of technology to do the right thing? To comment on this article or to share your own tips for overcoming objections from the technically challenged, please post a comment below or drop me a note.

Editor's Picks