Commercial software vendors choose to sunset software when it becomes more technologically advantageous and profitable to replace it with a new product. The hope is always that customers will like the new product better.
But that isn’t always the case.
There is a dark side to sunsetting. Users often become reliant on functions and features in older product versions that are not carried through in new products. This disrupts their business processes. A second worry for users is integration, because a new release of software might not continue to work with other systems in the company. A third risk is system failure. If users lag in adopting a new release of software that their vendor no longer supports and the software fails, they have no help.
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The unwillingness of users to abandon Windows XP is one example of a sunsetting complication. A second example I recently encountered was at a medical imaging company that had acquired another company with its own medical imaging technology. The demand of users for both product lines was so strong that the acquiring company decided to continue both products.
So when the time comes to for a vendor to sunset a product, what steps can they take to ensure that they don’t alienate users or or lose customers?
1. Involve all departments in a sunsetting decision
It shouldn’t be up to a VP of product development alone to make a sunsetting decision. The CEO, CFO, VP of customer service, VP of support, and VP of marketing should also be involved. In this way, you can see the total set of advantages and disadvantages of a product change that are likely to be felt by your users, so you can plan for it.
2. Give your customers plenty of notice
There are vendors in some markets that never really tell their customers that they are sunsetting a product (e.g., smartphones). Instead, they just start decommissioning functions and features in the software so that the product begins to deteriorate. A better way to approach sunsetting is to communicate directly with your users so they have ample notice and can prepare. An ideal transition time for commercial software is 18 months after the move is first announced.
3. Provide migration assistance
With some products, migrations can be complicated. In these cases, vendors should plan to offer migration and support assistance so their users can make a smooth transition.
4. Offer training and/or free seminars/webinars
If the new release of a product significantly differs from the old product, educating your users in advance can really help.
5. Don’t release a new product until you’re sure it works
I once received a new release of system software and one of the modules wasn’t even compiled! A new product release should not be rushed to market if it is hasn’t been thoroughly QA’d. The last thing you want is for your users to have to debug it.
6. Don’t forget about your users’ integration needs
Integration and continuing compatibility are especially important for cloud-based software vendors that are moving to a continuous release approach for their software. With continuous release, new features and functions might be added to software on a daily basis. These new features and functions may work well in a vendor’s test environment, but not necessarily at end user sites, where the new release must integrate with many different systems that the vendor might not be aware of. To manage this risk, if you are using a continuous release software methodology, it is best to stick with standard APIs that everyone uses.