Friday, March 4, 2016

FAIL: Convention Data Services and Xpress Connect Lead Capture Software

Happy New Year. It's been quite a while since my last post, not for a lack of things to write about, more just the result of a busy schedule. However, today's post is one that pushed me over the edge and really required a full retelling.

Tradeshow Lead Tracking Software. It's been around for a long time. There are a handful of companies that do it. Scan badge. Connect to database. Provide registration info from database to exhibitor. Over the years, I've seen many versions and even heard varying rounds of complaints (e.g. "we need paper to write notes on".

A couple of years ago, the companies that provide lead scanning services decided that it would be a whole lot more efficient for them if the got out of the hardware business (remember those scanners with the rolls of printer paper?) and just started selling licensing codes for their own app. After all, most people already had iPhones or iPads, with an app, the company could charge the exact same amount that they did for the base system without having the costs associated with their hardware. For the companies doing the lead scanning, it was WINNING in all caps. After all, software is easy, right?

Well, shitty software is easy.

In principle, badge scanning software should be easy too. Scan a bar code or a QR code using the built in camera, access the registration database, then log that scan / visitor. The reality is not quite so straightforward. The old hardware units didn't connect to the registration database until after you turned the device in, so they didn't need network connections. As anyone who's been doing events for a long time knows, most event spaces are not very network friendly. At conferences and events where they provide wifi, it's often over-subscribed, not secure, and ultimately unreliable. If you bring a device with cellular access, like a smart-phone or a mifi, you may have connectivity, but there are lots of event spaces with big cellular dead spots -- convention centers and hotels buried under lots of steel and concrete. What this means is that depending upon network access and a cloud database is nice in theory, but not so solid in practice.

So, imagine you're designing software for event spaces. Would you really want to write software that requires network access to validate and log-in? Well, possibly, as you probably want to validate that access code that you've just charged somebody one badge scanner for. But, once you've validated and logged in, should you make it default to automatically sync on each scan? That sounds like software that is expecting a reliable network connection. And yet, CDS Xpress Connect software does just that. It even generates errors if automatically sync is selected but there's a problem with the network. How do I know this? Because one of my iPad devices had some occasional problems with the wifi network from the mifi we were using at Photonics West.

But as I said, this is not the first. When they first rolled the software out, I had multiple iPads assigned for badge scanning. Now, as it happens, I set up those iPads with the same user ID. As the show got underway, we began experiencing issues with the iPads. I set them up and both seemed to be working, but then one would stop working. I visited the desk at the show. They talked me through a couple of steps and it seemed like everything was working again. So back to my booth. In short order, it turned out that the other device wasn't working. After my second trip to the support desk, it became clear that you couldn't have two devices registered under the same Apple ID running the software.

For Photonics West, I was prepared for the hassle. Rather than using "identically" configured iPads, I wiped one of the iPads and reformatted it with a different Apple ID. On launching the software at the show, I still had problems with the Xpress Connect software. It didn't just want a unique Apple ID, I needed a separate "Log in" for their software. Once again, I had to create another login before I could get devices to work.

It was early in the first day, one of our first visitors to the booth, and the sales guy went to scan their badges. Instead of scanning the badge, the Xpress Connect software began issuing error messages. "Unregistered badge" or some sort of similar nonsense. Sure enough, not only did it error on the visitors, it was erroring on our own booth staff. Off to the support desk again, a wait in line, and a test. "It seems to be working okay." And back to the booth. One guess as to root cause was that the sales guys might have tried using an app from a different show and a different lead system. We tested on the booth staff and everything seemed to be working. As the show went on that day, the same thing happened. Finally, I identified the active sync feature and disabled that -- assuming some network issues causing problems -- and that seemed to eliminate the errors.

Bad Software Meets Lame Customer Support
So collecting your leads after the show is over usually runs the same way. You go to the site provided by the software company, use a code or a link that they've given you, and you can access your leads. But this time, things didn't work out that way. First, I did a final sync on one of the iPads, a niche business with a limited number of badge scans. Next, I went to do a final sync on the main iPad, the one with nearly 100 badge scans. When I accessed the site to download my leads, all of the niche business leads were there, but none of the active business leads were there. I went back to look at the iPad and try resyncing with the Xpress Connect software. But the situation went from bad to worse. Now the iPad was not showing any leads. I couldn't seem to even access the information in order to resync it or, if I had to, manually enter those leads.

So I called Convention Data Services help line. After navigating their phone menu -- a not particularly straightforward one at that, given that it seemed more focused on sales than support -- I got to a "customer support" person who attempted to walk me through the steps of syncing the iPad. They then went on tell me that, oh yes, they could see my data was there -- the data from the niche business iPad. That's it. As I tried to explain to them about the second iPad, they informed me that they couldn't help me and that I'd need to talk to "Tech Support". They gave me the guy's name and number, said to call, leave a voice mail, and that he would call me back before the end of the day. This was Monday morning California time and Convention Data Services is located on the east coast, so that meant I could expect a call back by 2:00pm. Meanwhile, I was left to sit and stew, reflecting on the possible impact of having spent a week's worth of time and effort at Photonics West only to have it evaporate.

As with many customer support issues, the longer I sat with no feedback indicating that Convention Data Services recognized my problem and would actually be able to help me, the more anxious I became. Shortly after lunch, I called customer support back and got a different person who basically gave me the same answer. I asked if I could create a ticket or something -- something that might register that they were actually aware of my issue. "No, I can't do that. Tech support would need to do that." And away they went.

As you may already be aware if you follow my Twitter account, 2:00pm came and went with no response from Convention Data Services. I spent the evening thoroughly pissed and ranting on Twitter.

The next morning at 6:30am California time, my phone rang, followed by an email from the Tech support guy. While I missed the initial call, the email was essentially an echo of the basic steps to sync an Android tablet. The Tech Support guy, however, at least knew that I had two devices running and only one of them had synced. In going through the steps to force a sync, it didn't work. The Tech Support guy also provided me with an admin password to access restricted parts of the software. This would enable me to email the database to the Tech Support guy. Unfortunately, when I tried to do that, the database email attachment was empty. Eventually, the Tech Support guy had me export the log files and email them to him. As it turned out, the log files contained all of the badge scans -- even the ones that produced the error messages. Using the log file, he was able to upload the data to their online system.

The FAIL Take-away
There are a host of FAILs in this story. First, there's the software design fail. The active sync feature actually caused more problems than it seemed to solve. Considering that the software is coming from a business that's supposed be very familiar with the limitations of the tradeshow environment, this design decision seems questionable.

Next, there's the basic support FAIL. When you look at the challenges that I've gone through trying to get two devices to run, it looks a lot like a documentation and product information problem. Add to this that at Photonics West, whenever somebody came up to ask for their codes, the people behind the desk needed to "have them scan their screen" because apparently, the Convention Data Services team didn't bring along a printer.

Next, there's the customer support FAIL. When you're customer is having issues, you need to provide them with something that says, I recognize that you have a problem and I am working with you to fix it. While I recognize that Convention Data Services probably deals with many technologically-challenged people and that many issues are probably more customer error than problem, for someone selling software at $400 per use, there's no excuse for not having modern customer support tools. Convention Data Services, let me introduce you to Zendesk. Or Salesforce.com, Desk.com. Something?

Finally, there's this FAIL with the sync process. First, consider the irony -- if I hadn't had trouble syncing, I never would have gotten the information from the badge scan errors, because they didn't show up in the regular list. At the same time, consider what the impact would be if your lead scanning software failed completely. All of that time, all of the expense of your show, all gone. Not only is there the loss of potential business, there's also the loss of goodwill for the customers that you spoke to expecting calls back. If your business doesn't call them, what's their take-away?

With this in mind, the lack of concern from Convention Data Services as I moved through the process was quite troubling. Sure, it's easy for us to take lowly badge scanning software for granted, but in a way, it holds some critical business data. Your trust in it's reliability is actually pretty important. In the old days of paper print outs, you had a fall-back, insurance against the failure of the third party system. With their new system, you can get print-outs, but those print-outs still get all of their info from the cloud.

All in all, I wish I had a some sort of positive take-away for you, but at this point, this is what I've got.

4 comments:

Diane Gilson, President-Info Plus Accounting, Inc. said...

Thank you for outlining the issues you encountered!

We're going to be doing our first booth at a very large trade show in January, and were planning to utilize badge scanners to collect data.

Now I'm very concerned. This is a big investment for us, and if we have to spend a lot of time NOT talking to potential clients because we're having to troubleshoot our badge scanners, and/or if we have to walk away WITHOUT our leads, it would have a huge impact on us.

So what are our alternatives?

yaMarketingGoomer said...

I understand your concerns. I've seen some companies that have purchased third party scanning devices, but I've been rather mixed on them. For one, there is a layer of hassle required with setting up a third party device to work with your specific show.

At the same time, having used apps from several different providers, there are some that are better and some that are worse -- the app that we used at MD&M East and MD&M West (I don't remember the name of the software at the moment) seemed to significantly outperform the Convention Data Services software. The scanning/identification portion of the process was extremely fast and seemed to be able to pick up the barcode even when it just appeared in the framing area.

I contrast that with the CDS app. Using this at Semicon West, we had one guy come through that kept causing the application to crash and caused his badge to disappear. When I talked to the CDS people on site about it, they initially told me it was my problem. After one guy finally pulled a log and saw that the one name was missing, he reprinted the badge and tried to scan it using his iPhone and it crashed there as well. Eventually, he was able to load it into the system using one of their in-house Android devices. Apparently, there was something in the record that just caused it to crash.

I caught this issue at the show. I would recommend being aware of your scans and watching out for "scanning issues". I like having my own device instead of theirs. And remember, even the CDS app appears to have a detailed log that a tech can extract everything if it somehow "goes missing".

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