Creating the ultimate customer-friendly software release schedule

By: Patrick Daniels, Milestones Professional Expert User

As someone who has spent over 20 years working in high tech, I can personally tell you that software companies often make it difficult for clients to understand their release schedule and overall product support lifecycle.  Customers are constantly forced to ask their account rep about future release dates and usually have to do extensive searches on the vendor’s website just to find the right product support policy documentation.  It’s obvious that software companies want their clients to use the latest and greatest product…but why isn’t more effort put into making release dates and product support lifecycle information easier to find and comprehend?

Consider the following real world enterprise-class software scenarios:

  • A key banking client needs to know when the latest software patch will be available so they can plan additional stabilization efforts before a late October production freeze.
  • A Fortune 100 energy company using an older version of software needs to know how many remaining days they have until their product support expires. The answer will impact business decisions on whether or not to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars, worth of extended support services.
  • A large insurance company won’t have funding to upgrade a key environment until Q2 2017. Given the timing of this funding, which software version/release does it make sense to plan for?

You might be surprised how many times the above scenarios often go overlooked until the last minute.  And while it’s certainly the client’s responsibility to understand their vendor’s product lifecycle, you can’t blame them for being confused considering they’re often dealing with multiple software companies, each with different policies.  My overall point here is that software companies who make it complicated for customers to find and digest this information will ultimately experience a higher percentage of support escalations and more customer churn.  Put simply, people don’t like doing repeat business with companies who use complicated, non-transparent communication.

In my previous role as a Senior Customer Success Manager at a leading Identity Management Software company, I was responsible for 30+ accounts who represented a significant portion of our annual revenue.  And since we were the largest independent Identity and Access Management software company in the world, we fully understood that our solution was an enterprise-class software with a lot of moving parts. We supported multiple releases, had simultaneous ongoing software development initiatives, and a 4-year product support lifecycle.  My team’s challenge was clear…make sure our customers clearly understood our release schedule and product support lifecycle to maximize the success of their current and future implementation initiatives.

To accomplish this goal, I found the perfect solution.  As a long-time user of Milestones Professional, I’ve always been able to count on its unique ability to depict a vast amount of critical information in an easier to understand and more presentation friendly format.  Using a variety of symbols in Milestones to convey key information, as well as the ability to hyperlink to supporting documentation, our Global Customer Success team could easily keep clients updated and aware of ALL key release dates and support policies that are critical to their implementations.  A picture truly paints a thousand words here and my clients and co-workers loved it!

For existing Milestones Professional users needing tips for a similar initiative:

  1. First, determine your key dates and the best symbols to use for representation.  In my schedule, I chose the following:
  2. Consider using symbol hyperlinks on symbols depicting dates pertaining to key policies and/or documentation.
    • For example, for every “version release” or “patch release” symbol, I linked to an actual web page announcement with relevant software documentation.In the PDF generated file, when a customer clicks on the “6.3” symbol…

      …the symbol hyperlink activates and opens up the relevant web page.
    • Additionally, when customers click on the “limited support” or “end of support” symbols…

      …the symbol hyperlink activates and opens up the product support policy documentation.
  3. Use the current date line option. This makes it easy for customers to see the delineation between past and future dates.
  4. Use symbol text and or symbol notes to annotate symbols so that clients can easily see version and patch release descriptions, as well as targeted releases.
  5. Use a remaining duration smart column to calculate the number of days before a release goes into expired support. Please make sure the start symbol for each task row (the “version release” symbol) and end symbol for each task row (“end of support” symbol) are Normal Symbols.
  6. Use free form text to highlight additional notes that are important.
    • For example, I used a few different entries:I wanted to warn clients that target dates are ONLY estimates.
      I also used some quick “rule of thumb” guidance on when customers should expect patches/releases.
  7. Consider using a floating legend to save room on your schedule
  8. Use date headings on the top and bottom of your schedule. This makes it easier for your customers to view the overall schedule.
  9. For software release schedules spanning multiple years, you should use yearly vertical gridlines on your schedule.
  10. For the finishing touch, you can add a graphic or watermark to your schedule.