Black Mountain Software keeps customers happy

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Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake Darlis Smith shows off maps displaying the various towns using Black Mountain Software. Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012 in Polson, Montana.

It wasn’t until about 10 years into its existence that Black Mountain Software lost its first client.

In spite of its near-perfect rate of client retention to that point,  Black Mountain vice president Jack Liebschutz said “it was very traumatic. Once we get them, we keep them.”

Client satisfaction is the backbone of the culture of Black Mountain Software. The company with 24 employees in Polson and a dozen in a Helena office provides cities, counties and schools with accounting, payroll and utility-billing software.

Black Mountain software reaches into all corners of Montana, with every town in the state with a population of fewer than 10,000 people counted as a Black Mountain client. Everyone who receives a property tax bill in Flathead County is getting that bill courtesy of Black Mountain’s software. There are 120 schools in Montana using the software.

Black Mountain is growing steadily, with roughly 475 clients in 24 states using the software, anywhere from a one-person office doing the basic finances for a small city to places such as Lake or Ravalli counties, where up to 80 people use Black Mountain’s software on the job.

Chris McGuinness, director of engineering, says the concept for Black Mountain’s software is that it be “solid, stable and boring.”

This means eliminating the drama and hassle that poorly functioning software can bring to a workday.

“My job is to be aware of the ripple effects with the tools we build,” McGuinness said. “If Polson City Hall is having trouble with their software, this will affect someone who is coming in to pay their water bill.”

 

Black Mountain Software came together through the converging paths of Liebshutz and President Wayne Carriere. Carriere had moved from California to Helena in 1980 to work in a small office owned by the company for which he was working.

In 1987 he heard about a small Montana town that needed some software work, and town officials were so pleased they asked if Carriere would write a billing program, since they were displeased with what they were using at the time.

“I asked what they liked about mine and they said it was ‘user friendly and you’ve supported it well,’” Carrier said. “Those are the magic keys and our basic philosophy.”

So in 1988, Carriere struck out on his own, using his software solutions for big companies to help small towns, mostly with  utility billing.

Carriere eventually heard about a similar company in Polson, led by Liebschutz, who had followed a similar road. He had created an accounting system for the city of Chicago, which he thought he could downsize for smaller towns in Montana. So in 1990, Liebschutz brought his family to Polson.

“I’m an engineer and I want to build things to make lives better, to make things easier for the client to stay in business. And have fun doing it,” Liebschutz said.

Carriere and Liebschutz merged forces in 1992, though staying in their respective cities. It was a bit rough at first, with “five years of starving,” Liebschutz said. “It was about year five that we were able to make enough to pay ourselves a reasonable salary.”

Carriere did a lot of the sales early on, with Liebschutz’ ex-wife pitching in. Carriere found a key to getting the ball rolling.

“Out of all our potential clients, 10 percent are the leaders and 90 percent are the followers,” he said. “If you could convince that 10 percent in the leadership role that you have a good product, then they started to speak to everyone else. Then the word spread.”

When they started, there was no Internet, making the geography of the separate offices a bit trickier.

“We’d say, ‘Make a backup and send me the floppies,’” Liebschutz said. “We’re so lucky that the communications situation has changed.”

Though many of Black Mountain’s clients are in places as far-flung as Florida, they rarely have to travel to do software installations, with most done over the Internet. Black Mountain employee travel is usually limited to industry conferences, with Heather Neff, as director of sales, leading a team of three salespeople.

Neff is an example of how Black Mountain has used the skills and energy of its employees to further the growth of the business. Neff was 19 and attending Salish-Kootenai College when she was tapped about 13 years ago for a job by Liebschutz. She started out as support staff for schools, then moved through a number of jobs within the organization to gain her current position, increasing her knowledge of the technical aspects of the software business and helping the company grow all the while.

“I’ve been involved in just about every aspect,” she said. “It [the company’s growth] has been an amazing thing to watch happen.”

Neff said one of the major selling points for Black Mountain Software is its customer support. Knowing how much their customers depend on them, Black Mountain goes beyond strict business-client relationships.

“One of the keys is we’re a little more personal with clients than so many other vendors,” Carriere said. “Many become our friends. They don’t panic when they get in trouble; they know when they call we will be calm and know what we’re doing.”

“We look at it as a partnership,” Leibschutz said.

 Because client support is so crucial to their success, two-thirds of the employees of Black Mountain Software are involved in that aspect. Black Mountain doesn’t always look for technical experts to fill those roles, but often finds people who have backgrounds in city government or accounting so they understand the concerns of those calling for help.

“It takes a special type of person for support people,” Carriere said. “They need to have teaching skills and a willingness to teach people, regardless of educational background or experience.”

Though Montana salaries are not always a great draw in luring talented tech people, the Montana locations of Black Mountain Software offices certainly are.

The Helena office is located in an old bank building downtown and the Polson site occupies part of what is dubbed the “Mansion on the Hill” overlooking Flathead Lake.

Black Mountain headquarters originally were located in the homes of its founders, with Liebschutz’s garage as the Polson space. They moved into a double-wide trailer in Polson, then onto an office at the north end of town.

About five years ago, a 21,000-square-foot home was deserted during construction, left wrapped, unfinished and unoccupied. Black Mountain was able to secure the property and have it turned into office space. Part of the Black Mountain domain is located in the area originally intended as the space for an RV garage. They also have access to a large conference room with a fireplace, enveloped in windows with majestic views of the lake and the Mission Mountains.

There is space for growth. Although marketing efforts have been pumped up by Marketing Manager Darlis Smith, Black Mountain is being careful to maintain a pace that is sustainable.

“We’ve had a discussion whether we want to make a leap and take this to a different level,” Smith said. “But is that something the founders want us to do? Does it make sense for our clients?”

Most of all, she said, “we want to be steady and make sure we do things that work for the long term.”

Business reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or by email at hgaiser@dailyinterlake.com.

Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake Vice president of Black Mountain Software Jack Liebschultz Wednesday morning at the Polson office. Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012 in Polson, Montana.

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