Shopping Software? Six Things to Know

 

One of the wonderful things about doing business in the Traverse region is the closeness of our business community. If you need something from a company with whom you do business, you can meet for lunch at Sorellina to hash out details. There’s nothing like a handshake and the comfort of knowing your vendor partner is right there and has a local reputation to uphold.

Then there’s buying software from a company halfway across the globe. Completely different ballgame, isn’t it? These people don’t know you and the rep who might earnestly try to understand your business is often gone or promoted within a year. I’m not referring to small apps, but the big ones: enterprise resource management/manufacturing resource planning (ERP/MRP), inventory control systems, customer relationship management, e-commerce platforms and similar scale. From years of witnessing great successes and six-figure failures in software selection, here are six things we’ve learned.

  1. Focus inward first

It’s tempting to just “go shopping” and see what’s out there. Take time to define the objectives and flesh out a real requirements list. State the business problems you’re tackling and who will use the software. Ask those people to list their must-have functionality and features that would be nice to have. This can help keep costs in check as you make your selection. (Sexy feature #3 on the proposal wasn’t on the list, so how much do you really need it?)

2. Vendor company really matters

Don’t get so caught up in feature comparison that you don’t really check out the companies behind the software. BestEverSoftware may perform the abracadabra process that’s going to cut the time you spend on transaction entries in half. That’s only beneficial if BestEverSoftware Co. is still in business two years from now.

What does their support department look like? Ask for specifics. How many technicians are there? What is their tenure? What data can they give you about average turnaround time on support requests?

If your business’ operations depend on the software, will they provide service level guarantees for turnaround times? How many hours can you afford to be down? Ask for as many client references as they can give you. The number you get can be telling.

3. The whole cost – over time

Ancillary costs can include internal staff time, vendor partner support, and any infrastructure upgrades required – even if the software is going to be hosted in the cloud. You may need additional bandwidth to handle the load, and/or redundant internet connections, if they don’t exist, to ensure reliable access. These costs won’t always show up in the software vendor’s quotes, so your IT professionals should be pulling those numbers for consideration.

Know what your ongoing costs will be, too. Those may include hosting costs, data storage and backup, software maintenance (the rights to developer support and software updates), support plans, internal training and future version upgrades. Will those upgrades be required from the vendor, or optional at your discretion?

4. The bandwagon effect

I’ve seen this in industry associations. Organization A chooses the BestEverSoftware package, and then Organization B gets word and says, “Well, if they went that direction, it must be good,” and organizations C, D, and E follow suit. But what if Organization A didn’t do their due diligence on the data center where BestEverSoftware is processing transactions (or anything else)? This isn’t hypothetical. Our company has been privy to the investigation of a real-world situation that was exactly this and had big repercussions to their brand.

5. Less proprietary is usually better

Ideally, look for software written on standardized platforms. SQL databases, for instance, can be queried by a million professionals worldwide who know SQL. Custom or industry-specific software may sound appealing, but it often locks your organization in with that vendor, so consider the need for flexibility and controlling costs in the future. Ask prospective providers if they include a software development kit (SDK) and application interfaces (APIs) that allow extensibility for future needs your company may have. Mature software solutions usually have both.

6. Multiple apps might be the best solution

Just because one software package appears to do it all doesn’t mean it does it all well. Here’s a little industry secret: Many of those “all-in-ones” are kind of cobbled together anyway. The Big Software companies buy out smaller solutions for their neat functionality pieces and only semi-integrate parts into their platform. If you’re a manufacturing company, for example, you may be better off arming your shop floor with the best application that will improve productivity for that specific area of your business and just running a daily export of the data that accounting needs. You don’t need all your information in one piece of software to be able to report on it. Data is data … and there are plenty of tools on the market these days that can bring it together.

Beth Holmes-Bozung is a principal at Safety Net, a provider of IT consulting and managed IT services to more than 200 of Michigan’s greatest companies from its Traverse City headquarters. Safety Net was named to the Michigan 50 Companies to Watch in 2017.

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