Our last post discussed the top three criteria for choosing a software vendor:
- Vendor Stability
- Software Upgrades and Version Release
This installment will address crucial aspects of the actual anticipated working relationship you will potentially have with each vendor and covers:
- Maintenance and Support
- Working Demo
Maintenance and support
With any complex software that is upgraded on a regular basis you can expect occasional problems or issues to crop up. The important thing to look for is a system in place to address these eventualities. This is something that can vary widely by reseller and by manufacturer, and one size does not fit all.
- What are the support terms?
- Are different levels of support available?
- What are the escalation procedures?
- Is there a guaranteed response time (even if only to say that they are still working on the issue)?
- Are upgrades/service packs released on a regular basis?
- Is there a toll-free line, Web support or e-mail support?
- Can you track progress of your support ticket or call on the Internet?
- Who from your team is allowed to contact technical support?
Terms and cost of support will vary. Many will charge an annual maintenance fee which is often calculated from a percentage of your software’s price, to provide basic level support and upgrades. Most will charge an additional fee per ticket item or service related issue, or you may have to pre-pay for a set number of service tickets or hours spent providing support. Just as all support plans are different, so too support services may come in all flavors and colors. Make sure you understand what kind of support is available so that there are no unpleasant surprises down the line. Also, while some resellers and/or vendors may only support their own product, others may have support teams who are able to assist in areas that may be underlying to their solution such as database management. If not, make sure that you find someone that can support those systems so that in the event of an emergency you don’t have to start doing your homework while in crisis mode.
It’s crucial that any potential vendor takes the time to understand your needs and how you work as a company. Be wary of vendors that agree to show you their solution without first asking you some in-depth questions about what you are looking for in a solution and what key issues you are hoping the system will address. That being said, if a vendor has experience with other companies in your space, you may learn from their experience and discover new and better ways to do things so move forward with an open mind.
Ask about the vendor’s implementation methodology. Are they able to customize the software or processes as required? Are the costs of training rolled into implementation? For example while doing some initial data conversion to the new system, perhaps in the process the consultant will show key member of your team how to it for different areas or in the future. Find out in advance what is included in the implementation and rough estimates on how long each item will take. Does the vendor help you set up business rules? Are SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) included? The idea is to uncover as much information as possible and to commit the vendor or reseller (and yourselves) to a plan in writing. This will help all concerned stay on track, on schedule and within budget.
Following are example of some of the items that may be included in an implementation checklist:
- Business/system analysis
- Project management services
- Setting up reports and business rules
- Data conversion/migration into the new system
The vendor should have a clear plan for training your team on the system. Although many businesses prefer having the training done on-site, that is not always possible or cost effective. Optimally, the vendor will have different options which you can choose from including user documentation either built into the system, file based or a combination of both. Do not expect printed manuals as many vendors now leave the decision to print to the customer and provide PDF files or even word files that companies can edit to suit their particular needs. Ask to see samples of the documentation. Verify if some basic training is included in the implementation plan. Set out clear goals for training that is arranged either on-site or remotely. Web-based training can also be effective, if done properly. Find out what topics are covered in each session, where and how the training is done, who is trained, how long it takes. Another thing to look for is a demo company or database set up within the software itself. A demo company is one that includes dummy data that users can manipulate without affecting the “real” or production data. The advantage of having a demo company is that it allows users to become familiar with the software without having to use real data. Consider the option of training managers or “key users” of the system only, who will then be available to train other members of your team in house thus reducing training costs overall.
Be prepared to factor some level of training into your overall budget. This will ease users into using a new system and hopefully foster ownership of the tasks that will be performing in the system.
Some vendors will present beautiful PowerPoint presentations showing you corporate information and often screen shots of the software tailored to what you, the prospect, wants to see. This is not enough. Some vendors will have a demo environment that they will allow you to access so that you can poke around and get a feel for the software. As the software is new to you, the demo might not have all the features available and even if it did you might not know where to look, this isn’t enough. Some will show you a demo of their system, showing you the bits and pieces that they want to show. This isn’t enough either. Indicate to the vendor what your specific needs are and insist that they show you at least some of the functionality working on their application. The data doesn’t have to be specific to your company, and they don’t need to show you every single field that you may require in a particular form, but they should be able to walk you through some of your key functions all the way to the level of reports generated or how the information will look on the dashboard with sample data. This is a good indication that the software can, perhaps with tweaking, address your business needs, and that the sales people know and understand what they are selling and aren’t spinning stories of what their software can and cannot do.
In conclusion, with so many issues to consider, choosing a software vendor should be done carefully and thoroughly. However, if you use the above checklist and do the due diligence, you should be able to make an informed decision and choose the best partner to help meet your business needs.