A.J. Vasaris

Article Summary:

The best business software selection can be made by following these simple rules.

20 Secrets of Business Software Selection, Part 1

1. Stick to the popular packages with a large support network. While there may be hundreds of software packages available in any given market, the fact remains that between 10 and 20% of these systems are doing 80% or more of the business. There are many reasons for this. First, these systems have proven themselves over the years by providing constant improvements and proving to the buying public that their product is stable, supportable and has a following of consultants and resellers who are dedicated to selling and supporting the product. If you ever become dissatisfied with your local vendor (or they go out of business) you want to be able to find someone else to support you. Does this mean you are foolish to consider anything but the most popular products? No, but the risk of making a bad choice is greatly increased when you wander on the trail to the lesser known products.

2. Do a real needs assessment before you begin your software search. Most companies wait until a prospective vendor comes in before they really start evaluating their requirements. This approach does not give you enough time to carefully consider priorities and to work out compromises with staff on what must be done. Real needs assessments can involve some or all of the following:

  • strategic plan
  • SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats)
  • internet positioning statement
  • e-commerce planning
  • department by department assessment of current information requirements and opportunities for improvement
  • statement by key management of data requirements
  • needs of operational personnel in the areas of data entry
  • audit trails, and operational reporting
  • financial reporting needs current and anticipated

3. Use a professional consultant when necessary. Just as any professional knows he needs help from experts, there are times when a consultant can make a profound difference in the process of choosing software. When you want to perform a thorough evaluation of all systems and procedures, are completely unsure of your priorities and what software you should be looking at, then engaging outside help can be your best move.

4. Avoid using product resellers to do your needs assessment. Yes, they will usually do it for free but the old axiom "you get what you pay for" applies. Don't you know that the product reseller is biased toward his own product and services? You have not given yourself a fair chance to learn and compare when you use a vendor for needs assessment. There are a few who are truly objective even when they sell a product but they are few and far between. Do you want to risk it? Remember, you get what you pay for. We recently performed a needs assessment for a company that was looking at spending $300, 000 - $400, 000 for a proprietary system. Value Management Partners found a solution for them for $100,000 that was every bit as good. Our value-based consulting fee came to $15,000. That's over a 65% savings on the project budget!

5. Qualify your reseller/vendor by having them follow a scripted demo. Are you familiar with the term "scripted demo"? If not, you are going to be at the mercy of vendors when they come in to do demos of their product. A scripted demo is really nothing more that a detailed script for the vendor to follow when they demo their product. Ideally, it includes your actual data including vendor master data, transaction data, product codes, reports and the like. In other words it simulates your actual operational needs. It does take time to prepare a scripted demo and it takes time for the vendor to respond. But keep in mind that, this exercise will force you to think through the details of what you need and force the prospective vendor to do some serious preparation for the demo. It goes without saying that the vendor who puts the most into the scripted demo has pre-qualified himself as someone you would like to do business with.

6. Pay attention to the little features as well as the big ones. There is often the tendency to focus on the big items (e.g. financial reports and inventory control purchase orders integration). But what about some of the little guys (e.g. what it takes to find records during a search lookup). Some systems are decidedly better at doing that than others. Another important but often overlooked item is how do you void transactions in the system? Voiding invoices, vendor checks or purchase receipts may be quite easy or a royal pain depending on the product. These are repetitive type transactions that you want to make easy for operating personnel. The best way to uncover the less visible, but important features, is to talk to operating personnel. They are well acquainted with the nuisance items and will love to tell you about them.

7. Use "off-line" customizations to accomplish complex computations. Let's say you have a very complex commission structure which involves unusual calculations. You may be tempted to try to find a system which does it exactly the way you need but it may be much simpler to make an offline custom change. This could, for example, involve exporting essential data to a spreadsheet for the calculations and then printing out the commissions on an external report. It may not be exactly pretty but it could be far less costly to do that than to change program code.

8. Avoid source code changes whenever possible. Changes to program code mean that upgrades may be more difficult to accomplish and that you will be dependent on outside programmers. It is less risky, and usually less costly, to to use "front end" or "back end" custom changes than to rewrite code. An example of a front end solution might be a custom invoicing program which lets you enter the data the way you want to and pass the information to the data fields in the accounting system. A back end solution might involve extracting the data for a special report or analysis that cannot be performed within the software system itself.

9. Integrate business planning with software selection. For some firms this will mean nothing more that to pick the brain of the CEO to see what his vision of the business is 3 to 5 years out. It surely will involve issues that are not even being thought about by those who use the software now. It may involve customers, markets, channels, e-commerce and other issues that should be factored in.

10. Believe nothing the salesperson says until he/she proves it. Have you ever heard the adage that we buy the salesperson and not the product? Well, it is true in many cases. You have to be smart enough to look past the pleasant personality to what substance there is behind it. Often sales specialists are not good product specialists. We have heard of many cases when the salesperson misrepresented his product not so much because he was dishonest but because he simply did not really know and was never challenged on it. Always make them prove it. That's what scripted demos are good at!

Continue reading Part 2.

A.J. Vasaris is a Project Management Professional (PMP) and a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) at Value Management Partners, a project, process and business management consulting firm. He consults with organizations to create the optimum value in projects and processes for improving business performance.

A consultant, writer and speaker, A.J. has been published and quoted as a subject matter expert in various business and technology trade journals including the Wall Street Journal, VAR, Consulting 2 Management, Small Business News, and Crain's magazines. You can keep up with his business rants and raves at his weblog - Project, Process & Business Improvement, or contact him directly via email.

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