Even with the best understanding of your business’s capabilities and key requirements, purchasing a software solution is hard. Working with the right people inside and outside your organization can help.
Today, you can easily find multiple digital solutions to your business problems with a simple Web search. The trick is finding the right software solution for your unique business problem.
If your software does not match your needs, you may end up spending a lot more on customization (rather than simple configuration) without fully achieving your objectives.
Getting Started: Searching for Your Software Solution
Once you are beyond a web search to understand the field, the best place to go next is a reputable IT consulting firm or one of your current supplier partners.
Your ideal firm will have experience in the business areas you need to serve. For example, if you need to help your salespeople better manage their current contacts, prospective customers, inactive accounts and more, you need a firm experienced in customer relationship management (CRM). If you are more concerned with better meeting customers’ needs, a firm with customer experience design (CXD) experience would be more helpful.
Meanwhile, your partners can offer their understanding of your business’s size and industry position to help you evaluate the many options. If your needs are more specialized or you are looking for innovative solutions, consider reaching out to venture capital companies such as Intel Capital, Bain Capital, Andreessen Horowitz or 500 Start-Ups. Once they review your problem statement or need area, they can match you to start-up software companies and vendors you may not know about otherwise.
To RFP or Not to RFP?
Once you have selected a vendor, your next instinct might be to submit a request for proposal (RFP). However, like everything else in the software game, the role of RFPs has changed dramatically in recent years.
While very large, costly projects may still merit the time and energy needed to prepare an RFP, today’s technology usually allows you to obtain demonstration software you can install on your network at a minimal cost. This trial period can allow you to test the software’s functionality hands-on, which can yield more valuable information and prevent future problems.
In fact, I know of one vendor who successfully sold SAP software for nine years without ever participating in an RFP. They created highly functional customized demos on their prospective companies’ systems, gathering real — not theoretical — answers to questions.
However, some industries, such as regulated utilities, will be legally required to bid on projects through an RFP process. It’s best to check with your purchasing department rather than your IT staff or the vendor when deciding if an RFP is necessary.
Finding the Devil in the Details
Whether or not you submit an RFP, you must go deeper as you talk to vendors. If you get blank stares when you ask about “ongoing maintenance costs” or “internal and external maintenance costs,” be wary. You must also study any written proposal for how they will be you for upgrades and maintenance. Be sure to understand every aspect of what they are proposing.
Ideally, your vendor should help early on with operational issues and configuration. Watch out for significant customizations. These can be very lucrative for vendors but are needlessly costly for businesses. The contract should spell out all the terms and conditions related to costs to implement the software, as well as upgrade and maintenance.
Companies often fail because they leave it up to IT to negotiate these contracts alone. Your IT team most likely does not have the negotiation skills or sourcing techniques training. Also, your company may have policies governing signing authority. Before you start, review your governance policies for who will represent your company.
The best scenario is usually to have a professional purchasing agent for negotiations. Get them involved early in the search. Your IT managers and professionals can provide valuable information and define specific questions about technical matters.
In some cases, a review is not only about avoiding high ongoing costs but even getting a better up-front deal. In the late 1990s, I was an IT manager who had previously negotiated several contracts. When my company wanted to purchase a global contract providing unlimited use of Lotus Notes for company personnel, I was confident I could get the $20 million list price down to $16 million but no lower.
Fortunately, before signing the contract, the company asked its IT purchasing agents to review it. They came back with a purchase price of $12 million. Lesson learned: Bringing in the right professional buyers during the contract process will almost always result in a better deal than what the IT manager alone can negotiate.
Implementation: The Final Frontier or Only the Beginning?
Throughout the vendor selection and vetting process, think ahead to your implementation plan. Some will be simple configurations that only take weeks or months, while others can require customizations that go on for years. If you know what you’re getting into early on, it will help you avoid surprises later that could jeopardize not just the project but your IT department’s credibility.
Another thing to keep in mind is your company’s culture and the people and change work needed for any successful implementation. You should avoid tools that people will misuse, misunderstand or flat-out reject because they do not see the value in them—and avoid any vendor who dismisses these very real concerns with, “They’ll figure it out, and then they’ll learn to love it.”
Businesses today have more software options than ever before, but business needs become more complex daily. A well-crafted Enterprise Architecture Framework that identifies your capabilities and assets, followed by an analysis of key business requirements, lay the groundwork for working smarter with software vendors. By thinking more strategically about software solutions and new technology, you can save money and time while becoming a fully enabled Business Anywhere organization.