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The Software Selection Process: Part 2 - Building a List of Potential Solutions and Evaluating

In Part 1 of our 3-part series we dove into how you know its time to update or change your business systems. Today we will look at how to create a list of solutions to look at and then how to go about evaluating those solutions.

Over the last 20 years business systems in general have evolved and have become somewhat of a commodity. Whether you are looking for a full Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Warehouse Management System (WMS) or a long list of other solutions meant to solve a specific problem, the number of options in going to be overwhelming to say the least. This is especially true for small and mid-sized businesses who are in growth mode or are looking to grow. For extremely large businesses there are a handful of large players that provide solutions for those large organizations. But over time, the large software providers have come up with solutions to meet the needs of smaller businesses and have joined in with an already crowded marketplace.

What this means is that as the buyer of that software, you can very quickly have a list of 10+ potential solutions, all of which look like they can be viable at first pass.

But don’t fear! You’ve done all the prep work necessary from Part 1 of our series and are working with someone experienced in the selection process.

Below are the steps that we will take to get the initial list narrowed down to 3-5 appropriate choices to begin the true evaluation process with:

1. Decide how you want your software to be deployed. How will your people access the software, how do you want it to be managed and who maintains it?

  • True Cloud/Software as a Service (SaaS) – This is when the application(s) is accessed via a web browser over the internet. You will be responsible for configuring the system how you want and setting up people and processes, but you never touch the back-end of the system and don’t have any hardware (servers) to maintain. There usually isn’t anything to install for people to access it except maybe a mobile app.

  • Hosted Solutions – This category covers a lot of different technical setups, which we won’t go into in great detail today. This may be a web-based solution like in the first example, but you want to have total control over it, including the servers that are running it. For example, you buy the software and then load it onto a Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure environment. You are now in control of everything but are also responsible for everything. This scenario also includes installing client server applications (software that requires a program to be installed on the computer of anyone who is using it) on a remote server and then granting access to it either through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or a remote desktop application.

  • On Premise – In this scenario the software is installed on servers that are physically at your facility and is usually used with client server applications. In this scenario you have control over EVERYTHING and are also responsible for EVERYTHING pertaining to the application. If you wish to allow access outside of the 4 walls of your building then it’s up to you to determine how to do that.

2. Go back to the first part of our series and pull out that budget sheet. Most software providers aren’t going to give you exact pricing during an initial call or first exchange of emails. However, their salespeople also don’t want to waste their time or yours. So, ask about their pricing model and price range up front. And if you are working with a consulting group that knows the process, they will be able to tell you right away which solutions are within your price point and which ones are outside of it.

3. Next, we are going to go back to part 1 once again (this is why all that prep work is so important) and grab the requirements list that you compiled. Now, match that up against the list of functionalities from the general pool of solutions. Usually doing this will start to eliminate a lot of potential candidates.

4. Finally, keep that requirements list handy because we are using it once again. Remember how we stack ranked the requirements by importance? In this last step, we need to determine if we want a single software that meets the needs of all the requirements, or if we are OK with a solution that knocks it out of the park on the requirements that we ranked as most important and are willing to use supplemental software to cover the rest of our list.

Just by going through the above 4 steps, you will be able to get the list of potential candidates down to around 5. At this point it’s time to start the true evaluation process with the trimmed down list of solutions. This is when you start to build relationships with the people at the Software provider, or Value-Added Reseller (VAR), and start seeing the application(s) in action.

Below are the steps that you will go through during this part of the process:

1. Setup “Overview” demos of the software. This will generally be a 1.5-3 hour demonstration that happens remotely. Some providers will want to also do a discovery call or on-site visit before scheduling this demonstration.

Those process documents that we created in step 1 of the blog are going to come in handy now. Keep in mind that this initial demonstration is comparable to going on a first date. We are just feeling things out at this point and deciding if we want to move forward. So this demonstration won’t be tailored to your specific needs but is more about getting a feel for what the software can do and if you “like” it.

You will want the people spearheading the project on your side and the consultant helping you with the process to attend these sessions.

2. After the initial demonstration you will usually eliminate 2-3 of the options. It really is a popularity contest at this point. If you’ve been diligent in the process up to this point, then all the final contenders should technically work for you. In that initial demo you’re looking for things like:

  • Did the application look easy to use?

  • How do I think my team will react to it?

  • Is it easy to maintain?

  • Does it have basic reporting options that I need?

  • Were the salespeople easy to work with and were they responsive?

  • Did my team and I have a good rapport with the team from the provider?

3. Next an Official Request for Proposal (RFP) will be submitted to the software providers. This is a formal list of all the requirements that are important to be met for your business that you compiled in the first phase. Some people like to do this during the first part of the process, but personally I don’t think it adds as much value until you get down to the final viable solutions. It’s very easy to “game” the responses to a formal proposal because the options for each functionality question are usually broken up into categories that fall into is it “Out of the box”, “Needs Configuration”, “Possible with Customization”, “Third Party/Add-On Option”, or “Not Possible”. No salesperson is ever going to check the “Not possible” box. I’ve often joked with clients that with enough time and money anything is possible, and this is the approach that is often taken when vendors fill out the proposals. And that’s not a bad thing, but you want the answers handy for the next round of demonstrations so that you can ask specifics about the functions that weren’t marked as out of the box and so that it’s fresh in everyone’s mind.

4. Provide the Vendors with an agenda for the demonstration and use cases and/or work flows for the most important processes to your business. This is important for both parties because it allows you to control the content that you want to see that’s pertinent to your business and it also gives the vendor the appropriate information to prepare for the demonstration. You will also want to provide some samples of data such as a sample customer, item, vendor etc.

5. Schedule the final demonstration. This will generally be an all-day event and the vendor will come on-site to perform the demo. This should be well-organized and controlled because you will want to bring in the main people from your organization that will be impacted by each section.

In next week's installment we will talk about what you should be looking for in that final demonstration, how to prep your staff for giving valuable feedback after the demonstration and then making the final decision and entering the negotiation phase of the process.

Join us next week for part 3 in the series "Making the Final Selection"

Part 1 - Deciding its Time to Change Your Current Business System

For more information about our software selection services visit us here!

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