Ann Dempster, managing director of Plum Software, explains what to look for when choosing a software package
When you are looking for software, you soon realise that there is a steep learning curve ahead of you. It is not something that you do every day and there is only limited time to make a decision. Yet surely if the software is going to be used to run your business over many years it is important that you make the right decision. So, if you have limited time and resources, how can you best approach the choice?
The sad news is that the last software package seen is often the one that is selected. This is usually because the software looks most impressive, as by this stage you know more about what you are looking for.
The first thing to do when evaluating any software is to look at your business and existing systems to have a clear idea about your requirements. If you have a mental checklist it helps to start the conversation with the software house and means you won’t overlook anything. It is important to ensure that the software house understands your business. Not only will this allow them to tailor their solution accordingly, but they can also suggest features that could enhance your business processes. So it is important to listen to their advice, but not to loose track of your own checklist.
It should always be remembered that this is a long term investment. The software has to be flexible enough to match any requirements that you may have over the years. Looking back over the last few years, many IFAs who traditionally would not sell mortgages and moved from the investment marketplace into mortgages are now moving back again. Other IFAs are teaming up to provide a broader spectrum of services.
The service and attitude of the software house towards the sale, help desk, development, costing and ongoing support is as important as the software. It is important to assess how they deal with you from the start. For example, when you ring the software house, do you get a quick and efficient response? Do they try to make sure that they send you the correct information or do they just send out the same bundle of information to everyone? Do they send you exactly what you requested? If you ask them to call you back, do they call you back on time?
The industry moves very fast. It is essential that the software house can respond to individual requirements as soon as they are requested and your requests are not put aside as “maybe’s”. It is therefore vital to find out how the help desk works and what level of service you can expect. Does the help desk respond immediately? Are there answering machines on the help desk and how long before you talk to someone who can give you answers? Are calls on local rates or premium rates? Does the help desk restrict the amount of help it gives?
What about the software house’s approach to customer care? Can you expect to receive customer care calls? Will they charge you for visits if you would like to discuss the software? Do they hold user meetings and if so, what is the format? Are they useful or just glorified sales presentations?
Receiving a demonstration of the software is also important. Some software houses may offer to send you a trial CD or offer an Internet demonstration. However, neither of these options is ideal. Both are very impersonal and assume a certain level of IT understanding in order to load the software and work out its features. You will also never get the same depth of understanding of what the software can do or its relevance to your business if you do it this way.
A demonstration at the offices of the software house gives the advantage of seeing the environment of the software house but you have to take time out to travel, which is not ideal when time and resources are often limited.
The best option is to have a face-to-face demonstration in your office. That way it allows the consultant from the software house to find out about your business and therefore better understand your requirements, talk to more people, focus on the relevant parts of the software and use your time more efficiently. This can be particularly useful if the consultant is prepared to do more than one visit.
During the demonstration it is important to ensure that items in your checklist are covered and that you can see the relevance of the software for years to come. Does it satisfy all aspects of the business, is there flexibility in reporting, is it written logically, does it take a long time to refresh screens, is the representative talking about today’s software or promises about what the software will do?
Finally, and this is often the first question asked, how are the software and support services costed? It is good to establish the software house’s approach to costs and how often you can expect increases. Be careful not to be caught out with hidden costs that are not mentioned immediately. Also, you should always check what the cancellation policy is on the original purchase and on further purchases.
There are so many things to take into account when deciding on the right software house and it is so easy to put off the decision through lack of time. It is worth devoting your time and attention to making the right decision. Remember, evaluating the service provided by the software house, including the help desk, development, costing and ongoing support, is as important as checking out the software itself.