8 Factors to Consider When Evaluating Software Vendors

All software vendors are not equal, and it’s not just price that differentiates vendors.  While the differences may not seem readily apparent, the quality of the relationship between client and vendor relies heavily on the subtleties of the software.

Careful selection of a software vendor should take into consideration these factors: product quality, efficiency, usability, error correction, client support, service, on-site installation, and enhancements.

Although a decision about which vendor and products to select takes weeks or sometimes months, the result of that decision may affect your operation for many years to come. A poor choice may result in dissatisfaction, frustration, and poor support for the life of the software.  Avoid this by carefully evaluating your software vendor using these factors.

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Factor One: Product Quality

Just as all vendors are not equal, all software products are not equal.  When comparing vendors and their products, it is important to consider specific details.  Be aware of subtle differences and features that are often just as important, if not more important, than those that are obvious.  Ask lots of questions, and don’t be afraid to travel to existing client sites to speak first hand with current users of the software.  Ask for demos of products for further clarification, if needed.

Factor Two: Process Efficiency

One of the greatest benefits of using quality software is that it facilitates more efficient operations.  This, in turn, tends to minimize labor costs.  When software products are efficient, it takes fewer personnel less time to perform the same functions.  Since workload demands are steadily increasing, it is essential to purchase software that will allow the current staff to do more.  New software should also provide more capability to meet future needs.

Factor Three: Usability

Another consideration, which is closely related to quality, is whether a vendor’s software products are truly “user friendly.”  If software is easy to understand and use, it will facilitate more effective and efficient operations.  If it is easy to learn, it will minimize the time required to make full use of its capabilities, help expedite cross-training, and shorten the amount of time training new personnel.  If the software practically requires a Computer Science Degree to use it effectively, reconsider.  At the same time, do not confuse limited features with ease of use.  Many software products that provide fewer features will at first appear to be easier to use, but later cripple operations by not allowing you to integrate various systems and operations as a full-featured product might.  Strive for finding the right combination of features and simplicity.

Factor Four: Error Correction

Since it is inevitable that some user errors will occur, quality software should make it easy to correct errors.  Generally, only one action should be required to reverse an error, even if multiple databases are affected.  Watch out for software where numerous steps are required to correct an error.  Especially watch out for software that becomes “out of balance” if a step in the correction process is omitted.

Factor Five: Client Support

Verify that your software vendors have readily available personnel who are knowledgeable about local government operations.  Vendors should not only be experts in developing software, but also be extremely knowledgeable about the specifics of local government operations–many are not!  Previous experience in local government is highly desirable.  Avoid vendors who don’t have any staff members with previous direct experience.

Factor Six: Service

An equally important aspect of selecting a vendor is the quality of service and long-term support they provide.  Make sure that you understand exactly what service and support are provided, and at what annual cost. Select a vendor that provides “hassle-free” long-term support at a reasonable cost.  Service and support consist primarily of answering questions over the telephone about how to use the system, correcting any errors detected, making software enhancements to improve the product, and providing updates when changes are made.  Watch out for vendors that charge to correct their own errors.  This is not an accepted industry practice, and should not be tolerated.  Worse, it provides no incentive for a vendor to take those steps necessary to minimize errors in the future.  Although it is appropriate for a vendor to charge for telephone support, be wary of those that charge on a timed basis.  Again, this provides no incentive for a vendor to minimize errors, provide good on-line help screens within the software, provide effective supporting documentation, etc.  In fact, they can make more money if you require more support.  Service and support provided for a flat annual fee are best.  A flat annual fee is better because there are no hidden costs.  Choose a vendor that does not charge extra to furnish telephone support, correct errors, or provide updates.

Factor Seven: Online Installation & Training

Be sure the software vendor offers installation and training via the Internet, rather than having you travel to their offices or having them travel to you.  It is typically much faster and more convenient for the installation and configuration of your new software to be set up via the Internet by the vendor. For some software products or situations, on-site installation and training may provide the optimum solution for implementation. It is important that this is offered as an option, at an additional charge for travel and related expenses.  However, with today’s technology online installation and training is very effective, much more efficient, and far less costly.

Factor Eight: Enhancements

Make sure a vendor has a history of listening and responding effectively to requests for changes and enhancements.  Ensure that they respond to constructive criticism and feedback.  A good software vendor provides dynamic updates to the software so that it constantly improves as more clients furnish positive feedback.  Without updates, vendor’s products gradually become out of date with new processes and technologies.  Generally, after about five years, a software product will have little remaining residual value if updates are not provided.  Avoid vendors with static products who think that they already have the perfect solution and that user’s needs never change.  Instead, select a vendor who provides routine updates to all of their clients as part of annual service and support.  Also be sure to verify that the vendor circulates all enhancements made to the software as part of these updates.  By getting updates, you will guarantee that the product you buy is just as viable in five years as it is on the day that you buy it.

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