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The demo process and the ROI

November 15, 2012

The demo process is a pivotal part of the purchase of a software solution. It is the time when not only the application is shown to the potential end user, but it is the time when the proposing consulting company understands many of the intricacies of the prospect’s business. One important recommendation during this process is not to withhold information provided to the potential consulting firm. If necessary, have a confidentiality agreement signed, if the concern is to share vital information for the business. We have encountered a number of times that things that do not seem too relevant develop into complete show stoppers during the implementation phase. And if a process is a vital process for a business, it should be fully demoed before the purchase. Therefore its disclosure is a central piece to the future success of the project.

I could not stress enough in this point again the importance of having the consulting team of the proposing company present during the demonstration process. We all know that, as in any industry, you can encounter sales representatives that are looking after the prospect’s benefit and others that are looking after meeting their quotas. Unfortunately we have seen more than one case when there are a lot of promises made that, when the implementation time comes, can not be delivered because the application does not have the functionality built within it. And then, for vital business processes, this turns into a separate project, which will take its own time, resources and cost. Not a good position to be in at all.

The return on investment (ROI) part of the buying process is an important consideration. In many instances, it can be easy to calculate. However be aware that in many others it will be a complicated process, mainly due to the inaccuracy of the parameters to be measured. How do you easily measure the availability of support on site easily? Or the familiarity of a specific firm with your industry?

Correct Expectations: Time required – staff qualifications – availability

October 31, 2012

During the evaluation process of a new solution, there is one side of the equation that almost never gets reviewed The potential to bring an implementation process to a halt: the requirements for the client company. In the excitement of getting issues resolved there is usually an expectation that, as soon as the solution is implemented, everything is going to be ok. And even if this is obviously the situation at the end of the road, there are going to be a number of steps to get there. And these steps will require the commitment and involvement of both management and staff within the client company.

There is one extremely important consideration for the success of a software solution implementation: without clear and specific internal procedures, there is no software solution that will take care of the internal issues that are at hand. If the organization is chaotic, the implementation process will be chaotic and the final outcome will be chaotic. This is very difficult to understand, especially for management, who has obviously operated this way for a long time and is used to this way of operating. And if management is also the owners of the business (that was created a long time ago by such and such, yada, yada, yada), then there is an emotional load that is hard to overcome. To them, the feeling is like questioning the way to raise a child. Why, if we have done that this way for years, we need to change now? Well, the answer may very well be because we want to improve our operations and in the process have more revenue, correct?

Part of the internal review process for an implementation is making sure that the staff is qualified to handle the change, that they have enough time to go though the change and that the people defined to act as project managers are deeply involved in the day to day operations of the company. Consulting firms are faced with many challenges over the implementation process, and each one of them cost the customer money one way or another:

–          Project leaders that do not know the operation in depth: they will provide erroneous or superficial information on which decisions will be made. This causes a great deal of reworking.

–          Staff that is not qualified to handle the change: this does not need a lot of discussion. The consequences are obvious.

–          Staff that is too busy to handle the change: a change on software solution will require involvement at every level of the corporation. Scheduling an activity (such a definition or testing) with a user that will not have the time to perform the tasks at hand will result in delays and reworks. The worst part is that this will make the project lose its momentum, processes get forgotten and, at the end, this will have a cost to the company.

–          Staff not committed to the change: this is an emotional issue that sometimes gets overlooked. Example: an employee that has performed the accounts payable duties for 30 years and that does not get involved nor invited to the demonstration and qualification process of the new solution. This person will feel left out, will have a terrible time letting go of old ways and old solutions and, most important, will not cooperate with the implementation process. We have even seen cases where a person will withhold important pieces of information or somehow sabotage the entire effort. This will have serious implications down the road, and have a financial impact on the project.

Give it a chance.

October 16, 2012

How to buy the correct software for your company:  Have we given what we have a chance?

One common situation we encounter is a customer checking out other software options when they are not aware of the full capabilities of the application they currently own. Inherent in the investment required to implement a software solution is it’s usage for an extended period of time. This situation often means the people that were originally involved in the selection process, purchase, implementation and initial training may no longer be present. Another problem arises when those presently utilizing the application were trained by a second, third or fourth generation of users. In this situation much information is lost in the process and is typically reduced to the use of minimal features.

Another issue often faced is using software from smaller companies. Smaller companies often have difficulty keeping up with technology and changes in industry leading to software that is less than optimal.  Reputable publishers in contrast will typically keep up with the changes in technology as well as with the improvements and new requirements of a specific industry. This is the only way an application can remain competitive.

Another reason to move to a different application is the service and support that is provided. If the solution is either an in house development or an application proprietary of a small firm, there may not be a lot of room for improvement. However, large publishers are always highly motivated to keep customers, therefore they will do everything possible to address this kind of issues. Either provide support directly to end users or refer them to reputable companies that can provide high quality support.

SaaS

September 13, 2012

How to Buy the Correct Software for your Company:Software as a Service (SaaS): the membership software

For some years now, there is a new and interesting trend of business solutions: software as a service. What this means in simple terms is that you pay a membership fee in order to use the software, normally over the internet. The software is maintained and developed by the publisher, in their own servers and computers, and they normally also house your data there and/or in a secured location.

This kind of solution offers the following advantages:

  • Your only IT concern is to have computers that can access the internet with reasonably good speed. For smaller companies, this aspect takes a huge weight off their backs, as they will no longer have to be concerned with server and application upgrades.
  • You can access your application and data wherever there is a computer that connects to the internet: for corporations with imperative mobility needs this is an obvious advantage. Sales reps groups have been probably one of the most benefited from this trend.

A couple of the objections that have been seen in the marketplace for this kind of approach are data safety and application control. On the first one, as data is now being stored in someone else’s server, there is always the feeling of lack of control over who can access that data. Obviously, reputable firms will always have in place all kinds of safety controls in order to avoid the data being “stolen” or corrupted, however they are always a better target for a hacker than a company that only keeps its own data in store.

On the topic of application control, the norm for updating and upgrading these kind of applications is that the publisher will do them. The publisher will request some users to participate in a test release and make sure to the best of their abilities that the application will perform correctly. And then, a general release date will be announced and will be performed. The end user does not have any control over this activity. Any issues that may arise will be addressed “on the go”. No opportunity to wait until the majority of the users have upgraded in order to benefit of any service packs available and avoid finding the holes on the road!

Out of the box versus special development versus in house: pros and cons

August 22, 2012

In general, the scope of the decision for a business software solution falls in 3 categories: either buy it from someone who has a product that fits your needs, get someone to develop a tailored application specific to the resolution of your needs or,  use your internal IT department if they have the bandwidth to do development work.

When the requirements of a company are extremely unique, it may be necessary to get either an outsider or an insider to do the development work. If the staff is already on the payroll this may be the least costly way to accomplish a completely tailored solution. However, one important consideration is time: how long is the development work going to take? And if the developer is an external individual or firm, this can add to a healthy bill! However, the result can be the exact solution for the corporation’s needs, completely suited to the procedures and workflows.

An important consideration when deciding for a tailored solution is the fast rate of growth in the technology world. Therefore it sometimes happens that the technology has changed by the time the solution is completed! And there may be better and faster ways to do different things, but the company cannot take advantage of them due to the fact that they are operating on old platforms. Many companies have not been able to move on upgrades of our solutions due to links to customized applications  in Microsoft Access version 2, which has not been supported for a number of years!

The other part of this equation (which is quite important) is the human factor. There is always the risk, with both internal and external developers,  of having the developer leave in the middle. Perhaps the developer may move to another  industry, city or company. If the work was not completed thoroughly enough and the application development structure was not documented properly, it will take a large amount of effort for someone else to figure out how it works. This is an important piece of information while troubleshooting, modifying, improving or upgrading it. And then again, this process can be costly.

Many of the solutions that are currently in the market contain literally millions of lines of code. And even with the big names in the market, who have the capacity of having dedicated programmers and engineering departments to seek that all the details (such as documentation) are covered, when environment pieces change, such as the operating systems in computers, it takes them some time to get back up to speed. Many hours of research and testing need to be done before the release of a upgraded solution can be performed.

The other side of this coin is the applications developed by companies that are dedicated to this activity. The software industry offers a huge number of specialized solutions for all kinds of industries. However, as anything that is geared towards a good number of companies, these applications are often going to miss some of the requirements of a business.

The advantages of investing with a solution offered in the market by well known publishers are:

  • Quality of the product: as mentioned previously, developing any application is a costly proposition. Companies who are dedicated to this activity usually rely on the best talent to drive their products to be competitive, appealing and to solve the issues at hand.
  • Keeping up with the technological pace: as we all know, there are companies that have the lead on the direction of technology. And these changes sometimes happen faster than what anybody can predict! A strong publisher is always updated on the coming trends, and prepared to face them. This is probably the number 2 downfall with especially developed products: the developers take time to get acquainted with change and to implement it in the products.
  • Competitiveness: a re-known publisher will always aim to providing quality products at reasonable prices in order to remain competitive in the marketplace. Owners of their solutions usually get a big benefit from this.
  • Support: it is the norm for established publishers to house an internal customer support area, as well as in some cases maintaining a reputable network of resellers that are trained and geographically available to service end users. This eliminates the concern of losing the few people (or only person in many cases) that know how your software was built and operates.

The needs analysis phase and the “real” requirements

August 8, 2012

There are two important components of the needs analysis: the internal definition of business needs and the technology definitions to resolve those needs.

If you are in search of a software solution either to replace or improve what you have or as a solution for new needs (resulting from growth, new business lines, changes in the status of the business such as mergers and acquisitions, etc.) it is because you sense the need for it. It is vital to the future success of your solution implementation to be able to clearly define which needs  are motivating this search. It is also extremely important to be able to “dig” deep down into each requirement to understand its source. If these definitions are not done properly, you are opening the door to go on a tangent when a solution is presented and not notice that a feature may be irrelevant to resolve your problem while you’re leaving an important aspect of the problem forgotten.

Another important part of this definition is to discover if a technology solution may not resolve the problem. I have seen time and time again issues within companies that are related to lack of skills on their staff, to motivational problems, to poor management (company management, time management, stress management, money management) which are issues that generally cannot be resolved by a technology solution. This is the reason why I used quotes on the word “real” on this section.

In the early stages of the internal definition of business needs, this activity should be performed without outside help. It should be organized by managers but always with input from all staff. It is important to keep an open mind to perceptions, suggestions and experiences that, even if sometimes uncomfortable, will help anchor the detailed definition of a need.

Once the internal definition of the business needs is completed, it is important to perform an analysis of the technology available. For those business owners and/or managers who feel  they are not technologically savvy, there are a number of trusted resources that can help at this stage of the project, including  IT personnel who are usually familiar with the different offers in the market. Outside resources that provide services to an array of industries (such as CPA, legal, human resources practices) may as well offer information on the trends of the current market. Business and/or industry associations are also great sources for information. And as we all know, the Internet can offer an endless array of solutions! This last option, however, can be quite overwhelming and confusing.

In our experience, the technological side of the solution is never as important as making sure that the solution will cover all vital business needs. We often have seen companies adapt a solution because it’s working on the latest platform while it does not resolve the business issues at hand. This can be an expensive, time-consuming and frustrating discovery.

As part of the internal definitions, a set of measurable benchmarks needs to be determined. Expectations such as percentage of decrease of inventory on hand, reduction on receivables collection days, etc., are vital to define direction for the solution search as well as to measure ROI and success of the implementation later on.

Your company and your software growth

July 27, 2012

As with any other project, it is important to have a vision of  the expected outcome of this effort. The first important definition, even if it may sound obvious, is to know what future expectations for your company. This is going to be an important guideline to  ensure that your technology solution can support that direction.

Even if this is probably one of the hardest things to do, the best guess will definitely support a better decision. For example: we have seen many cases where smaller companies can have a great handle on controlling the revenue and expenses for projects based on having the correct coding in their chart of accounts. But then the day comes when they face unexpected growth that requires  having  projects pull information from the inventory. If your research for a solution does not contemplate this type of scenario, you may be in a situation later on where you may be required to spend an important amount of time, effort and money to resolve the situation. Other examples include needs for human resources controls (more sophisticated than just running a payroll) or logistics requirements (such as documentation and controls required for companies that export their products and services).

On the side of the software itself, it is very important to research the publishers of the software, the products themselves and the track record of the company that will implement and support your solution. This will give you an idea of future growth potential with the publisher. This is especially important if you decide to go with a customized developed application. The relationship with all these components can go anywhere from the following 5 years to 20! Therefore I consider this search as important as making sure that the person you are going to marry is the correct one, because if not, the consequences can be disastrous and usually very costly.

Save thousands of dollars on costly mistakes

July 17, 2012

 

Every night, after returning from work, my husband and I talk about how our day went. He works with machinery that produces plastic parts, and sometimes (I hate to admit it) his explanations leave me completely clueless!  It  is like he’s speaking a completely different language. The fun part comes when, for one reason or another, we have to sit in front of the computer to work on a simple spreadsheet. That is the moment when I feel like a fish in the water, and of course, this sounds like Chinese to him (and yes, I know this happens to all couples and it does not necessarily have to be work related).

I have been working in the software industry for over 20 years. During this time I have seen many successful solution implementations and many that, far from bringing any improvements, become a huge drain in many aspects (finances, time, etc.).

I have also invested a considerable amount of time reading books on how to sell and implement software solutions successfully. The information technology business has become one of the main backbones to any business, from large to small, mainly due to the fast response time required in these times.

 I have not seen so far a lot of information related to guiding a business owner or  upper management member of any company on how to buy a solution that better suits the business’ needs. Normally this kind of purchase is made with a great sense of confusion and hope that the right decision was made, usually with not enough information to back it up or with information provided by third parties who often are biased by external interests.

In the coming weeks we will be examining 16 different aspects that need to be taken into account when looking for a software solution of any kind.

In my day to day experience in this line of work I have learned the value of each one of these concepts. Of course, there is no silver bullet in any area of life, however this can make the difference between having a solution and having a problem, and believe me, this difference in many cases represents millions of dollars and hundreds of hours spent in fruitless efforts!

The fun of currency translations, revaluations and consolidations

January 24, 2011

Today, as many other days, I went to visit one of our customers. This company does business in other countries and we met to discuss their currency translation, revaluation and consolidation processes. And after reviewing the way they currently perform these tasks through MS Excel I could not be more grateful to have tools like our Sage PFW to take care of such chores!

It is amazing the number of intricacies that are involved with processes that were probably originally thought to be simple ones. Same chart of accounts, everyone? How about the translation types and revaluation types for each one of them? And never mind if you try to consolidate companies with different chart of accounts structures and different accounts! This not to count if you want to calculate your earnings at a subsidiary level or a parent level!

So greateful someone put out the work to produce applications that make the definitions and execution of these requirements a very easy task! So our customer will go from spending 3 days a month to produce financials to a couple of hours!

Excel spreadsheets: a solution or a nightmare?

October 7, 2010

Have you ever tried following up the links between different pieces of information in Miscrosoft Excel when some result is just not making sense? It is a job that requires an immense amount of time and patience, especially when it is your boss requesting a response right away!

Every person that has to deal with contolling some kind of information, from a checkbook to a multinational company’s budget, has dealt with Excel books. Microsoft Excel is an excelent application that has features that many of us are not even aware of.

Read more…