By Hamid Akbari, Head of Quality, Keelings Solutions
What steps do you take when buying new technology? Whether it’s a personal smartphone or essential business software, the internet is usually our first port of call. Even in a relatively niche area like ERP, most people who oversee procurement will start their basic research online. Just typing ‘ERP’ into Google produces 563 million results. From there, it can be a challenge to narrow down the options when confronted with products that all seem to have sufficient features and functionality.
In my career, I have been fortunate to work in sectors ranging from finance, banking and IT, to avionics, health, telecoms and electronics. I would like to share some guidelines I have developed for choosing software, and the most important criteria to consider when narrowing down your selection to a manageable shortlist.
Assessing the viability of prospective suppliers is vital. So, your first step should be to narrow down your focus to a smaller number of possible vendors. (A good number would be less than 20.) From there, you look closer at each company, emphasising its reputation and sector knowledge. Keelings, for example, is an expert in fresh produce, having grown from that background.
Your questions should be: how long has the provider been in business, who are its customers, how reliable is it, and what is the frequency of its release schedule. Is the vendor a boutique SME, or can it deliver the enterprise features – and integration – you will need?
Support is important at all stages of a project, especially in evaluation, project planning, gap analysis, implementation, configuration and post-live application support phases. As part of the due diligence, a critical piece of information to uncover is whether the chosen vendor’s support team has the resources to respond to requests in reasonable time. That especially applies if you have a particular target stated in the contract. For example, will there be a maintenance fee, or if the service level agreement covers resolution within 24 hours for high-priority issues.
This is definitely a sales conversation – ask them about SLAs with a customer of a similar size to your own business. Some vendors may publicise how many people they have in support roles. At Keelings, for example, 25% of our team are in support roles, operating between 7am and 6pm. Ascertain if the support function is on-shore, nearshore or offshore. For example, Keelings provides on-site support during go-live, which involves sending a select team of engineers to support any issues directly and avoid any downtime.
Another point worth checking is what customer support communication channels are available: does the vendor have a portal, a direct line, or a dedicated point of contact for any escalation?
Here, we are getting into sensitive competitive detail. Prospective vendors will probably only provide this on request, as it goes through each feature of the product, and how to use the application. Before you reach for the phone to contact the vendor’s support desk, what information does it provide online through a portal? That could range from user guides or online help to a knowledge base of articles that could solve the problem you have encountered, through to a service desk function that’s delivered online.
Another item to check is whether the vendor will provide user training on request, and what type this will be: online or classroom courses, a combination of the two, and training aimed at different levels of user types such as admin, super user, and end user.
Platform is important. We have noticed customers in our industry, fresh produce, are moving away from using specific handheld units connected to docking stations, to using standard mobile devices running an app or accessing via web applications that’s delivered via wireless connections in real time.
Will your chosen application restrict the warehouse manager to their old clunky single-use device, or can they use a tablet just as easily? Compatibility with mobile platforms like Android, iOS and Windows Mobile should be another bar your vendor needs to pass.
This category is self-explanatory, but you can tell a lot about a vendor’s prospects by its focus on quality. Does it have a dedicated quality assurance department with established QA strategy, policy and mandate? How frequent is the vendor’s major, minor and patch release schedule? Instead of getting stuck on price, focus on quality of application and service. A vendor can have the lowest price and the lowest quality of work, too.
The quality metric will tell you how much the application is evolving to the next generation and continuously improving. Also check the quality of release notes that accompany each update.
Another sign to watch for is how easily the ERP integrates with other applications such as third party packages or mainstream applications. Integration with another third-party application such as an accounting, finance, reporting package, or to transport and logistics tools, is a must-have for ERP.
Ask your prospective ERP vendor for a list of third-party applications its tool currently integrates with successfully, and get an understanding of how easy it would be to integrate to a tool which is not currently on the list. In the fresh produce industry, where Keelings operates, many customers require specific reports called ASN or advanced shipping notifications.
How the integration happens is another factor to consider. Any ERP tool on your shortlist ought to be able to connect to other applications as needed, whether via API, batch or a separate communication channel between the two applications. Will you need to pay a consultant or the vendor for integration, or will you have to buy a third-party API?
The importance of this category in your evaluation process will depend on how you would like the implementation to be. Ideally, your chosen vendor should be able to offer the choice of a ‘big bang’ single-phase release or a multi-phased project, depending on your organisation’s appetite for disruption in its day-to-day business.
It’s important to choose a vendor that has worked in the different implementation types, so it has allocated sufficient time to test and preparation, and it knows what actions are needed and how the release will affect various departments. You should also ask about how that vendor will handle on-site support for the go-live phase of the project.
If you are buying a big-ticket application like ERP, user friendliness is more than just a nice-to-have consideration. How easy is it to set up and configure the application as well as to maintain it? Ease of use applies to many different types of users, such as admin, front desk, finance, or warehouse, with different levels of IT knowhow.
This is not just about the interface but about how the product is built; is it in a standard object-oriented programming (OOP) language? Some vendors use their own specific language and tools, which means you will be locked in to that vendor if you want to add any link to a third party application or to create custom reports, etc. – and you may have to pay for the privilege.
During your due diligence, you should think ahead: what will your own needs be, and how are they likely to change during the lifetime of using the application?
Check with your shortlisted suppliers how they will charge for the software. Many software vendors offer different pricing models, such as providing basic features in the initial purchase cost, with further modules available at extra cost.
Licensing models may also differ by supplier. Some will tie the application to specific device; others offer a named user, flexible or concurrent licence regardless of the device. Implementation costs may be extra, or they may be wrapped up in the price. If you buy an off-the-shelf package, what is the cost of a change request? This could be a point of negotiation with the supplier: if you want a particular feature immediately, there is likely to be an extra charge, whereas if that feature is part of a planned upgrade cycle, you may get it for no cost after waiting for three months.
Training may also be an extra cost: some providers offer a certain percentage of training included in the product price, but everything over and above that figure is chargeable.
Localisation support in ERP applications is an important consideration. Having your local language will help your end users and will improve productivity. Major languages such as English, Spanish, French, or German, should be supported as part of the package.
A word of warning: some applications are built on databases which could cause difficulties with localisation that would be needed if your organisation trades in multiple countries. For example, when translating English to Spanish, decimals change from a full stop to a comma. This renders the database structure totally different. In Keelings Solutions’ case, we support five languages. Ask your chosen vendor what languages it supports, and check this against the markets where your business operates.
Do you agree with this list? Are there any other points that you use to evaluate a major software investment like ERP? I would welcome your feedback. Let’s keep the conversation going.
Hamid Akbari is Head of Quality Assurance at Keelings Solutions ERP, a provider of complete ERP software and expert consulting services to the fresh produce industry.
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