View from the Edge

Evaluating Technology Vendors: The Important Questions That Are Often Overlooked

In this issue, CarriersEdge co-founder Mark Murrell looks the process of evaluating and selecting new technology, and why the specifics of the vendor relationship are often more important than the particular features the product may or may not have.

Last summer I published an article about evaluating technology vendors and some things to watch for with sales reps. At the time I suggested I would publish additional articles about how to make informed choices with new technology, and this is the first of those follow-ups.

The initial article came out of a presentation I had done that discussed best practices for selecting and implementing technology. It wasn't specifically about eLearning, but looked more broadly at the evaluation and rollout process for any kind of new technology in the workplace.

One of the things I touched on in the initial article was the idea that a company's relationship with a vendor will end up being far more important over time than the particular set of features being offered in any one version of the product. That can seem counterintuitive, since you typically determine a product's fit by looking at its features, so let's look at why that happens.

First, when I talk about vendor relationship, I'm not talking about how the sales reps treat you during the sales cycle, or whether they make periodic trips to visit you afterwards. I'm talking about all of the other things the company does, outside of the sales process, that together comprise your total experience with them. Things like their customer support, product roadmap, and update schedules. Finding the right fit can be the difference between success and failure, so it's important to consider all of these before making a decision.

Consider two companies both selling a software package with essentially the same core feature set.

Vendor A - Enterprise model

  • 3 year contract
  • Implementation includes on-site setup and staff training (for a fee)
  • Customer support available for administrators only, during business hours
  • Options for integrating with external systems (for a fee)
  • Annual major release, with quarterly service packs for fixes

Vendor B - Self-serve model

  • No contract
  • Web-based setup and limited staff training, possibly through tutorials in the product itself
  • Customer support available for all users, including after-hours and weekends
  • Limited options for integrating with other systems, through a self-serve API
  • Major releases when ready, with no set schedule, weekly updates for fixes

Both of those are perfectly acceptable models, with proven success rates, but they're exact opposite approaches. They'll each work great for some companies, but be terrible for others.

In general, the enterprise model works well for larger companies because it matches the internal processes they already have. Self-serve is great for smaller businesses who often want to move quickly and have more flexibility. There are many options in between, as well, to serve all the companies along the spectrum.

How do you find what's going to work for you?

You certainly want to look at the features and pricing, because that's the starting point, and you need to consider the total price as well (the base price plus any extra charges or fees that are required). Beyond that, here are 5 things to ask about, and the kinds of questions that can help determine the best fit.

  • Setup & training
    There are really three things to consider here: the initial setup, the training for your staff on how to use it, and replacement training when your staff changes and new users or administrators come along. For the first two, it's important to understand how long they typically take, what the vendor needs or is expecting from you to keep the process moving, and whether there are costs associated with it. The third piece is about business continuity - at some point you'll have a staffing change and new people will need to get up to speed on the system, so it's good to know how the vendor handles that. Can they quickly shift administrators and ramp up the new people, or is there a multi-step approval process and requirement for outside training?
  • Customer support
    Every vendor provides support for their products, but there are big differences in options available. Some have basic email-only support then charge for expanded plans. Some have phone and email support during business hours only. Some don't want to talk to end users, just administrators. Some require callers to know the account number and have security questions setup. In addition to those options, some are very quick to respond and some aren't. Ask about who can contact support, what their target response and resolution times are (two separate metrics), when support is available, and what costs may be associated with it.
  • Uptime & security
    This is an area that's become increasingly important as more business processes move into cloud-based software. It's also an area where pretty much every vendor should have the same answers. These days, there should be little (if any) scheduled downtime for an online service, but it's useful to ask how much unscheduled downtime you can expect. There should be little or none of that either, but systems do fail occasionally so it's important to know a vendor's track record and whether they offer uptime guarantees. Data security goes hand in hand with server stability, so it's worth asking about that as well. If the vendor is storing sensitive business or personal data it's critical that it be secured, but even if they're only storing email addresses it should still be protected. There are standards for encrypting and securing data so confirm that prospective vendors are following them (a surprising number don't).
  • Contract terms
    Different vendor business models are reflected in different approaches to contracts and terms. Some people like longterm contracts because they feel it gives them stability and consistency. Others don't like contracts because they want flexibility and don't want to be locked in for extended periods. Ask the vendor about their default terms, but also find out about options for increasing or reducing the numbers, exit clauses and any penalties.
  • Customer churn - This is the industry term for the number of customers who either cancel or decline renewal during any given period. Numbers can vary depending on the type of service and business model (services with a first-month-free model regularly see a huge rate of customer drop off once the paid period starts, for instance) but vendors offering the same type of product to the same audience should have comparable numbers. As such, the churn rate provides a very good indicator of how well the vendor services its customers, and how much it delivers on everything promised during the sales cycle.

With the exception of customer churn, there are no wrong answers to the questions above, just different approaches. What works for another company may not work for you, but once you understand the differences you can find something that matches how you want to do business and be on the road to success.

View from the Edge is a periodic review of best practices in risk management, driver development, and technology for the trucking industry, produced by CarriersEdge.

CarriersEdge provides interactive online driver training for the North American trucking industry. A comprehensive library of safety and compliance courses is supplemented with extensive content creation and customization options, full featured survey tools, detailed management reports, and the industry's first dedicated mobile app for driver training.

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