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Beware 'consulting-ware' when selecting software solutions

22nd Jun 2005
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Niroo Rad, CEO at ASI Europe, offers practical advice for not-for-profits when selecting software solutions for membership, fundraising and website management.

Adopting an efficient and pro-active customer relationship management strategy is key to retaining existing members and attracting new ones. As far as associations and charities are concerned, their members are their customers – they live and die by their membership numbers, subscriptions, donors and their satisfaction in the services, education and support services they provide. Take, for example, the British Pharmacological Society (BPS), an association that has seen a significant strengthening of its relationships with its members since implementing iMIS, ASI Europe’s customisable software solution. iMIS is specifically designed for membership, fundraising and website management in one, ready-to-use customisable software package.

Over the past nine years, the BPS has used iMIS to build detailed profiles and demographics of its many members. The iMIS system went live at the end of 1995, initially transferring just a few hundred contacts onto the BPS’s database. Today, the BPS has over 10,000 records allowing the society not only to keep in touch with many more of their members but also to provide the right kind of information, to the right members, at the right time through targeted campaigns.

Unfortunately, many not for profit organisations do not enjoy this same experience. Instead, they are making do with out-of-date software offering less than optimal functionality. This is because they relied on software consultants to analyse what they believe are the organisation’s particular needs and then create a bespoke application or series of bespoke applications to address those needs. I call this way of providing solutions ‘consulting-ware’.

So what are the differences between ‘consulting-ware’ software companies and ‘real’ software? Knowing what to ask for as you are planning your organisation’s next major software implementation is vital. The following advice should save you money, time and headaches.

The difficulty with the ‘consulting-ware’ approach is that it almost always yields an incomplete solution, specifically designed to accommodate bespoke services – and is nigh on impossible to upgrade without substantial additional costs. Providing continued bespoke services is how many software firms maintain their revenue goals with their existing customers. If the organisation either cannot afford, or chooses not to continually revisit their bespoke software, the result is obsolescence of the system over a short time as well as missed opportunities for your organisation.

Real software companies (as opposed to those offering consulting-ware) try to minimise the amount of consulting service required and avoid providing bespoke software, so that they can complete the installation on time and within budget, and then move on to installing their software for the next client. These real software companies maximise their customer’s initial software investment by protecting their upgrade path.

It is no wonder many organisations are confused. Most software companies operate in a way that almost guarantees they will not be able to provide first class support and guaranteed upgrades to their customers. To make matters worse, out of self-preservation, they all say that they can upgrade (largely through more bespoke work of their product). While that might at least partially be true, organisations often do not understand that the more bespoke that is added to the base product, the larger the problem of future upgrades becomes.

Sometimes consulting-ware software suppliers say things such as, "We will roll our bespoke development done with you into your base product." This makes it sound easy, but it actually takes incredible management discipline and talent to keep track of all the customisation stages applied to a client’s base software. What is more, most bespoke developments are extremely technically challenging to integrate with other products. For that reason alone, system implementations from many software suppliers providing consulting-ware solutions often come in over budget and take much longer than planned.

Let’s look at some of the defining characteristics of real software companies versus consulting-ware software companies. It is important to understand each from the perspective of organisational structure, staffing and project completion and user support to fully understand which is best for your organisation:

Organisational structure

A real software company will generally have a technical team of trained professional software developers working to highly structured methodologies, experienced quality control staff, authors and product managers that are separate teams from the implementation and consulting staff. Real software companies always separate the work between product, implementation and customer support staff, whilst maintaining a closed loop of internal communications. A consulting-ware company will have fewer formal divisions between these important functions. Consulting-ware companies often rely on programmers to work at each customer site, do the implementation and provide consulting services.

When you have the same staff carrying out software development and providing implementation or consulting services it should ring an alarm bell. It means you will get bespoke code at your site. If you suspect this, ask for and analyse the company’s organisational chart. Look for differences in the approach.

Staff availability/project timeline

One of the advantages of real packaged software is the speed with which it can be installed. Real software is already written, so there is no need to develop a design specification or a bespoke development plan. The timeline for a product like this is highly dependent on the availability of the customer and their expert knowledge of their requirements. In this case, be sure to ask for the detailed steps involved and how long it will take to get totally up and running.

Because consulting-ware software suppliers rely on a 'build-to-suit' model, they must send business analysts to your site to develop a design specification and ask you what you think you need, which is the equivalent of a product specification. If you compare the implementation steps, the difference in approach should become obvious. This approach can not usually be compressed or expedited and always takes twice as long as compared to a real product.

The more time and money spent on designing a bespoke system, the less likely it is that cost-effective upgrades will be possible.

User support

There are various items to consider under the banner of user support:

User documentation: A real software product comes with a complete, up-to-date set of professional documentation for all applications. Usually, the difference between the manuals of a true software company and a consulting-ware company provide tell-tale signs of what you are getting into. While consulting-ware may be documented, it is often not up-to-date, and therefore not particularly useful to users. Pay attention to your proposal and ask about manuals.

Release notes: A great way to evaluate the veracity of claims to be a true software company is to ask for their software release notes, which are a historical record of the product’s progression. Companies focusing more on consultation than product support will have release notes that are more limited in quality, scope and frequency than those of a real software company. Compare the notes as a simple way to judge whether this form of user support is sufficient for your needs.

Source code: A real software company would protect you and itself from exposing its program source code to users. Ask whether changes to source code are made specifically for you. Beware of claims that changes made ‘just for you’ will be incorporated into the base product. A company trying to generate service revenue may actually encourage you to change the source code, as if it were in any way beneficial for you to have that access. In fact, that type of access is really an indication of a lack of product strategy and discipline. After all, would Microsoft make changes to Word or Excel for you? Neither would any other real software company.

Third party support: Real software companies are able to recruit third parties to support their software and to write add-on software to their products. Consulting-ware companies can not use third party resources, simply because their software is not ready-packaged.

Support website: The lack of a standard 24 x 7 customer website is often an indication that you are not getting a product that can be upgraded. A real software company will offer comprehensive web-based client support. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the clients of a consulting-ware company would ever use such a site because each customer’s system is very different.

Key questions for successful implementations

So, what can you do before undertaking a software implementation for your organisation to ensure that things go as smoothly as possible?

In short, you will need to determine for yourself whether the company you select is selling truly upgradeable software or consulting-ware that is likely to be obsolete shortly after you go live. Also, keep in mind that vendors often have differing opinions about what is meant by the word ‘upgrade’. If you and your prospective software provider do not have the same understanding of the meaning of the word upgrade, you will find yourself comparing apples with oranges; it is a recipe for disaster.

With that in mind, here is a checklist of questions and requirements you should use to understand what each vendor means by upgrades. By doing this homework well in advance, you can be more confident that your project will be successful and that your implementation will never be derailed by the perils of consulting-ware:

  1. Will we be working with the programmers here at our site on bespoke developments? Will they be actually adding bespoke code to our system?
  2. Is this bespoke work considered part of the implementation?
  3. Will you provide a final proposal outlining my bespoke requirements? If so, how long, realistically, will it take to implement the system?
  4. What is your approach and philosophy regarding user manuals? Are there standard manuals? Will you need to write custom manuals just for us?
  5. How are the manuals updated when we get a new version?
  6. Who does the updating of the software supplied to us and what is the cost?
  7. Please submit all user documentation for our review.
  8. What is your approach to producing release notes for new versions?
  9. Please submit the release notes for the last four versions of your product.
  10. Please submit ten references of customers who have gone through an upgrade with your products.
  11. Please submit a list of other companies that can support your products, in case we have a problem with service from your company.
  12. Please provide a list of authorised companies with experience building add-on applications for your software.
  13. Please provide a guest ID and a password to your Customer Support website so that we may review the resources available for on-line self-service.
  14. Has your company received any award or recognition for your best practices in customer service? If so, please provide a list of such awards.

Implementing a software solution for your organisation may be one of the biggest professional decisions you will ever make. A little due diligence up front will make the difference between a truly upgradeable software solution that will grow with your organisation’s needs, and a long-term commitment with a company that is constantly bolting on new functionality to a patchwork quilt that never quite fits your organisation’s expectations or budget.

By Niroo Rad, CEO, ASI Euro

About ASI

Advanced Solutions International (ASI) is a world leading software provider of membership, fundraising, and website management software solutions. iMIS, the company's flagship software, is the leader with more than 33,000 users worldwide. ASI provides its solutions through direct sales and implementation teams and a global network of local Solution Providers backed by award-winning technical support. The ASI group has 250 full-time, trained professional staff, over 2,500 customers and over 60 accredited solution providers.

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