True story: I was a slow learner as a kid. My mom wanted me to learn to swim. I found the shallow end of the pool just fine, thank you. Months, even years went by and I couldn’t come to grips of the notion that I would one day jump into water over my head and still survive. Mom offered “prizes.” Nope. Dad offered threats. No go. Older siblings and neighbor friends jumped, splashed, laughed, and otherwise showed me what a great thing swimming was. I laid on my towel and shivered. It’s hard to make a difficult decision to risk your life (or at least your babyhood) on something both foreign and familiar at the same time.
For people evaluating their software purchasing needs, the decision can be equally traumatic.
“I was hoping we could put this purchase off until after I retired,” said my contact at a recent GFOA conference. He smiled sheepishly. No one, it seems, likes the mammoth job of selecting, software purchasing, and then implementing new organization-wide change. There are too many risks involved and it’s too easy to make a “bad decision.”
Kind of like the time I got a perm in my hair and had to live looking like Bozo the Clown for literally months. A bad decision tends to stick with you. Or how about the idea that people have lost their jobs over not getting the right solution in place—fast? And to make matters worse, there are few valuable tools to help you out.
Some people are finding their way by hiring consultants, researching review sites, and always, always, talking with trusted colleagues. These are truly good sources of information and confidence boosting. But, like many purchasing professionals, I find the good old spreadsheet and timeline tool one of the strongest for getting this particular job done. Here’s how:
FIVE STEPS TO SUCCESS
One: Decide when you want your new software up and running. Record that date. A vision written down is a plan for success.
Two: Know your process. What are the major groups of tasks you need to complete to feel successful as a project leader?
Three: Know or have a notion for how long your process is going to take. The timeline below should give you a good general awareness.
Four: Work your plan backwards. Just as in copyediting, a backward approach is a great way to catch details that might otherwise be brushed over, and helps you build much more accurate plans for moving ahead.
Five: Self-talk is very important. During the process you are likely to find many nay-sayers, and people gifted at planting doubt. Have a mantra built in your own mind that will help you meet and achieve your own expectations, no matter what you hear buzzing around you.
THE BUYING SOFTWARE TIMELINE
- Internal needs analysis (1 to 4 weeks) – talk to department heads and team members about their needs. Let them reveal what they do not like about the current solution, but also seek out notes on what they like and don’t want to change. Produce a spreadsheet of “must haves” and “would be nice to have” features.
- Write the RFP if your organization requires this step(1 to 3 weeks) -- This may go through several edits, so sharing your document in a central location would be helpful.
- Produce and distribute your RFP/RFI/ or a less formal set of initial phone interviews with potential vendors (1 week)--If you use an RFP be sure to give your vendors at least 3 weeks to prepare a response.
- Review vendor proposals (1 to 2 weeks)--or your notes from interviews and reduce the number of vendors to 2 or 3. For everyone else, a polite rejection is both appropriate and appreciated. Take the time to say why you didn’t select the vendors in this first selection round. They want to know how to get better for future opportunities. They will also want to know who they lost to.
- Software Demonstrations (2 to 3 weeks)– This is more logistical on your end than anything else. You need to coordinate schedules and address who needs to be in the demo, when. You as the purchaser are in charge of the clock but be reasonable with everyone’s time. Today, while face-to-face demonstrations are still used, more and more people are going with on-line “webinars” to give demos. This saves time and costs. A good average amount of an overview demonstration is usually 2 to 4 hours, but if you have a large organization with multiple feature sets to review, you may want to allow an hour or more per department or feature set.
- Follow up Demonstrations (1 week) - After the demonstrations you should have a good idea of who you want to work with. If not, you can ask for a quick follow up demo from one or two vendors.
- Select your Vendor/Solution(1 week)--By now you should be convinced of the vendor you want to work with. Take the time to confirm your decision with internal key team members, and then ask for referrals or other proof points for your decision. Ask any final questions.
- Negotiations(2 weeks)-- Review agreements and negotiate final pricing. One note – today many software companies have boiler-plate software and or subscription agreements. Unless the document has true problems, this document will be the same for all clients of your proposed vendor. You may ask their referral customers about the documents, but if you need something changed, it’s best to do so in an addendum to the original document.
- Implementation(6 to 12 weeks)--This is a lot about learning the software, but even more about learning/adjusting the way your organization works. Before you begin work internally on the team make-up and who will be responsible for which decisions are to be made (there are a lot of decisions in a complex software). Some things to think about include the amount of data to convert to the new system and how much history to bring over, what you want your general ledger and chart of accounts to look like, what user roles and permissions you need in place immediately, and how you want to handle security. Your vendor, now consultant, will help, but these are unique operational decision best managed by your team. Implementation will also encompass your training and plans for onboarding future employees. There will be a list of milestones that you and your consultant will agree to. Services payments are often attached to milestones met, so be sure that when you sign off on a milestone, you’re satisfied it’s complete.
- Go Live(1 week)-- This is when your system is up and running and first transactions are being entered by employees. Although your consultant doesn’t need to be on-site, they should be easily accessible for the first week, and should be able to jump into an on-line meeting to share screens as needed.
Most procurement processes will last from 20 to 33 weeks, so plan ahead for a project like this to last 6 months or more. But don’t worry. You can do this!
Oh! And by the way, that swimming thing? Guess who’s going white water rafting this weekend. Mom and Dad are smiling.