Eight Tips for Picking the Right Business Applications for Your Company

(Originally published June 2011 in Laurie McCabe’s SMB Advisor blog on Pervasive Solutions)

SMB Group research surveys indicate that small and medium businesses (SMBs) are often confused when it comes to figuring out what business solutions are best-equipped to help them meet their business challenges and goals. In fact, 32% of respondents in our 2010 SMB Routes to Market Study cited “figuring out how different solutions can help the business” as one of their top three technology challenges.

It’s not surprising when you think about it. Cloud computing has lowered the barrier of entry to for software vendors to bring new business solutions to market. As a result, a growing number of vendors are targeting SMBs with an almost dizzying array of business applications–which often overlap or have blurry value propositions. This can make it difficult to figure out which solution will give your business the best return-on-investment.

While solution requirements will vary by company, and for any given solution area, here are eight tips to help you cut through the confusion and find the right solution for your business.

1. Allow enough time for a thorough assessment process. It may be tempting to rush this, but chances are you’ll end up spending more time fixing or replacing a bad choice than if you’d gone through a more thorough process in the first place. Take time to think about the requirements are you need satisfy and problems that you need to solve. What are your desired outcomes from the solution? How will you tell if you’ve met your goals? You may not be able to answer all of these questions, but the very process of considering them will improve the odds of a making a good decision.

2. Consider this as an opportunity to implement best practices that will give your business an edge. Sometimes, businesses get bogged down in costly software customization in order to get new software to match their existing business processes. But implementing a new business solution offers you a chance to look at how you’re currently doing things, and make dramatic improvements that can help save the business time and money and gain competitive advantages. Don’t forget: software vendors spend years—and tens of thousands of labor-hours—determining best practices. Take advantage of this opportunity not only to fix what’s broken and fill gaps, but to streamline processes and boost productivity.

3. Get stakeholders and users on board early on. User adoption—or lack of it—is often the key factor that determines whether the application delivers or not. It’s critical to get users involved early on in the assessment and evaluation process. Give them a voice and listen to it, and get them involved in evaluation and trials. This will help ensure end-user buy-in and, as a result, a solution that delivers on your objectives.

4. Determine your core “must have” functionality.  In any given business solution area, there’s a lot of overlap but also some key differences. All small business accounting solutions offer accounts payable, accounts receivable and general ledger functionality, but some include more functionality for inventory management or payroll, for instance. Others may provide industry-specific, regulatory or compliance features that are essential for some companies, but unnecessary for others. Decide what you must have to help whittle your options down to a shorter, more targeted list.

5. Look for a scalable, open and flexible solution. Business needs change. For instance, in a cyclical business, such as construction, you may need to add, change or remove users often. How easy is it to do this? Or if you’re a retailer and your business subject to seasonal spikes—how difficult is it to increase the database size as transaction volumes grow without disrupting the business? How about adding new functionality to support new requirements? It takes a lot of time to get people used to an application, so aim for solutions that are scalable and can be easily extended by the vendor and/or with via pre-integrated partner solutions.

6. Think about data visibility, reporting and collaboration requirements upfront. Having accurate, easily share-able information at your fingertips gives people the insights they need to run projects and make solid decisions. Is it easy it to access information, see what’s going on in a particular area, and run reports, or will you need to spend a lot of time manually pulling information together? Does the solution make it simple to track information changes and updates, or is this a manual task? Business solutions that provide built-in reporting and collaboration capabilities can significantly boost productivity and efficiency.

7. Be realistic about the time, money and resources you can put into deploying and running a business solution. Do you have access to internal and external IT resources needed to get the solution up and running? How much time, money and staff will it take? Include in this calculation the time it will take to test and then transition from the old solution to the new one, if relevant. Many companies are opting for cloud computing (also known as software-as-a-service or SaaS) to eliminate IT hassles–such as the need to buy, install and run servers and software. However, cloud computing isn’t a panacea. You’re likely to have other needs, such as data migration or integration, that require technical resources. Furthermore, regardless of whether you deploy a business application in-house or in the cloud, you need expertise and resources that can help you configure it to your business, train users, etc.

8. Evaluate how well the vendor and/or its partners can support you. Can they provide the migration, integration, implementation and training services that you need? In some cases, you may want a vendor with strong experience in your industry, so they can provide guidance in terms of best practices. In all cases, make sure you understand service and support policies and options, such as hours that service is available, response time, resolution time, and if applicable, uptime policies and guarantees.

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