A recent LinkedIn poll in the Modern Finance Forum illustrates how little reliance finance professionals place on analysts’ awards and accolades. 80% said they had little or no influence on their choice of software. This stark finding begs the question, what can finance functions rely on to corroborate and support their software evaluation?
Choosing software is not easy. It’s a complex amalgam of functional fit, (general requirements and ‘special’ requirements unique to your organisation) and supplier attributes, related to software support, ease of implementation, quality of the supplier’s staff, contractual terms and increasingly, their hosting capabilities in the cloud.
My first book on software evaluation was authored in 1982 and, reflecting on what I wrote 40 years ago, I steadfastly maintain that supplier attributes are equally important to functional fit. Put bluntly, you can have the best software in the world, i.e. the closest match to what you need, but if the supplier organisation is weak, then the implementation is unlikely to be a success. And so in this article, I want to focus on the crucial importance of user references.
Analysts’ awards may have some value in helping organisations draw up a list of potential software candidates, but I learnt from writing software reviews for popular computing and accounting journals early on in my career, that simplistic ratings, scores, matrices and quadrants cannot do justice to the complexity of financial software (that may have taken hundreds of man-years to develop) and vendor organisations spanning the globe, both physically and virtually.
The crunch point is comparability, i.e. has this software house got sufficient knowledge & experience of what I need, in my industry, in my size of organisation and in my technical environment. How many users has it got like me and how satisfied are they? That’s the point of the user reference.
But it’s a problem for software houses to grant unfettered access to user references. They may get hundreds of requests to speak to users, and understandably, they are protective of their customers and do not want to overburden them. Instead, they will point to case studies, video interviews and customer testimonials on their websites. Or perhaps they will invite you to their user-conference to meet other users. Quite often, software houses will offer a generic list of customers to speak to as well, but while all of this is helpful, it may not tick the ‘comparability box’ or be objective enough. Essentially, purchasers need independent access to a handful of customers, chosen by them for their similarity to their requirements.
Preparing for user references, is vital, if organisations are to extract the maximum value. Amongst the matters to consider are, training, user documentation, help facilities, support and escalation, software modifications, the quality and number of personnel (pre-sales, consulting and implementation), with relevant experience, software reliability, reliability of SaaS platform, contractual terms (willingness to negotiate), security and financial track record (profitability).
If feasible (but not easy in Covid times) purchasers should arrange a site visit. It gives a more rounded feel of the good and not so good qualities of the supplier and solution. In fact, one should try to enquire what lessons have been learned, what didn’t go right, as well as what has gone well.
In an age when there are so many sources of information, nothing quite beats the insightfulness and potency of a user reference.
By Gary Simon, BSc, FCA, FBCS, CITP
Chief Executive of FSN & Leader of the Modern Finance Forum on LinkedIn