Chapter 3 — What do I look for?
Trying to work out the differences, strengths, weaknesses and commercial considerations of multiple vendors can feel like a huge challenge. Develop a vendor engagement framework and you’ll make sure that you speak to the right people, ask the right questions and make the final purchase decision more quickly.
Below are some suggestions to help you build that framework.
Is it simple?
In their 2017 research paper “Redefining the Rules for the Digital Age”, one of Deloitte’s key takeouts for HR technology was “bring in tools that are easy for employees to use”. Keep the user experience front and centre. Is the solution truly simple? Is your initial response; ‘I would feel confident putting this in front of our managers and employees without any training’? If the answer is no, move on.
Does it do the job?
From my years of buying and selling software solutions and helping to support customers after a sale, I have learned one simple but critical lesson: always purchase a solution that was built to fix the problem you have.
Although this may sound obvious, many a government agency or major multinational corporation has spent big money on solutions that — at the heart of it — were not designed to do what they wanted it to. There can be many reasons why this happens, but perhaps the most common are a) they weren’t clear on the problem they were trying to solve and b) the purchase seemed to make financial sense (for example, it may have been an add-on to an HR system they had already spent lots of money on).
Software solutions have personalities. Like humans, software solutions are naturally great at some things and not so great at others. In software development language you’d call this the “system architecture”.
If the architecture / personality isn’t geared to solve your main problem, you and your users will soon find out. Symptoms include:
- Simple tasks feeling click-heavy and unintuitive.
- You’ll constantly need to ask your vendor to add or configure things, and they’ll find it hard to accommodate you (not because they’re difficult, but because your requests will cut against the architecture of their product).
- Long and tiresome workflows
- delays while you wait for the vendor to make updates.
A software vendor should be able to explain, quickly and simply, where their strengths are (ask them what problem they built their software to solve). They should also be able to tell you where they are weak, or at least what they don’t focus on. Be wary of the salesperson who tells you their product can do everything. This usually means they have a system that has been cobbled together over the years, and provides a confused user experience. Or it may just be that the salesperson isn’t very good.
I would suggest asking the above questions before seeing a demo. Once you’re actually in the demo you can refer back to the answers they’ve given you and decide for yourself.
Below are some of the most common challenges we’ve heard in conversations with customers and in our own demos. The first is by far the most common, incidentally, but you may recognise some of the others too.
- A lack of engagement with performance management, often based on years of frustrating annual appraisals and clunky systems.
- A struggle to find systems to support a manager/employee conversation-based model.
- A lack of meaningful insight into performance management behaviour within the organisation.
- The struggle to identify top talent and poor performers.
As more and more workers rebel against broken systems and smart HR leaders recognise the value of continuous performance models, we expect to see real change in the modern workplace.
Can they prove they can do the job?
You need to come away from a website, demo or sales meeting with the confidence that they can do what they say. The vendor’s case studies are an excellent place to start. Are they vague “we did nice things” PR exercises? Or do they offer specific information about real-world problems? As you get deeper into the sales process, ask to be put in touch with some of their customers: ideally ones with needs similar to yours.
Take a look at the content on their website and blogs, if you haven’t already. Software vendors often claim to be experts at solving a specific problem or embodying a specific school of thought. Their content should give you a sense that they really know what they’re talking about and are passionate about meeting those needs.
Naturally, the demo itself is a hugely important factor (which is why I’ve split that out as a separate chapter). But if you go into the demo armed with the info above, you can judge what they’re showing you against their own criteria. It’s all very well to say “our system is intuitive and simple”. If it’s not, the demo will show that up pretty quickly.
Support vs Partnership
If your idea of “Support” is an interminable wait for someone to answer the phone or reply to your email, we may have some good news for you.
The Software as a Service (SaaS) revolution has made a big difference to service and support. In reality, there’s very little difference between most performance management tech vendors’ Service Level Agreements (SLAs). These days, timely responses and a bug-free experience should come as standard.
So the focus now should be on partnership, not support. Why? Because although the shift from annual appraisals to continuous performance management is well underway, for many it still represents the first step into a brave new world. You’ll have questions as you progress. Many of those can be dealt with during the sales process, sure, but remember: you’re not going to buy this thing, install it and forget about it. This is a continuous process. So it’s well worth thinking about the following:
- Does the vendor have clear processes and forums for sharing best practice?
- Is it easy to get hold of a Customer Success consultant?
- Do they have a community of customers you can share ideas with?
- Do they have any other resources to help you shape and refine your model?
A great vendor should give you feedback and suggestions based on how you use their system. They should come to you with insight and advice. They should share their development roadmap and give you ideas on how it will improve your performance management culture.
Remember: this isn’t a one-off project for the vendor any more than it is for you. Software needs to evolve, so expect vendors to be able to explain where their technology is going. Just like your organisation, software providers should have a vision for the perfect world they’re working towards. It might be as simple as asking about their recent development work (they should be able to show you their last six months of updates). All too often, vendors can shift their focus too far from product development to sales. You need to know where they’re taking their product. What updates can you expect to see from them in the months to come?
We promised you we’d get here.
The user experience is critical. But however comfortable the journey is for the passengers, someone has to actually fly the plane. Chances are, that someone is you.
First things first. How configurable is it? Every one of our clients has had specific requests: labels and tags they want changed, for example. How easy is it to make those changes? Can you do them yourself or do you need the vendor to do it? If they need to do it, what are the commercial considerations? How much is included in the cost and how much will be charged for? Don’t end up in a place where you can’t make a minor tweak to a field or title because you can’t budget for it.
On a more personal level… do you feel like you understand and are comfortable using it? Does it give you the reports and data you need? Are you confident explaining it to your team and to key stakeholders? If you feel as though you need a masters degree in computer science to navigate this thing and explain it to others, alarm bells should be ringing.
It’s not just the tech: the people are important too. However simple and intuitive the software, you’re going to be dealing with this vendor for some time — for the aforementioned advice, suggestions and (probably) help with configuring and making it your own. Do you feel comfortable challenging them and asking them difficult questions? Do you feel as though they understand what you’re trying to do and are invested in the success of your project?
Scale is another factor worth considering. It’s not just about usability and chemistry: certain solutions work best for certain sizes of organisation. If your 500-person company is being shown case studies where the vendor delivered for a 60,000-strong multinational, you have the right to ask why. We’ll explore this in more detail in the next chapter.