Chapter 3

Chapter 3 - What do I look for?

Buyer's Guide to Performance Management Software
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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? 

Admin­is­tra­tor Experience 

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.

Cul­tur­al Fit

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.