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Software buyers aren’t selecting apps – they’re looking for breakthrough ideas

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer April 13, 2022
Software selections are changing, but are vendors? Here’s a look at the changes underfoot and what one firm is doing now.

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ERP vendor Infor recently briefed a number of analysts on their offerings. One aspect of the briefing concerned their new approach to implementing their vertical suites and how partners should participate in these implementations. 

One aspect Infor discussed was the addition of pre-sales workshops at the beginning of the software selection process. But, before we go further into Infor’s approach, let’s first discuss what software buyers want and need. 

Selections from the buyer’s perspective

Software buyers today don’t want to buy a ‘package’. They’ve bought dozens of these relatively static things over the decades. Packages had a number of defined capabilities (e.g., exactly three ways to allocate a balance in the General Ledger) with a few opportunities to ‘tailor’ the functionality or workflow via table entries and some design options. 

When you bought a package, you looked at what functions and features were supported and what could be done via some tailoring or via a bolt-on application/tool. The range of configuration possibilities was fairly limited for decades. 

Today, solutions can be made to behave in significantly different ways via chatbots, RPA (robotic process automation), workflow/exception handling, machine learning, process mining and other advanced technologies. While all of those new capabilities could be great, software buyers don’t necessarily know what really is in the realm of possibility. That’s the key selection problem today. 

The selection help software buyers need

Vendors may be involved in dozens of selections every day but buyers often wait 10-20 years before replacing a given application. Obviously, technology and product capabilities can change a lot during that time. Buyers, then, need help catching up on the new underlying technical capabilities of a product and understanding, functionally, what the art of the possible is now.  If they can’t get this from a vendor or its partners, they can’t really know what to buy. 

This is the first disconnect. 

Lacking new insights, buyers may try to replace their old solution with a minimally enhanced new solution. That’s not transformation – that’s incrementalism and it’s not what buyers need today. Buyers need vendors that will show them not how to (re-)automate or digitize, but how to transform and what transformation can be. That requires a vendor to spend time understanding the prospect’s current processes & methods and bringing in benchmarks, ideas, strategies and best practices that will dramatically move a prospect’s operations from third or fourth quartile to first quartile. 

Too many ERP vendors and their implementation partners will NOT spend time doing this. It’s astonishing that many implementation partners simply phone-in their work plans and estimates without ever visiting the prospect. To do it right, vendors/partners really need to understand the prospect’s business, business challenges and the goals they have. 

Unfortunately, lazy implementers may shy away from this as they sense the work may be too consultative and not their core competency. For many of these vendor/partner firms, their teams are full of product or tool specialists. These players might know one module well but aren’t really the sort of consultant that can recognize a poorly performing process and know how it could be reimagined into a great value-creating asset of the company. Yes, we’ll still need product configurators and data conversion pros but BEFORE any of these get involved, buyers need the strategic vision that will guide the implementation. 

Which leads to a second disconnect. 

Bad vendors try to rush the completion of a sale before a customer even knows exactly what they’ll want/need. Then, they’ll push the buyer to accept a ‘rapid’ implementation. Vendors push these as they are repeatable and their costs can be perceived as low. Unfortunately, no two implementations are the same and what buyers need to get out of a finished solution can vary significantly. This is a huge mistake as a prospect doesn’t need a fast implementation of software that won’t solve their current problems let alone keep failing to solve them long-term. 

Many fast implementations are focused on mapping data from the old system into the new one. The underlying business processes might change a bit but we are NOT talking about transformation here. Nope. This is often nothing more than a technology upgrade, a lateral move to the cloud, or, a new technical platform. Again, nothing to see here folks – nothing significant that is. 

What buyers do need is an implementation that provides a lot of functional and technical runway for the future as well as a substantial improvement now over the status quo. You can’t get this unless you reimagine and reinvent your business processes and utilize new kinds of data (e.g., sensor, big, external, social sentiment, weather, etc.), take advantage of advanced technologies (e.g., chatbots, RPA, AI/ML, etc.), and create all-new kinds of analytics and briefing materials. NONE of that happens with an overly standardized, generic, simple implementation. 

And that is the worst disconnect. 

The real selection work occurs long before you choose finalists

You wouldn’t go shopping for a car if you actually need a bicycle. Buying software without knowing what your desired future state should be is a waste of time and money. Don’t do it. 

Buyers need to engage with vendors and partners very early on to LEARN what is the art of the possible, and, how that capability could be enabled. This education may come from webinars, Zoom calls, in-person meetings, brown-bag lunches and other venues where knowledge is transferred. What’s not needed at this stage are slick sales pitches, high-pressure sales tactics, and, people rushing to make a potentially wrong decision. 

The best selections have buyers that are very cosmopolitan (i.e., very aware of the market and the opportunities their firm can exploit). They’ve done the homework and know what they want. They may not know exactly how each technology or process will be configured but they are crystal clear as to what they want for their firm, how it will interact with its constituents (e.g., customers, suppliers, employees, etc.), the business benefits they expect a new solution to deliver, how advanced technologies will change the firm for the better, etc. 

The key output of this research is more than a long-list of potential vendors. It documents the critical business issues and opportunities that must be addressed by new solutions. It should also provide a roadmap for how new capabilities are going to be supported by new software. Vendors and implementers alike should find these materials instructive and useful. 

Back to Infor

The Infor briefing indicated that they were going to offer Pre-Sales Workshops at the beginning of the process. I believe that’s an outstanding idea.

When I asked Infor about their new pre-sales workshops, Infor’s President of Global Customer Experience Solutions, John Frank, said: 

As we move to a more prescriptive execution model with our customers that more closely aligns to leveraging Industry templates, that necessitates a change in the way that we lead and drive (pre)sales workshops with our prospects/customers. That shift in approach, as you can imagine, is not limited to Infor led Implementations.  We want a consistent pre-sales workshop experience for our prospects/customers irrespective of execution being led by one of our value-added partners, Infor Services or a combination of the two.   

This will necessitate some harmonization of our workshop approaches to not just be focused on the business process and technical extension early discovery, but will need to evolve to also include elements around Data Strategy, Cloud Readiness, Organizational Change Management, Enterprise Integration and Enterprise Architecture strategies in Hybrid Environments as examples.

Infor’s going to make the pre-sales activity a faster, easier process. John added:

We’d want to see a reduction of time spent on discovery for Extensions, Reports and Interfaces as an example as we instrument more of those best practices, rich API libraries, Industry specific pre-built APIs & reports, etc. into the product itself.   This shift in what we do and how we do it, will necessitate new capabilities and skills to be developed in our strategic partner teams as well as our Infor services teams.

As for Infor’s partners? John stated:

This shift will also necessitate that we collectively invest in training and enablement for all the practitioners involved and we’d expect that some of that will be co-developed as we bring the methods and models together and some will be Infor led as we re-instrument the product itself.  

Finally, our partners invest today in pre-sales workshops with customers to get a level of discovery to be in a position to put together bids and Statements of Work for Implementation. We don’t want to move away from that, but we do want to evolve the “what” we are interrogating in those workshops as described above to be more focused on the business transformation and readiness for change. 

My take

Software selections are changing because re-automation projects just aren’t relevant anymore. When buyers need radically new value propositions, powered by advanced (not run of the mill or old-school) technologies, they need to approach the selection differently. 

My own selection clients certainly expect more from a selection today. Specifically, they want things like:

  • A solution that dramatically removes paper, manual interventions, repetitive acts and more from current processes

  • Fully functional integrations and never anything that must be dumped to a CSV file and/or manipulated in Excel or Access prior to pushing the data into another system

  • RPA and chatbots everywhere

  • Every solution enabled for remote work

  • Every process is a top quartile performer

  • Competitive advantage not competitive parity

  • Etc.

If your firm is ready for new solutions, do the homework before selecting a new solution. If you need to, pay some money with either a great consultant or integrator to help you reimagine your business and understand what the new art of the possible is now. Your firm might even benefit from having a partner firm, vendor or integrator provide a proof of concept or pilot to bring new ideas and concepts to life. And, if you still need some more tips/tricks, then ping me. But whatever you do, don’t do what you used to do. 

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