What should publishers consider when buying CRM and business management software?
Do you have a checklist of recommendations?
When most publishing companies go shopping for CRM, billing and operations software, they tend to focus on features, and specifically, whatever features or lack of features their previous systems did not have. Buying publishing software is complex and, while features are important, it's one of many things that should be considered when going software shopping. Here is a checklist of considerations I recommend when shopping for a publishing software system (or any software for that matter).
1. Know Your Exit Plan Before You Buy
This is a big, often-overlooked issue and one that software providers often don't like to address. You need to know what file format your data will be in when you get it back. The more standardized the file format, the better. Packages that operate in Microsoft SQL are the best because SQL is widespread and you will find an abundance of programmers to prepare your files for your next package, should you ever have to leave. Most, but not all, large providers use SQL, but smaller providers may use various kinds of freeware or proprietary database structures that are not easily converted to other formats. Always ask what file format your data would be returned in and also ask if there would be any charge to return your data. Some providers make it as difficult as possible to leave (vendor lock-in) and do everything from charging a high fee to return your data to giving it to you in a format that is so archaic that your next software installation is likely to fail. Know your exit plan before you buy! Don't assume that software marriages last forever. You may outgrow it down the road or find it just wasn't the right product for you.
2. Find Out What Kinds of Support Packages are Available
If you are buying a package that is worth its salt, it will be powerful enough, complicated enough, and customizable enough to require ongoing support. Nobody who buys software wants to hear this. Software sales reps want to minimize the cost of the product, and buyers want to hear that it's turnkey once purchased – but it's not. Systems that run your business can be tweaked, customized and adjusted to continually improve your business. It's not a static process. You should find out what kind of ongoing consulting packages are available, and meet regularly (preferably monthly) with your software provider, to address business systems that you find time-consuming or less than optimal. By improving and evolving your systems on a monthly basis, you'll make your consulting fees back tenfold. Your employee costs will always be your main company costs, not your software costs, so focus on ways of improving efficiency, saving man hours and reducing labor costs and you'll make a lot more money in the end. Buyers who go into a software relationship on the cheap have high failure rates, don't fully utilize systems, and never achieve the kind of economic efficiency they could have if they continuously attack inefficient processes within their companies.
3. Drill Down into the Details
The smartest companies draft up an RFP outlining what features they are hoping to have in their software package and they have the vendors fill them out. The best companies look forward to this comparison and the weaker vendors will not.
4. Require Your Potential Providers to Rank Their Competitors
The good vendors usually know the market and know what they are good at and what they are not good at. Ask them to name their competitors' strengths and weaknesses. You'll find out pretty quickly which competitors they respect and those they genuinely think are weak competitors.
5. How Long, How Big and How Many?
Find out how long the vendors have been around. It's very hard to start a software company and compete with companies with mature products. The mature products have a decade or more of a head start and usually ten million dollars or more in development. Find out how many clients your vendors serve. The ones with the broadest customer base will have larger development staffs and tend to race ahead while other vendors can't due to their small size. Find out how many full-time employees each vendor has. If the answer if five, you should think twice. It's difficult to provide any sort of support and development process with so few employees.
6. Touch the Product
Ask the vendors to use an actual copy of the software. There is no safer way to evaluate than to get your hands dirty and really experiment with the actual product.
7. Don't be Sold by: "We don't have that feature, but we'll throw in custom development of that feature if you'll sign right here."
This is what companies that don't have robust products do to try and get a deal done. Any software company that becomes tied up in custom work for each client won't be focused on developing new features that serve its overall client base. Custom work adds to maintenance costs of the overall software package and the best companies will focus their efforts on making their software package customizable by you, not trying to create custom reports and features for you. You may be the focus while they are trying to get you to sign on the dotted line, but they'll move onto the next custom project once you are on board, and you'll notice that your future needs are not being met because the company's development staff is doing custom work for the new client. It's a slippery slope that the best software companies don't go down.
So, do features matter? Yes, but don't fail to realize all of the other important considerations when investing in software for your publishing company.
Mark McCormick is president of Mirabel Technologies, a leading cloud-based software provider of publishing solutions, including The Magazine Manager and The Newspaper Manager. Mirabel Technologies is the first company to fully integrate flat planning, digital and tablet edition creation (Mirabel's Digital Studio) with ad order entry, CRM and billing functions.