Volume 9, Issue 3 - March 2008

All in the Details: 
Looking at One Company’s Pursuit to Purchase Software
by Ellen Rogers

In early 2007 Jeff Miller, president of ComfortLine Windows based in Toledo, Ohio, was no longer satisfied with the software system his company was using.

“Our team felt the company had outgrown the capabilities of our current system and we questioned [its] ability to adequately support our anticipated growth,” said Miller, who then decided it was time to explore other options and select a new system. 

The decision-making process that led him to purchase the Paradigm System from WTS Inc. wasn’t as simple as walking into the local Best Buy for the latest version of Windows. Instead, he, along with a team from his company and a hired consultant, researched nine suppliers and their products thoroughly to get the exact one that was right for his business. 

Miller spent some time talking with DWM about the process. 

Q. How long ago did you purchase the software?
A. We made the commitment mid last fall and we went through a very structured search. We hired a consulting group (Magnet) that specializes in assisting Northern Ohio manufacturing companies. It turned out they had a specialist who worked with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. We talked to him, we liked him, we liked his experience and we retained him to help us select the right package.

Q. How many people at your company were involved with the purchasing decision? 
A.
We had about seven or eight; all of the segments of the company were represented.

Q. What was the decision-making process like? 
A.
First, we came up with a list of companies that we knew specialized in the fenestration business and we gave it to our consultant. While we knew some of the companies in that arena, our consultant did some work and came up with a few more. One of the criteria we established at the start was we wanted a supplier focused on our industry and not a generalist. From that point forward, there were a whole lot of steps to wean down the crowd. Again, it was a pretty structured environment and our consultant came up with criteria for us to evaluate the various programs. We asked them for overviews of their companies and from that we eliminated a few. We weaned the [original nine companies] down to seven and then asked them for more information and [we met with them] to get acquainted. From there, we weaned the list down to three and from those three we asked for very specific proposals and in those proposals we tried to get them to propose things in the same way with the same criteria so we could do an apples-to-apples comparison. 

In my experience, it’s extremely difficult to evaluate one software company versus another because each has strengths and weaknesses and the weaknesses are often buried in the details. Naturally, they will emphasize their strengths while short-siding their weaknesses. So, we gave them a specific set of criteria broken down into buckets of information for different areas and asked them to tell us about each one of those and how their system would address each issue. Then we asked each to come in and give us a full-blown presentation, and again we tried to structure the presentations so we could evaluate the information adequately. Having said all of that, it still wasn’t perfect. 

I think our consultant did a very good job of organizing all of the information, and at the end of the day we tried to make the evaluation and decision as objective as possible. We got down to two candidates that we felt were equal in their skill sets and equal in their technical abilities, support, etc., and that final decision became extremely difficult. It [came from] a vote of the team we’d assembled and advice from our consultant. It’s a long, relatively torturous and exhausting process. If you talk to people we dealt with, including those we didn’t select, they’d probably say we overlooked some things and we probably did. It’s an imperfect process. But we have been pretty happy with our decision so far.

Q. What were some of the criteria you used to narrow the field?
A.
After sales support was extremely important. Overall cost was a factor, but I would say overall cost was not the main factor by any stretch. Not that it wasn’t important, but we said from the very start we would not make this decision based on price. There was also technical confidence in the people we were dealing with, the state of the program development and feedback from customers—we had no interest in being a guinea pig in this. There were about 75 specific categories (reports, applications functionality, customer information, quoting and order entry, purchasing and receiving, inventory management, capacity planning, remakes, machine interface, shipping, etc.), and then under each of those areas we had a number of questions, so we made a matrix. Instead of having them come in and present to us, we sent this whole proposal out and had them fill it in.

Q. What do you think are the one or two most important factors when making a software decision? 
A. [For us], it came down to how confident we were in the organizations that gave us these responses and when we went on to further questioning, how confident we were that they really were on top of all this. I have been involved in these things before and I have seen some colossal failures. And one of the things I’ve noticed over the years, when evaluating new systems, is there’s such an overwhelming amount of information that it’s easy for a [supplier] to confuse the people to whom they’re presenting. The devil is in the details in these systems, and even with the comprehensive process we went through, eventually it came down to a subjective decision: how confident were we in the groups with which we were dealing? Could they deliver what they said they could deliver in the time they said they could do it? 

Q. When researching this decision, were there any surprises along the way?
 A. Most of it was new. We had a system in place for a number of years that we felt was inadequate, and we were looking to correct what we felt were its shortcomings. So it was a struggle to get out of the paradigm of our own system and fully grasp how each of these [others] would eliminate the problems. And that’s where things got subjective. We had representatives of every segment of our business and each had his own agenda. Obviously, each is not necessarily involved in the [whole thing], but only a portion of it. So it was difficult to weave all of this together. It was a demanding process and everyone shared a lot of time, including me, devoted considerable time trying to gain a cursory understanding of each system.

Q. Why is it so critical to research the software companies and their products thoroughly before making a final decision? 
A.
It’s a major investment, it’s a major undertaking that touches everybody in the business and every customer and every vendor and the risk of making a wrong decision is quite high. Nothing happens in our business, or probably any type of business, that doesn’t some how get embroiled in the system.

Q. What advice would you give other manufacturers considering this type of purchase? 
A.
Anybody looking to select and then install one of these systems really needs to go through a somewhat similar process and get all facets of the business involved. When you’re evaluating these systems it’s important to drill down and keep asking “Why?” until you get to the answer. Those questions are best asked by the most knowledgeable people in your company. The best suggestion I can give is you cannot just hire somebody, give that person the assignment and expect it to get done the way you want it to be done. The best thing to do is select the absolute key person in your business, and make him/her responsible for the overall project, and backfill the vacated position. A successful installation requires the full attention of someone who understands the products and processes of the business. 

Ellen Rogers is a contributing editor for DWM magazine.



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