How SMEs can tackle the ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’ of software selection

The recent blockbuster move Inception depicts a dream world in which uncertainty is endemic – no character is totally sure on what is true or false – and is rarely sure of the best way out of their dilemma.

This situation, to my mind, has parallels with the scenario that faces decision makers within Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) when they select their business software. There are lots of routes they can go down – lots of different perspectives and voices all clamouring for attention. Who can you really trust? Should you stick with what you ‘know’ and are comfortable with or try something new? Which choice is really going to help the business grow?

The problem with software selection

Half the problem for many companies is deciding which software to pick; this can be an uphill struggle. There are different options for different sections of the business; these are often provided by different vendors and via different delivery models. The accounts team, the marketing staff and the management team may all be using different software and have their own preferences – satisfying all parties involved can be a nightmare. Knowing which applications to buy (and getting it all to work) is often very confusing for users.

But that’s illogical Captain!

Star Trek’s Spock would say that running different software packages and paying lots of money to make it all work together is illogical – and he’d be right. The best kept secret in the IT industry is that it doesn’t have to be this way!

Businesses can save a lot of time and money by adopting a one-stop-shop solution for all their needs – this model cuts down on the need for expensive integration and means everyone in the business gets used to using the same software. It also means that all staff members use a common platform every day and can all retrieve critical information from a reliable single source. This cuts down on training costs and keeps all the businesses’ information in a single and secure place.

So, why doesn’t this happen?

If a small business is lucky, it may have an internal IT specialist to advise on choices, but this is rare for most. Channel resellers have a vital role to play in translating IT speak for small business owners – and they know the options and possibilities. Sometimes small businesses turn to sources like Business Link, but that network’s advice is usually fairly generic. Of the small business owners I’ve spoken to recently, few have said that they will mourn the previous incarnation of Business Link.

Traditionally, SMEs have grown their business around their accounting software. Owners often look to their accountants for advice on which systems they prefer. This is often a mistake. Most accountants stick to what they know – often to the disadvantage of the rest of the business. At the risk of generalising, it is probably fair to say that accountants are experts when it comes to figures, but where software is concerned they often don’t have a clue.

Accountants are notorious for being risk averse, but growing businesses need to take risks in order to grow. Accountants tend to recommend the likes of Sage – because it feels safe, rather than because it is the best choice for the business as a whole. Business owners should resist the traditional instinct to defer to the preference of accountants, and should make sure all areas of the business are considered when selecting business software.

Translating IT speak into plain English

The IT industry, with its rigmarole of jargon, buzz words and technology heavy mindset, hasn’t made it easy for small businesses. Vendor literature indulges in buzzword bingo to the point that it’s impossible to differentiate between the various solutions. So who should a small business owner talk to in order to get the best advice on the optimal use of business systems?

Good business software can provide the cost savings and efficiencies that can make the difference between a healthy growing small business and a struggling business that risks going under. Business owners are usually smart BUT they are busy people and have many plates to keep spinning. It is rare for them to be IT specialists or experts in marketing, finance, e-commerce, customer service etc. And software vendors don’t help because they want to talk more about architectures and feature/function rather than business benefit. Owners have to wade through an ocean of IT speak to get to the facts.

Cloud Computing – a case in point

Jargon Alert! Cloud Computing is one of the hot concepts in technology at the moment – it is basically IT delivered purely online as a service. Companies increasingly purchase their software online due to convenience and the simplicity of purchasing. I believe most SMEs couldn’t care less about whether something’s ‘Cloud’ or not.

They want to know: how can this help me, what will it cost and what do I need to do to make it work? Online software definitely has many benefits, but by itself the use of online software does not necessarily make a company more productive or more competitive. It can be quicker, cheaper and simpler to use than traditional packaged software, but by itself it is not a magic bullet for software success.

Tips for purchasing:

1. Consult, consult, and consult: Business is more than the sum of its parts, so buy the software for all areas of the business, not just finance. Good financial management is critical to the success of an SME, but so is marketing, customer service, stock control, employee efficiency etc.

2. Requirements first, functionality second: Make sure the IT you are buying was designed specifically for your requirements: A lot of small business software is simply enterprise software stripped down. As anyone who has bought an expensive, top-of-range camera will know, unless you know what you are doing, a lot of additional functionality can hinder using the product for its purpose

3. Check that you can upgrade as your requirements change: This is not the same as buying one product with lots of unnecessary functionality; it is about making sure that you can upgrade the existing product and transfer existing data. The alternative could be wasting hours re-entering data or losing it

4. You don’t always have to buy: Many suppliers now recognise the value of letting people ‘rent’ use of their products or services over the Internet. Online back-up or remote IT help-desk services for example. It needs a good Internet connection but the benefit is that when you do want to trade-in or switch, it is easier and cheaper to do so

5. Don’t get caught up in vendor hype: The long term stability of the vendor, their customer service, and their understanding of your business needs is more important than their support for the latest technology trend or the number of b buzzwords that they can fit into their marketing literature.

Ultimately there are many choices that you can make for your business when purchasing and managing your IT. My parting advice would be to think carefully about what you really need to be successful and drive things forward. Software is constantly evolving, so look for a solution that can grow with your business needs. Don’t get stuck in a dream world; focus on reality. Ask around and challenge existing assumptions within your business – this will help select the best software option for the business, and for your future success. Happy hunting!

Bryan Richter is the UK Country Manager for Mamut Software, a provider of integrated software solutions and Internet services for SMEs. He joined Mamut in May 2009 to head-up the UK launch of Mamut One. Bryan has over 25 years experience in the software industry. Prior to Mamut, Bryan worked as the Vice President of Sales in Northern Europe for Chordiant Software. In this role, he developed their go to market strategy with direct sales and strategic alliances that resulted in UK winning the biggest deal in Chordiant’s history and closing several other multi-million dollar deals. Before Chordiant, Bryan was Vice President for Trillium Software in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). At Trillium he introduced new go-to-market strategies around business solutions and supporting alliances, turning the business around and achieving sustainability for the company’s long-term growth. Bryan has also worked as EMEA Vice President for Stellent, and as Northern Europe, Middle East and Africa Regional Manager for Remedy.