Helen Modly, CFP, CPWA, is a wealth advisor with Buckingham Strategic Wealth, a fee-only Registered Investment Advisor. The opinions in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of Buckingham Strategic Wealth or Morningstar.com. The author may be reached at email@example.com.
Choosing the right partner for your next purchase can be as important to consider as price and how well the solution fits your purpose. Here are some things to consider.
Support From Beginning To End
Make sure you understand the support model behind your purchase. Are you paying by the minute/hour, or is a full support solution included in the purchase price? If you are paying as you go, monitor your support cases to be sure you are not being charged for issues that were the vendor's fault.
Also, review in what manner you will be receiving support. For example, is it by phone or email? Make sure the service level agreement being offered and the response times are in line with the role the technology plays in your business. If you have a day-stopping issue, you don't want to be stuck emailing a support address and hoping for a response within minutes when it will take days.
Who's With Me?
For your more expensive or integral software solutions, is there a thriving user base? And can members of that base talk with one another?
One troubling aspect of many current financial technology solutions is the lack of user communities--or the bizarre practice of putting those communities behind license requirements, or even geographical locations. There can be few places for users to talk to one another about their successes or challenges using the software, which only hinders adoption and advocacy of the actual product. Creating a user community and engaging with it is one of the best retention techniques available, so check with your soon-to-be-provider to see what it has created for users.
Don't Check in to Hotel California
As the lyric goes, "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." Can you get your data out of the software, or is it forever locked away in a proprietary format? Will you be able to dump your data into spreadsheets for further analysis, or are you stuck using the pre-made reports the vendor thinks are the most useful for you?
The ability to extract your data can make a difference if you need to change solutions down the line, or even want to look at your data in a different way. Nothing is more frustrating than putting all of your information into a system and then having no way to get it back out.
Other types of lock-ins include contract times. How long are you attached to this solution if it's not a good fit? How expensive would it be to change? You won't always be able to ensure a smooth exit, but know what you'd need to do to make a break is worth looking into before making a commitment.
Transparency Of Updates
It's useful to know how often vendors release updates, and how transparent they are about it. Some update on a weekly or monthly basis, while others make larger updates on a less frequent schedule. It can be frustrating to fire up an often-used program and be surprised to find changes or new fields that have appeared seemingly overnight.
Ideally, you can see a version of a change log on the vendor's website, which not only gives you an idea of how frequently the vendor makes updates, but also how informative the vendor is when updates occur. Does the vendor offer webinars for big changes, or are you expected to read about it in and understand it from an email? If you are paying by the minute for support and the vendor isn't clear in its communications, your support costs could rise while you try to sort out the fallout from updates.
Size Isn't the Best Metric to Consider
It can be comforting to go with the biggest fish in the sea. After all, if it seems like everyone is using a particular solution, you might assume there will be plenty of resources available for support. But with a big vendor and a product with a large market share often comes less agility with updates and support. As a user, it is frustrating to email a feature request or bug report to a generic email address and then receive zero response in return. You may wonder if anyone is even looking at your feedback, or if a recurring bug is ever going to be fixed.
Smaller companies are frequently more responsive, more transparent, and update their software on a more frequent basis. They can also be more receptive to user requests because they are typically serving a smaller user base and are eager to address their concerns.
Talk To Existing Customers
Ask for the names of other customers and, when you reach out, make it a fruitful conversation. Get the usual information, such as response time, onboarding and support issues, and responsiveness to feature requests and bug reports. Also ask the tougher questions, such as the most challenging issue the customers have faced as users, and how the company responded. Inquire whether they feel the company really cares about their customers and if they feel heard.
A little extra information-gathering about the next company you purchase technology from can offer big returns in terms of how satisfied you are with them as a provider and whether they meet and/or exceed your expectations.
Understanding how a technology vendor provides support, how often they disseminate updates or bug fixes, and being able to talk to other customers are all important considerations when making a purchasing decision. There is no perfect company, so you likely will need to make a number of compromises. Taking a little time to understand which issues are most important to you and your business will help guide you to a more perfect partnership.