When I first started consulting, my very first project was a vendor selection, and I’ll be honest, my first thought was: “What is a vendor selection?” Since then I’ve been a part of many vendor selections and learned a lot of lessons along the way. If you’re thinking of undertaking a vendor selection, if you’re going to be a part of a vendor selection committee, or even if you’ve done several before, there are a few things to consider:

Know the Problem

Before you even start thinking about vendors, you should start thinking about yourself. Make a list of the problems you are trying to solve, think about why you are trying to solve them, determine the goals you are trying to achieve, and figure out which features are most important in helping you achieve them. Every vendor is going to say they can solve your problems one way or another, so the better you understand what you are looking for the easier you can navigate the selection process. Having a clear understanding of your needs will ensure that you can drive the conversation (and the price) more effectively. The matrix below is a matrix that we built  to help our clients organize their thoughts and prioritize their feature lists (note this matrix is for a financial ERP system). Creating something similar for yourself will help you get a clear picture of what you need, as well as help you communicate that need to others.

Preliminary Research

Don’t pick a vendor just because they are a name brand. In most cases, clients want to go with the big names because of their brand. But before starting a vendor selection project you should really sit down and do some research. The first place I usually start is Gartner. Each year, they produce reports on varying types of software across varying industries. After that, simply typing the problem you are trying to fix into Google can help round out your results. Usually, Google will come back with some comparison matrices to give you an idea of the other products that are out there. Personally, I try to evaluate about 5 companies per quadrant (see above), to get an understanding of everything that is in the marketplace. Once your list of 20 (at least) is vetted, you can begin to work on narrowing them down to the top 3 to bring in for interviews.

Just Say No

Don’t ignore your specific requirements and let vendors talk you out of your goals. I have seen this happen more times than I’d like to admit. “We don’t have that feature, but we have something similar in beta that will be released this year.” If a vendor says something along those lines beware, and even if you think you can make things work until that key feature is released, keep in mind that it likely isn’t going to work how you want it to in the first iteration, and it’s going to take more time than originally promised to get it right. Again, understand what is important for you, and use some sort of decision matrix to help guide you.

Demo, Demo, Demo

Do not be afraid to ask dumb questions. Okay, we’ve made it this far and it is time for your top three to come in and provide demonstrations of the software. As the customer, ask as many questions as you can and drive the conversation. This is the part of the process that is really going to end up saving you time and saving your company money in the long run. As a consultant, I can ask the high-level questions, but at this point in the selection process it’s time for you to shine. Understand how implementation is going to work, what the warranty period is, how trouble shooting will work, etc. Ask every question you can think of. Come in with real data examples and ask the vendor to use them in real life scenarios. By the time you are ready to select your potential vendor, you should have seen at least 2-3 demos performed by them.

I’ve definitely come a long way from running my first vendor selection, but the most important thing I can tell you is that in most organizations, the vendor selection process is an important one. Making a mistake with your vendor choice can lead to a lot of headaches and complications down the road, so it is of the utmost importance that you get it right the first time.