Monday, June 13, 2011

Is a CRM/Database supplier more important than the software they sell?

It is a question that has often been asked over recent years: when buying a new database, is the supplier or the software more important? How much credence should one give the possible suppliers? How critical is the software and technology in comparison?

Remember: It’s not just about the supplier/software
When considering the implementation of any database, the first thing to remember is that the supplier/software is in many ways the least important of all aspects. That is not to say that they are not important, of course they are, it is just that there are more important factors. Namely:
  • Your underlying organisation strategies/structure: i.e. your fundraising strategy, management structure, IT strategy, communication policies and so on. If these are not in place then it doesn’t matter how good the software is, nor the supplier. Databases can’t improve your fundamental structure.
  • Data. Again, if your database lacks data integrity or if your data is not clean, consistent, usable, complete and so on, then the best database in the word cannot help that.
  • People and processes. Your users need to be trained, business processes need to be in place.
  • Hardware and IT infrastructure. If your server or PCs are under-spec’d or if your IT infrastructure is not up to scratch, then your database will struggle no matter what you have or who supplies it.

So how important is the CRM supplier?
The answer to this depends on 2 or 3 scenarios:
  • Firstly, if you are buying a bespoke system, then the supplier is clearly critical. How well they gather and understand your needs, interpret them into your solution, create the software, make it user-friendly and so on, and then support and enhance it – all of that you cannot do without them. If they are not good enough then your software will not be good enough. No matter what database system or programming language they use.
  • If you are buying a proprietary package database (e.g. in the fundraising database world, systems from the likes of ASI, Blackbaud, IRIS, ThankQ etc), then the supplier is still very important because they own the software and they are ultimately the only company you can turn to if you need something (even if in some instances, other clients/support networks and third party consultants can help to an extent). So when you buy their software, you are definitely buying into the supplier as well.

    However, at least with a package solution, you can see the heart of the system even before you buy it, see what it can do for your fundraising and understand at a fundamental level if it is right for you. So you get a degree of safety.

    One could argue that the supplier is more important when you are initially implementing the system because at that point you are most dependent on the supplier, and once you have got it up and running then at least you can manage it more yourself; which is true to a degree. But as you continue to use and grow into the software, then you will probably be wanting more and more from the supplier in other ways in terms of future releases, patches, new functionality, support and so on. So again they will become equally important.
  • If you are purchasing more ‘generic’ CRM software such as CiviCRM, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Pivotal, Salesforce, SugarCRM etc, then it is a slightly different story. This is because the software itself, the underlying CRM database, is developed by one company such as Microsoft, Salesforce etc, but it is implemented and deployed by any such company’s partners or resellers. As such, the partner/reseller you select is very important during the implementation because they will need to get you up and running; but if you did fall out with them thereafter, or if they went to the wall, then you would have other partners/resellers you could turn to instead for support.

    The difference here is that you are still of course dependent on the “parent” company providing the software (i.e. Microsoft, Salesforce etc) in that it still of course matters how good the overall software is, because any partner/reseller can only do so much with the system itself. And the parent company will still be the one developing future releases and fundamental functionality.

    An interesting angle on this point is that there are now an ever increasing number of partners/resellers who are bringing out “vertical-sector” versions or “templates” of Microsoft CRM, Salesforce etc for the NFP sector, and thus when you buy their solution, you are not just buying the underlying software but also a specific “variation” of it which might be angled to your requirements. This means you get some degree of comfort in seeing how your system could look before you buy it, but you will still be reliant on the specific partner/reseller to work with you to implement and fine tune it.

    In addition, you need to be sure to ask each such supplier of these templated versions how the intellectual property (IP) works if you no longer want to work with them in the future. E.g. if you buy a Salesforce-specific templated version for your charity from supplier X, implement it with them but then later decide supplier X is not right for you. Thus, if you, say, stop paying annual support fees to them, but you want to keep the templated software they sold you, then can you do so?

So is the Supplier or the Software more Important?
You will see from my discussion above that this is not such a simple question. Certainly, you should not procure a system based solely on the software if your research shows the supplier to be suspect or if you feel the supplier has so little empathy with you that you will struggle to work with them from day one – it is easy to go down this route, to get blinded by wonderful looking software and just believe that the supplier is bound to be okay. Watch out for this scenario.

But likewise, even if the supplier appears to know your requirements extremely well, then don’t let a supplier’s rainbow vision deflect you from determining if that CRM system is truly good enough or right for your needs.

There is no doubt that the supplier is important. Whether they are more important than the software is questionable, and I am going to sit on the fence here and say they are pretty much equal in importance and it will come down to your specific needs, internal skills, functional requirements, budget and so on – they will influence the answer to this question.

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