Parker Avery is launching a new series in our blog where we ask a number of questions about a key retail topic or industry challenge and provide the perspectives from several Parker Avery team members. In this first Q&A post, we discuss the challenges many retailers face when embarking on initiatives that involve selecting a new software solution. The Parker Avery Group panel members providing their insights for this discussion include: CEO Robert Kaufman, Senior Manager David Birdsall, and Senior Manager The Parker Avery Group.

Q1. When a company performs a package selection on its own (i.e., without engaging outside help), are they any activities that are typically overlooked or minimized in the process? How does this impact the resulting selection or implementation?

Robert: Typically companies will error on the side of speaking with and analyzing too many vendor solutions. They’re typically not aware of the solutions that are a best fit for their requirements and spend a lot of time “kicking tires” on solutions that are not good candidates. As far as overlooked activities, a detailed script reflective of a “day in the life” is often not created. Rather companies will let the vendor drive the demo which leads to the vendor highlighting what they do well, not necessarily what is most needed for the customer.

David: In agreement with Robert, the first minimized activity that comes to mind is the lack of creating a script for the vendor demonstrations. When I have attended customer-driven demos, their typical “script” is a high-level bullet list of items they want demonstrated, which leaves a lot of room for a vendor as they demonstrate. A software vendor will put on their best show and not demo anything that doesn’t work right. Typically, when we lead a selection, as part of the process, we will create a very detailed script of everything that the client wants to see. The details of these scripts typically even include actual client data to be used. This is based on our experiences in implementing the software, and we know what an “out-of-the- box” solution should typically bring. By creating a detailed script, you’ll see not only the good aspects of the vendor’s solution, but you’ll also get a better understanding of what the software cannot do. This enables more accurate evaluations with less subjectivity. Another area that an outside expert brings is narrowing down the list of contenders prior to the conducting of demos. We have done numerous software selections and have a good idea of which software might have a better fit than others based on understanding the customer requirements. This will shorten the selection process and get you to the answer sooner.

Lynne: I have seen internal selections where the scoring or valuation hasn’t been weighted based upon business importance, causing the decision to made based upon IT criteria or non-business centric criteria. I have seen the focus be purely on costs without focus on the actual return on investment (ROI) of the project. Sometimes the ROI is not fully vetted or considered either because IT is doing the evaluation with minimal partnership from the business or the business is “too busy” to participate and sees these tasks as belonging to IT.

Q2. What are the most critical client roles to have on board during a package selection project and what % of their time should they expect to spend focusing on package selection activities?

Robert: Well, no surprise that business resources are the most critical. Without a representation of key stakeholders that can provide requirements input and evaluative feedback regarding requirements fit, the solution selected may not be optimal. This can also lead to future adoption issues, as the business will feel that the solution was forced onto them. If they’re part of the decision-making selection team, they’ll more easily embrace the good (and the bad) that comes with the selected solution. During the selection, business users will be required an average of 10-15% with peaks during initial discovery and requirements gathering and the demos themselves.

David: Absolutely, the most critical is to have business representation. To expand on Robert’s points, too many times IT leads the selection and choses a solution they think the business needs. To have buy-in, you must have the business involved in the requirements gathering, attending the demonstrations and participating in the evaluation. IT representation is also important to evaluate the architecture and future support capabilities. Regarding specific roles, it depends on the software. You need to have a cross-section of the doers (e.g., Assistant Buyer), the managers (the Buyer), and the leaders (the DMM/VP). All three roles will look at the software from different points of view. They will serve as your subject matter experts (SMEs). The percentage of time will vary. During the requirements gathering, you’ll need to have a couple of resources (typically a business analyst and someone who represents the business) dedicated full-time to the selection. In addition to participating in the interview gathering, they can assist in identifying who should be interviewed and scheduling the interviews. Each SME would need an hour for the initial interview. During the vendor demonstrations, each demo will typically be at least 1 day and sometimes more. You’ll need the SMEs full-time during the demonstrations. Of course, as you go through evaluations, you’ll need the SMEs for additional follow-up meetings and / or demos. This time commitment depends on what follow-up items come out of the demos.

Lynne: Business Area Leads and SMEs and the IT application owner. The Business Area Leads and IT application owner should be dedicated to the selection while the SMEs could be partially allocated to the project. It is also important to include a key advisor who has experience with package selection and the “stumbling blocks” or misunderstandings that occur in this type of project. A good example of this is verbiage, meaning: what the business calls one thing versus what the vendor calls it. In merchandising, item attributes are key fields used to assist in reporting and operational efficiency. However, the vendor may call ALL fields attributes, and would cause misalignment of key business requirements.

Q3. Most leading software packages have built in industry best practices, yet we often hear about retailers who struggle with “out-of-the-box” (OOTB) solutions not being able accommodate their unique needs. How do you address this dichotomy? Is it practical to expect a true “out-of-the-box” implementation?

Robert: The struggle with out-of-the-box, best-practice based solutions is typically not that they don’t address the customer’s needs, but rather the customer isn’t willing to change. There are certainly instances when a company’s differential requirements, their “special sauce,” are not supported out-of-the-box. This is usually in the 5-10% range. The rest of the best-in-class capabilities can be implemented if the mindset of the organization is open to embracing this approach and realizing they may not get a 100% fit. Ensuring appropriate Change Management support and setting realistic expectations (cascading from senior management / project champions) will help to set the stage for this approach and to help the project team make the right choice when users want to cling to their “sacred cows.”

David: Everyone wants out-of-the-box if they don’t have to change their processes. That’s where companies get in trouble. They feel they have some unique process that must be kept that represents a key competitive differentiator. While in some cases this is true, it typically just represents something (a process, policy, etc.) the company has simply always done. However, there are times where you do come across a unique requirement that must be met. Most software packages today have capabilities to add business rules or develop a bolt-on at certain points in a system. In these cases, if you can’t resolve it via outside system processes, you can add a small application. They key is to ensure the “enhancement” doesn’t take you off the vendor’s upgrade path. It is extremely rare to have a true OOTB implementation with no enhancements.

Lynne: The key here is two fold – the business’ desire to change from custom developed solutions to industry best practices. Change Management is mission critical when moving from customized solutions to industry best practices. The leadership team must continually reiterate the vision / direction and highlight the benefits of moving to industry best practices. Role modeling this vision for the team assists in moving the bar toward this strategic direction.

Q4. At what points have you seen or experienced delays in selection projects and what typically are the major reasons for delays?

Robert: The delays can happen in a few areas:

  1. The business is not available when the schedule dictates conducting full-day vendor demos.
  2. The vendors cannot accommodate the tight schedule for responding to an RFI / RFP and / or being at the customer site for demos (and follow-up meetings) on specific dates.
  3. Lastly, the final selection can drag on. This could be due to indecision based on loose selection criteria, a business case that doesn’t clearly justify proceeding past the selection phase to implementation, and the customer’s desire to drill-in to every detail to assure the solution supports very detailed customer business scenarios. 

David: The typical delay is the scheduling of the demonstrations and ensuring everyone is available. The first thing you need to do is check the company calendar to see what might be bad weeks to conduct the demos (peak vacation time, holidays, line close, PO issue dates, etc.). Once you find your available weeks for demos, it is necessary to book rooms right away. Usually large rooms are needed for the demos, and in our experience these rooms can be hard to come by. The other delay is after the selection, contract negotiation. This can typically be a couple month process, depending on a company’s legal team availability.

Lynne: I have seen several things that result in package selection delays: unrealistic timelines from the start, underestimating the time needed to capture requirements, underestimating the coordination efforts of scheduling and staging vendor demos and reference calls, and lastly, the business’ need to revisit specific key topics for clarification of functionality before final scoring can be completed.

Q5. If you could name a single success factor in performing a solution selection, what would it be and why?

Robert: The single most important success factor is to be decisive. Indecision will elongate the process and introduce doubt. This doesn’t mean to be hasty in making the selection. Rather, plan the activities, execute the plan, and then make the most informed decision…and good luck.

David: As I said earlier, having the users involved throughout the process. The users of the system need to be involved so they have buy-in. You don’t want them thinking, “IT bought this package and told us to use it.” You want the users of the system to have ownership throughout the process from identifying the requirements of what they want the system to do to ultimately selecting the right solution for their needs.

Lynne: Business vision and focus understood all the way down to the lowest level employee, along with the willingness to work with an experienced external partner who has the ability to mitigate the pitfalls of the selection process.

If you have any questions about your own system selection project, or any other retail challenges, please don’t hesitate to contact Parker Avery. Stay tuned for our next “Ask the Experts” post coming in March, where we will give Parker Avery perspectives on Change Management.