This article was originally published in Money Inc.
It used to be that companies buying enterprise software took a standard path. They researched options, bought the software, had it installed and then used it. The next time they interacted with their software vendor was if the software failed or when it was time for an upgrade. But those days are over.
This is due in part to the fact that most workers are exposed to enterprise software that is delivered today via the cloud with continuous updates, which naturally requires an ongoing relationship and contact with the software provider. Beyond that, however—or, perhaps because of that—enterprise software users and buyers have a shifting expectation of their relationship with all of their software providers whether the solution is SaaS, hosted or on-premise.
They no longer look at their purchase from a transactional standpoint. Rather, software is now viewed as a long-term investment, something that will evolve and adapt along with the needs of the business. Enterprises need software providers that have flexible software delivery mechanisms and expect those providers to be partners in helping them achieve their business goals, not just a vendor.
Remember, too, that today’s enterprise software users no longer judge a software application only against others in the same category. They compare it in terms of usability to the tools they use every day, such as smartphones; easy-to-use, cloud-based email applications; consumer apps; and more. Enterprise users want to love their business tools as much as they do their personal ones. Your software provider needs to recognize that and be ready to meet that expectation. Users will no longer grudgingly accept a tool that does not delight them.
There are several key indicators to look for to ensure that your software provider meets your long-term goals. As you go through the sales process, keep these things in mind to find a perfect partner for your business needs.
The initial implementation phase is critical for setting up a successful customer lifecycle. It’s when vendors should ensure that their products are configured to deliver the desired business outcomes and meet customer expectations. This is where a solid foundation for a long-term relationship is built.
Implementing the solution in a way that meets both your current and future needs should be a key component of the selection process. Many vendors start by doing some level of business mapping with customers to ensure this is the case.
Additionally, software companies that use agile methodologies to improve their products are able to respond rapidly to your evolving needs. The understanding of and adherence to common workflows is important, particularly when selecting software designed specifically for vertical markets. Beware the software developer that wants to upend every task at once.
After you begin deploying the software, it is the perfect time for your vendor to step up and show true incremental value—not as salespeople but as partners who understand your goals. Look for providers that are willing to work closely with you as you adopt products day in and day out and who provide the proper contacts within the organization for support.
In particular, they should instill confidence in their ongoing support by offering named account managers and customer success managers to provide personal support, training and counsel through your daily interactions with the solutions. Their efforts should extend far beyond garden-variety helpdesk support and include technical support specialists, professional trainers, and client success managers dedicated to customer needs.
This level of support should continue in some way throughout your entire engagement. You should never feel alone. Your software provider should always stand right by your side.
Exchanging ideas on a continual basis offers enormous opportunity for both you and your software vendor. You should be able to work with vendors to refine their software offerings and have a say in their product roadmaps. At the same time, vendors should use this valuable feedback to ensure that their offerings include the necessary enhancements to meet your evolving priorities.
There are a number of ways to provide this feedback. See if your prospective partner has advisory boards comprised of customers whose focus is to provide unvarnished and constructive input. User groups and peer networking events are excellent ways to facilitate the exchange of ideas and opinions on everything from user experience and software design to the development of new products. These continuous feedback loops can make you feel like you’re part of the team and provide vendor partners with invaluable information that can be used to make their products more effective.
There can be a few elements to this phase. There is technical enhancement—using the feedback derived from the aforementioned interactions to ensure that software is continually evolving with new features or applications to meet your needs. But also look for vendor partners that provide enhancement through complementary offerings, such as services that can be customized to your particular situation. Ask your vendor partner about their product roadmap and vision to make sure it aligns with your own.
For example, a vendor partner that offers a managed services practice may offset the need to hire additional staff internally. Through this “white glove” approach, partners can offer the option of a team of experts that can help with additional workloads or special projects on an ad hoc basis.
A large part of enhancement is communications. Expect periodic contacts from your partners, including notes about product updates or even general check-ins. A simple note – “Just wanted to see how things are going and if you had any feedback you’d like to share”—can show that your business is valued and the vendor is fully invested in your success with the product. Throughout the sales process, you should feel that the vendor has listened to and is acting upon the input you have provided since this is indicative of how they will likely partner with you for the long-term.
Indeed, ongoing communication will be a common thread throughout each phase of your relationship with a partner, so make sure this is a key point in your decision-making. Solutions can’t be implemented correctly without customer input. Feedback gathered during the usage and collaboration phases can be instrumental in molding the solution to the customer’s needs, and interactions during the enhancement phase can help seal the deal on a long-term relationship. The best vendor partners invest in hiring people who are committed to and skilled at maintaining ongoing customer communications so that customers feel like they’re being heard every step of the way.
These days, no one wants to be sold something. Instead, you want an investment that will last and provide long-term value—and a partner that will bring you into the fold and treat you like you’re the single most important part of their business. Look for these elements when selecting a partner and cultivate a deep, lasting, and valuable win:win relationship that can pay real dividends for both sides for years to come.