I first wrote this article for CMSWire but wanted to share it here as well. I’m sure you have noticed that many of the enterprise collaboration vendors out there are starting to look very similar; not just in appearance but also in functionality. In fact, if you were to visit the exhibit hall at a collaboration conference and cover up the logos of the vendors, it would be pretty hard to differentiate who is who. Vendors know this and customers know this. The big challenge for many companies is how to evaluate various vendors out there. This is actually a very common challenge that companies are faced with and all too often I hear about instances where a company chooses a vendors only to realize that they picked the wrong one (usually because they never went through a scoring or evaluation process). I will talk about the actual evaluation process in an upcoming post but first let’s look at the 8 variables that all vendors in the enterprise collaboration space compete against. You have may some other variables that are relevant to you which you can add to this list, in fact I highly encourage you to do so, the goal here is that this needs to make sense for you and your company.
The basis for understanding this is simple: How much do they charge for using their platform? You will find that the two most common ways vendors will charge you are per seat (per user) and per page view. Thus, it’s important to understand how many users you are thinking about including. You want to look at this in a few different time frames. Understand what it will cost now, in six months, in one year, in two years, and beyond two years. This doesn’t have to be an exact science, but it will help you think in terms of cost. Perhaps for the first year you want to try piloting this concept to a small team of 100 employees. After two years you may want to roll out the platform to thousands of employees, so this is something you need to consider. Another thing you want to consider when it comes to price is the ability to add additional users or remove users without incurring any penalties or altering the cost of each seat purchased (unless, of course, the cost is lowered and not increased).
What is it exactly that this platform can do for you, and what makes it different from the others? As was previously mentioned, you will find that many vendors look alike and appear to have very similar feature sets. The best way to determine the proper features is by first developing a set of use cases and then mapping those to feature requirements. Some vendors offer collaboration solutions specifically for employees, and other vendors support developing external customer communities, which is why it’s important to think of this from several different timing perspectives. You may start off working with a vendor that offers only employee collaboration features and then decide you want to collaborate with employees as well and be forced to work with an additional vendor.
You want to make sure that you’re working with a vendor that not only has a great product but has people who will treat you well. I have had several clients whom I tried to refer to vendors in the past only to find that those vendors were rude or promised things that they never delivered on; this is not the type of vendor my clients will be working with. Since the emergent collaboration space is always evolving, you are most likely going to be growing and learning along with whatever vendor you go with, so making sure you are on the same page is important. Ask for previous reference customers and talk to them so that you can find out what they found easy and frustrating about working together. If the vendor typically works with enterprise clients and you are a small or midsize business, you want to make sure you are treated with the same respect and care that the enterprise-size customers get treated with.
Technology and Security
Some organizations choose on-premise solutions, some choose cloud based solutions, and others choose a hybrid of the two. Every organization has its own measures of what it considers secure and acceptable. Whatever your choice is, you want to make sure that security is taken care of (usually by your IT folks) and that your data are safe. On the technology side you want to make sure that the platform is flexible for your needs and future plans. In looking at the technology and security of a platform, you will no doubt run into cloud versus on-premise discussions. It’s crucial to engage IT for this so that you will understand if you should have a cloud-based solution or an on-premise solution.
Customization and Integration
Most organizations want the ability to integrate other systems and customize their platform in the way they see fit. Perhaps being able to pull in legacy system documents or information and being able to edit that information within the platform are crucial. Maybe integration with a single sign-on vendor is crucial. Some vendors are flexible and others are more rigid, and so you want to make sure you have a good idea of what you want to customize and integrate.
Ease of Use and Intuitiveness
You obviously want to make sure that anyone and everyone in your organization can use the platform you select. I have seen examples in which the platform was one of the key barriers to adoption because employees had no idea what to do or how to navigate the site. I once spoke with a client who said, “We want our 60-year-old secretary who still uses a typewriter to be able to figure this out.” You can also test this among your employees and collect feedback. Many vendors today have built their interfaces to look like popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to bring that level of familiarity to the enterprise. The fact that a vendor has an amazing platform doesn’t mean that it is the best choice for your company. If the platform isn’t easy to use and intuitive, don’t bother with it.
Support and Maintenance
You want to make sure that a vendor offers an adequate support package. You will find that support and maintenance fees range quite radically, with some vendors charging upward of 20 percent of the annual license while other vendors don’t charge any additional fees. Understanding when new versions of the product are released is also important, as is where those new versions and upgrade ideas are coming from. Certain vendors pride themselves on integrating customer feedback in their product development cycle, whereas others stick strictly to their own internal road-map Other things to look out for when it comes to support and maintenance are dedicated support lines, support hours (some are 24/7, while others are not), a customer support community, any additional fees, and what exactly the support packages cover. Some vendors provide support up to a certain point of customization and if you “over-customize” the product, those vendors don’t support your modifications for future changes and versions.
Although many disagree about whether vertical expertise is relevant for a vendor, the fact is that many organizations consider this as a factor in evaluating potential technology solutions. Some vendors tend to have more clients in a certain vertical, such as pharmaceutical or government, whereas others may be more focused on higher education and technology. Some vendors are clearly specialized for certain industries, but many platforms can be used horizontally across several verticals. I have not found vertical expertise to be that crucial a factor in vendor selection unless you need something very specific to your company.
One of the other things I like to look for are thought leadership and resource materials. I didn’t include this in the actual list of variables because it’s not realistically something you would judge a vendor on, but if you find that two vendors are almost equal, then this might be something you would want to take a look at. Regular releases of educational material such as webinars, whitepapers, and speaker series are a great way for the vendor to keep educating you and sharing new ideas and insights. In an industry that’s regularly changing and evolving, I like to work with vendors that continuously provide insightful and valuable resources to their customers who help them on their collaborative journey.