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LOOKING AT VENDORS' 'SOFTER SIDE'

March 1, 2006
by MARLOWE GREENBERG and PAUL ROSSI
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Software selection is becoming less about functionality and more about service relationships

Most of us don't think twice about depositing our money in a bank. We are certain the bank will safeguard our money and that it will be there if we need it. But certainly, as the banking industry was first getting off the ground, the idea of giving money to a stranger for safekeeping must have seemed ridiculous. Over time, however, legislation was enacted to safeguard our deposits, and customers developed a high level of trust in the banking system. This came about through years and years of professional behavior by banks (they really do keep our money secure) as well as customers (we stopped trying to withdraw all our money at once).

The point is, transactions in any new market are made more difficult by a lack of trust, understanding, and a consistent way of operating. Once the basic mechanics of the transactions are solidified, vendors are free to offer additional services and support, and customers are free to shop for something more (e.g., banks had to move beyond promises of just keeping money safe to being open on weekends).

In the behavioral healthcare software industry, we find ourselves at a similar turning point. Data standards are being developed by a wide array of federal and state agencies (although we have to ask, if there's more than one standard, are any of them really a standard?), which allows software vendors to offer more formalized, consistent products. Before too long, no one is going to be quite as concerned with what a particular software package can do as they will be with how the vendor delivers, supports, and maintains the software package.




In other words, as standards proliferate and software vendors mature, it's not

what the vendors do but rather

how they do it that will matter. Different software products increasingly will become more and more similar, and the importance of software functionality will be eclipsed by the importance of nonsoftware services.

By “nonsoftware” services we mean any “soft” services vendors offer apart from the actual tool they are selling. In our experience, these soft services are often more important than the software tool's functionality itself. As the behavioral healthcare market matures, we are beginning to realize what a behavioral healthcare software application should do; we are now entering an industrial phase in which customer service can and should make the difference in your decision about which vendor to work with.

So, you may ask, What constitutes good customer service? What are these soft services I should be looking for? How do I find them? Customers can require two kinds of soft services from their vendors. The first and most basic is technical and client support. These services often are quantifiable and can be written into contracts and, as such, are “less soft” than the second set of services—implementation and change management.

Implementation and Change Management Support

The biggest and most important soft services area is software implementation. Implementation is the stage in which IT projects often fail, and it's the stage in which the vendor and the customer, working in concert, can have the biggest impact on creating a successful project. Implementation is not simply trainings and manuals. Software implementation in the behavioral healthcare field is nothing short of fundamental operational change and needs to be approached inside a holistic change-management structure.

Because vendors have implemented their software hundreds of times, to a degree they actually are better at implementing software than behavioral healthcare organizations. If the vendor is allowed to shepherd the project, the following ideas can increase the likelihood that your project will be successful.

An implementation's success largely depends on your implementation team's efficiency. There are plenty of examples of implementations suffering at the hands of an overwhelmed staff member trying to manage the process alone. Instead, an implementation team is needed, made up of representatives from each functional unit of the organization or community who have the authority to make key implementation decisions. The integration of new data management processes into legacy business systems requires informed input from each participating unit through each implementation phase.

This implementation team must be proactive. It is imperative that your implementation team meet with and update end users throughout the entire process. The very concept of the implementation as a process is something that should be conveyed to the end users on a regular schedule to manage expectations. Failing to manage expectations alone can doom an implementation because users become frustrated with the difference between what they expected to happen and what's actually happening; they might drop out of the process altogether.

Acceptance and understanding of a new system can be enhanced by involving the vendor's client support personnel in your meetings with end users. User groups and “ask the vendor” sessions can provide direct access to the vendor's rich knowledge base and lead to greater software buy-in and use. Fears and concerns about new technology can be significant obstacles for some users, and they often find comfort in knowing that the vendor is available and active in the implementation. Having a knowledgeable and skilled vendor support team, however, is of little benefit if you can't reach team members when you need their knowledge and expertise. Make sure to find out if you can easily get your vendor representative—even an executive—on the phone during weekend emergencies.

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