4 Questions to Ask to Avoid Buying "Consultingware"

By: Bob Alves

Beware software vendors who claim to sell off-the-shelf products but actually sell custom packages that require customization and are costly to upgrade.

When associations need to overhaul their current technology, the decision of whether to buy or build software is a complicated one. Organizations that choose to buy should also be wary of software vendors who claim to sell an off-the-shelf product but actually sell a custom solution. This kind of software—often termed "consultingware"—typically leads to an incomplete solution. That can get expensive, because such packages are specifically designed to require customization services and are nearly impossible to upgrade without substantial cost. Here are a few questions to ask to avoid falling victim to consultingware:

1. Will the solution require a lot of customization? Many consultingware vendors maintain their revenue goals by providing continued customization services. If an organization cannot afford to (or chooses not to) continually revisit this customized software system, the result is obsolescence of the product over time. Good software companies try to minimize the amount of consulting service required and maximize their customers' initial software investments by protecting their upgrade paths.

2. What is the organizational structure of the company? Non-consultingware software companies will have a technical organization that keeps developers, writers, and product planners separate from implementation staff and customers. Consulting companies often rely on programmers to work at each customer site; the mixing of product programmers and implementation consultants is a red flag. Ask for the company's organization chart and look for differences in its approach.

3. What will implementation be like? Consultingware vendors rely on a "build-to-suit" model; they send business analysts to the site to develop a design specification, similar to a product plan. System implementations often come in over budget and take longer than planned. Ask what the detailed steps are and how long it will take to get the solution up and running. After comparing the implementation processes, the difference in strategy will be obvious.

4. What user support is available? Ask for complete, up-to-date documentation for all applications and the company's release notes, which are a historical record of documents describing this progression. Also ask for third-party support; consultingware companies cannot leverage these because their software is not productized. Check for a customer-support website. The lack of one is yet another sign that the product is not real or cannot be upgraded.

Selecting a software solution is one of the biggest professional decisions an association makes. A little due diligence up front will make the difference between a truly upgradeable software solution that will grow with the organization's needs and a long-term commitment with a company that's constantly bolting new functionality on to a patchwork quilt that never quite fits expectations or budget.

Bob Alves is chairman and CEO of Advanced Solutions International. Email: [email protected]