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Four steps to choosing the right software support supplier

Like anything in life, organisational needs change over time. This is why we all need our enterprise systems to evolve, so that they continue to support us in our aims.

This is where software support services (or managed services) come in. These professional services take care of your application once it’s live, keeping it secure, tackling bugs and delivering any enhancements you may require.

There’s a thriving marketplace of onshore and offshore managed services providers you can choose from. I’ve previously written about how to choose the right digital partner from the array of suppliers out there. And while many of the things I discuss in that piece are true for software support partners, there are some additional areas I wanted to draw out specifically for support providers.

  1. Beware the fixed-price support contract

On the surface, a fixed-price support deal that includes a service level agreement (SLA) guaranteeing a response to any issue arising during the contract’s duration can look attractive. It’s easy to budget for and seemingly passes the commercial risk to the support partner.

This approach works well when you’re buying an established, off-the-shelf, broadly one-size-fits-all product, with a large customer base. The vendor will be familiar with common issues, and will have a team in place working on a roadmap of updates. All of this combines to enable them to offer a competitive fixed price for support.

For bespoke builds of often-complex enterprise software, there’s much more uncertainty. The custom nature of the application and the way you’ll be using it make it impossible to predict all the potential changes, issues and complexities that will arise throughout its life. Anyone offering a fixed-price support deal for bespoke software will therefore have to build in significant contingencies to cover these risks – which you’ll ultimately be paying for.

What’s more, a fixed-price arrangement creates tension between the customer and vendor over what constitutes a ‘bug’ (and is therefore covered by the support contract) and what’s an ‘enhancement request’ (which sits outside the scope and therefore gets charged separately).

If you’re offered a fixed-price support contract, question how they arrived at the price and ask if there are other models you could consider. Which leads us nicely to our next point…

  1. Monthly retainers: Understand the details

An alternative commercial approach is a time-based retainer. This is essentially an agreement to buy a pre-agreed number of hours or days that you can draw on for any purpose, on a time-and-materials basis.

It removes the question over whether something you ask for is in or out of scope, and also means you can agree a backlog of enhancements that the team can work through when they’re not responding to urgent tickets.

Key questions to ask a supplier who proposes this model include what rate you’ll pay once you exceed what the retainer covers, and whether you can roll unused time over the subsequent months (any how many months you can do this for). Good suppliers will appreciate the need for flexibility and allow rollover for a certain number of months.

  1. Challenge long commitments

Some support providers ask you to commit to long contracts. Twelve months is common, and we’ve seen some ask for as much as five years.

There are pros and cons to long contracts. You may also be able to negotiate a more competitive rate by committing for a longer period.

But on the other hand, you’re hamstrung if your situation changes, if the provider turns out to be a poor fit, or if you feel they’re becoming complacent.

A good balance is to go for a quarterly rolling contract from day one. This gives both parties a reasonable amount of time to get to know each other, without the risk of a long tie-in if things don’t work out. And regardless of how long your agreement is for, discuss up front what success looks like and what to do if it doesn’t materialise.

  1. Find out who you’ll be dealing with and where the knowledge lives

Software is complicated, and when there’s a problem or a new feature request, you want to be speaking to someone who genuinely understands your application and how you use it. Ask how the support team will get up to speed on how the application works and how it’s used.

Find out who the techies are who’ll be looking after your software. Will it always be the same people?  How will knowledge be pooled between them to cover holidays, job changes and the like? And will you have a direct line to reach them?

This is important because many providers have front-line service desks with limited technical knowledge. If these people are your sole point of contact, underlying issues can get overlooked. Moreover, the need to pass information back and forth between them and their second- and third-line technical colleagues means things take longer and key details may get missed. You’re also unlikely to have a consistent point of contact – it’ll be whoever picks up the phone or gets to your email first.

Making a real difference

A support partner has the ability to make a genuine difference when it comes to your ability to achieve your goals. They can ensure your key software continually supports what your organisation is striving to do. They can make sure you and your users have a good experience with the application. And they can help deliver maximum value from the money you’ve already spent on software.

This is why it’s so important to find a support partner that’s the right technical, commercial and cultural fit for you. We hope this blog has given you some helpful pointers on key things to think about as you make your decision.

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