Selecting a Software Company

Whether you buy software and run it in-house or farm out your information-technology tasks to a third party, you can look forward to up-close-and-personal relationships with both the software and the people who created it or run it. So what should you look for when selecting a software business? Here we take a look at some of the essential elements of finding a solid software company.

Balance: Evaluate both the applications and their providers with equal care. Ideally, you'll find ideal software backed up by ideal, technically savvy professionals.

Industry depth: Do they know the HME industry? Not just a few people at the top, but the system architects, the people actually writing the routines: do they really know what it's like in an HME business office? Do they know how work flows through the business? Do they understand the kind of data your business feeds on and generates and why they're both important? Press for evidence, then look very, very carefully to see how that experience and understanding actually manifest in the applications.

Track record: Have they been around long enough to go through multiple development cycles on their applications? Start-up, no-name companies can do amazing things. But, you're not after amazing; you want solid, proven performance. Think long and hard before putting your business in the hands of software that's been running and supported successfully for businesses like yours for long enough for the bottom to have fallen out if it was going to.

Technical support: This doesn't mean a toll number that someone might answer between 9 and 5. If your software vendor doesn't offer 24/7 support, you should ask why. Applications are like airplanes -- they don't crash on schedule. When your applications go down -- and they will -- you need help before the wreckage is ablaze. In other words, now. Judge all software developers' support by that benchmark.

Customer references: Talk to your would-be software vendor's customers -- businesses like yours who are running what you're about to buy. But, don't make nice-nice and call only vendor-approved customers. Ask for contact information for non-advertised client references, then you decide who to call. If vendors won't cough up this information, perhaps you should ask why. At the very least, start calling around to colleagues, people you know in the business. You'll find someone who knows someone who knows someone who's using the software you want the skinny on.

Google it: It's not sophisticated, but just sit down and Google your vendor's name and the word "criticism" or "complaint." See what comes up. Bear in mind there will always be unhappy people. You're looking for patterns of complaints or problems. Are the vendor's former developers detailing all the applications' bugs and how the vendor couldn't be bothered to fix them? Are they bemoaning how low morale is among the tech-support staff? Unhappy people aren't likely to give you the best help at 3 in the morning. Or afternoon, for that matter. So, poke around a bit; if something significant is wrong, it will usually surface on the Web.

Outsourcing: Paying someone else to worry about your software might be the right solution for your business. HMEs should be devoting their time advising clients, following up on deliveries, and reading about the latest products more than doing IT-related work. Not only does outsourcing relieve you of everyday processing problems, it (ideally) absolves you of anxieties about software upgrades and patches, security worries, and adjustments to systems when Medicare or other payers enact rule or code changes. The idea behind outsourcing is that you focus on medical equipment and let an IT specialist focus on IT.

It's a great idea and can work well. But, how do you choose an outsourcer? Some providers are uncomfortable with third parties handling their data; they like everything to be right there in the store.

If you decide to go shopping for an outsourcer, here's your checklist.

Why outsource? The threshold question is why you're looking at outsourcing. Are you really ready to hand off IT and focus on medical equipment? Are you comfortable with such an arrangement? Put another way, why shouldn't you outsource? Do you enjoy running, maintaining, and upgrading applications? If not, why not let someone else do it? It's important to distinguish between functions that are business imperatives, and IT certain is one, and functions that should actually be handled in-house.

Outsource IT, not IT problems: Outsourcing won't fix broken business processes. In fact, moving your processing out the door and down the street isn't likely to succeed unless the root causes of the problems you're having are resolved first. Be prepared to work with your outsourcer to re-engineer processes and remove all those rough edges and sharp corners you've tried to ignore. Then, quantify your current performance levels and set realistic service-level expectations for your outsourcer.

Align IT and business goals: Outsourcing must be tied to the direction of your business. Find out whether your prospective outsourcer has the kind of strategic and business-planning acumen you need to turn mere processing into a tool for growth. Explain what your main three business goals are, e.g., moving into new markets, slashing costs, adding new product lines, and ask the outsourcer how they can help you achieve them.

Get another opinion: You know your business well. That's good, but it can also be a problem. Being so close to the enterprise and being distracted by business pressures and personnel issues make it difficult to accurately assess your outsourcing requirements. So, ask a consultant to come in and second-guess your analysis of whether outsourcing is a good move and whether your conception of what needs to be outsourced is accurate. Consultants can often bring in bring fresh, strategically powerful, and even money-saving ideas about outsourcing alternatives.

Ask around: Same idea as with software makers: talk to your peers who have used the outsourcers you're considering. There is no better source of valuable information and insight.

Choose experience, financial strength: If you decide to outsource, make sure your provider is hip-deep to a giraffe in HME experience. And look closely at their balance sheets, annual reports, and other evidence of their solid financial footing. You don't want to strike up a great outsourcing relationship with a company that promptly folds, leaving you high and dry.

Get specific, get it in writing: Clearly state your IT and business goals and objectives; be explicit about the methodology and milestones that you and your new outsourcer will use achieve the goals and objectives; and agree on the metrics that will be used to measure success.

It's not all berries and bubbly: An outsourcing relationship is a relationship, and relationships are always difficult at times. So, adjust your expectations -- there will be bumps in the road. Making the transition to an outsourcing model can be tough; unanticipated issues always arise. It goes with the territory. Focus on keeping communication open and constructive, and put more emphasis on resolving problems than on contractual penalties that might accrue to the outsourcer if specific service levels aren't met, especially during the first months of the new relationship.

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Mobility Management.

Mobility Management Podcast