When selecting an educational software vendor there’s no one way to do it. Every organization has its own processes and preferences. This holds true for institutions in the Education industry. When selecting educational software vendors, these institutions do so knowing they have resources and structures different than most corporations. They also have specific needs and interests not usually found in other industries.
Given this, we thought we’d examine some key questions and concerns that institutions should keep in mind when evaluating educational software vendors. First, we’ll look at some general areas of focus that are relevant regardless of industry. Then, we’ll get into more education-specific discussion points.
When selecting a software vendor, the vendor itself is just as important as the software they’re providing you. They’re the ones you’re going to have the relationship with, so you want to be comfortable with who they are and how they work with you.
Whether the vendor has been on your radar for a while or this is your first introduction to them, you’ll want to know about their past. Doing so will give you great insight into what a future relationship with them might be like. Some questions to consider:
- How long have they been around? Are they a recent start-up or an established player in the market?
- Have they existed under previous iterations?
- Are they domestically or foreign based?
- What is their reputation?
Would you want to do business with a vendor that could go under at any moment? Of course not! Knowing that your vendor is financially stable provides you peace of mind. It allows you to invest in your plans, both short-term and long-term. Some questions to consider:
- Public or privately owned?
- How many times has the company been bought and sold?
- What does their balance sheet look like? (This information is likely only available for publicly owned companies.)
- What percentage of profits are reinvested in R&D? (Again, likely only available from public companies.)
Tied directly to both history and financial stability is the leadership of that company. After all, it’s the vendor’s leaders that decide strategy, make the important decisions, and ultimately paint the picture of the company that you see. Some questions to consider:
- How many Presidents/CEOs has the company had?
- What is the turnover rate among executives?
- What is the ratio of executives to supporting staff?
- Where has the leadership worked previously? What do you know of those companies?
If you become the vendor’s client, you want to know how you’ll be supported. Regardless of the software itself, the quality of customer service has a huge influence on the success or failure of the user experience. Some questions to consider:
- What communication vehicles are available to reach support? (email, phone, chat, etc.)
- How long does it usually take customer support to respond to a service request?
- Where is the customer support staff located? What are their hours?
- What is the vendor’s reputation when it comes to customer support?
- How quickly are issues typically resolved?
- How often are software updates issued? In what manner are those updates installed?
- Do they have an SLA that meets your needs?
The Personal Touch
A lot of vendors may look and sound the same. In that case, you may also want to look for that something extra – that personal touch that really makes a positive impression. Some things to look for:
- The vendor makes an on-site visit to meet with you and your staff without any guarantee of a sale occurring. (As opposed to relying solely on phone and video conferencing.)
- Communications are personalized and conversational.
- The vendor makes an effort to know the names of everyone they’re dealing with. (And they don’t address emails to the wrong people or call people by the wrong names when speaking with them.)
- When at conferences, the vendor proactively seeks you out and invites you to coffee, lunch, or dinner.
You’ll be using the software every day, so you obviously want to be sure it’ll do the job you require (if not more).
Ease of Use/Implementation
Not only do you need the software to accomplish its purpose, but it shouldn’t take an advanced degree to use it. It should be easy to use. And, because it’s an improvement over your previous solution, you also want to be up and running on it as quickly as possible. Some questions to consider:
- What, if any, special knowledge or skills are required to use the software?
- Typically, how long does it take to get users up to speed?
- How long does it take to implement the software? What sort of initial training is offered?
- What resources are in place to help transition from the old solution to the new solution?
- Is there additional or on-going training available?
The goal of most organizations is to grow. So, you’ll want to know how the software can grow with you. Also, it’d be good to know if/how the software can be used for purposes other than what was originally intended. Some questions to consider:
- How easy is it to add new seats or licenses? What are the costs involved?
- Does the vendor provide test environments and/or development instances?
- Can it be used at multiple campuses/locations?
- What else can the software do?
Nowadays, data security is everything. You need to know that your information is safe. Some issues to ask about:
- User/administrator authentication
- LDAP or Single Sign-on compatibility
- Firewall compatibility
- Assigning/preventing data access
- Handling of PII (personally identifiable information)
Your IT department will want to know what the back end of the software looks like. After all, they’ll be the ones working to maintain the system. Some high-level questions to consider:
- Is the software in the cloud or on-premise?
- How much of the set-up is custom and how much is out-of-the-box?
- What APIs are available? What sort of development is needed to utilize them?
Vs. the Competition
It’s unlikely you’re evaluating only one software vendor. Instead you’re comparing multiple software providers, assessing their strengths and weaknesses along the way. Some things to look out for:
- Does the vendor acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses vs. the competition?
- Do they disparage their competitors?
- Are they rated on any software research/evaluation sites? How do they compare?
A vendor can tell all you want to know about their software, show you a thousand demos, and offer you numerous price breaks. But none of that is as impactful as hearing from one of their existing customers. Your peers have been where you are. Hearing how they’re using the software to solve their problems holds more meaning. Customer references can come in a few different forms:
- Case studies
- Video testimonials & webinars
- Conference presentations and conversations
- Direct references (usually provided by the vendor)
How well does the vendor know the education industry (K-12 and/or Higher Ed)? Education is a niche industry with specific needs, trends, and calendars.
Knowledge & Trends
You’ll want your vendor to have a good understanding of the education industry – its challenges, its trends, and its people. Some questions to consider:
- Does the vendor focus just on Education, or is it one of many industries they serve?
- Do they know the news and trends impacting the industry? How about the newsmakers and trendsetters?
- How well do they know the specific departments and their unique needs?
- Are they familiar with the various buyer personas that comprise the industry?
Education institutions often operate on a different calendar. So, having a vendor who knows the key dates, time periods, seasons, etc., could only benefit the institution. Some calendar-related items of which the vendor should be aware:
- Holiday/Summer breaks
- Reporting periods (IPEDS, rankings, etc.)
Budgets & Procurement
As indicated in the list above, budgeting at Education organizations has its own schedule. Similarly, the procurement process can also be different than most. (Whether the school is public or private will have a huge impact on this process!)
Having a vendor knowledgeable in the budgeting cycle, and who knows the timelines, signatures, and red tape involved in procurement, would only serve to assist the organization as it makes its plans to purchase and implement new software.
In addition to knowing about the industry, it would be beneficial if the vendor is familiar with the types of systems and solutions used on campus. (And if the software you’re considering is compatible with them.)
It’s common to see different systems and solutions in use throughout a campus (or district). Often, these systems have a specialized use that makes them relevant to just a small part of the organization. (Think fundraising or academic software.) However, they may still need to communicate with other systems. A vendor who knows these various systems and solutions can save you a lot of time during the discovery process. Some steps to consider:
- Provide vendor with list of systems with which their software will need to interact
- Gauge vendor’s familiarity with each of the systems on the list
- See how many of those systems they say are sure to work with the software
Once you’ve determined the vendor’s knowledge of your systems, along with potential compatibility, you need to determine what that integration process will be like. Some questions to consider:
- Will the software require a lot of customization to be used in an Education setting?
- How labor intensive is it to set up and maintain the connections?
- Has the vendor integrated their software into any of these systems before? (Can they provide examples/references?)
- What happens when these other systems get updated or changed outright?
These systems and solutions we’ve been discussing are all about one thing: data. They receive, store, and send essential information. Therefore, it’s crucial to work with a vendor who truly understands what data you need and why. Some questions they should ask of you:
- What data do you need to access?
- Who needs to access it?
- How often will they be accessing it?
- In what format(s) will they need to see that data?
For organizations in the Education industry, selecting a software vendor is a mix of the common and the uncommon. There are questions that apply regardless of the industry. Then, there are concerns that must be addressed which are specific – and significant – to just those within the Education field. Knowing what to look for, what questions to ask, and what answers to listen for, will go a long way in helping these organizations and institutions find educational software vendors that are right for them.