“Do I need custom software?”
If you’re asking yourself this question, you’re not alone. Businesses looking for a software upgrade quickly come to a key pivot point — custom software or off-the-shelf software, which can include Software as a Service (SaaS) products and online options.
Making the right decision about this question is the first step toward a successful software project. But making the wrong decision can doom your project, right from the start.
We recently had a client come to Worthwhile for custom software development after wasting almost a year and a pile of money with a firm that promised a SaaS option would work. We helped this startup overcome this mistake, but it was clear to everyone that avoiding the mistake in the first place would have been the better option.
To help you make the right decision about custom software, here are 14 questions you can ask to help you decide whether your business or organization needs custom software.
1. Do you have multiple software systems that need to work together?
Software keeps your business running — no matter what your industry or vertical is. Usually, an organization has two or more business-critical software systems.
This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. But if your ERP software doesn’t talk to your e-commerce system or to your inventory management software, your business can’t operate at your potential.
Custom software development can solve this problem in two effective ways:
- An API integration allows the systems to talk together naturally and automatically. Most newer software systems have API available, but some legacy ERP systems may not.
- An ETL integration exports a flat file (like a CSV spreadsheet) and imports it into another system so they can share data. This kind of integration can be scheduled to happen once a day or more frequently if necessary. This can lead to a leap forward in user experience, as it did for one of our clients.
2. Do the limitations of off-the-shelf software keep you from getting the reports you need?
Even if your software product follows the kindergarten instruction of playing well with others, it may not provide the reports you need to run and analyze your business on a day-to-day basis. Our team at Worthwhile hears so many stories of companies who abandon their software systems and rely on spreadsheets or Google docs when it comes time to deliver internal or customer-facing reports.
If you can export a spreadsheet, then you can do better. A custom web portal can take that data and create flexible reporting and/or user-friendly charts and graphs to provide access to the data that’s crucial to your business and your customers. This simple change can save employees significant time on a daily basis while also increasing customer satisfaction and retention—which makes it easy to measure and justify the ROI on custom software development.
3. Do the limitations of off-the-shelf software require you to do time-consuming workarounds?
Off-the-shelf software systems can provide lots of options at a reasonable price. But they aren’t going to match your business processes completely. Maybe you need a specific report at a specific time. Maybe your customers require a specific kind of shipping for certain products you offer. Or maybe you need different rules for different categories of customers or different groups of employees.
If the option you need doesn’t come standard, then someone has to work outside of the software to provide exactly what you need. Or your IT department has to spend a lot of time hacking together a solution in the software that isn’t stable and is almost impossible to change. These kinds of problems cost you money and manpower — but it doesn’t have to be that way. Custom software development can help you automate these steps to save your employees time (and stop them from saying curse words under their breath, too).
It’s important to note here that custom software development does not necessarily mean dropping your off-the-shelf software system or SaaS product completely. Often, moving out of an ERP or other business-critical software will require more of an investment of time or money than a business can afford. Web development options can improve usability, employee efficiency, and customer happiness — without actually replacing an ERP or other SaaS system. These options include the integrations or web portals just described.
4. Do you feel like your off-the-shelf software won’t ever launch?
Launching a software product is a big deal, and it doesn’t always go well. Year after year, the stats say that only about 30% of software launches go well, while about 50% are challenged, and about 20% never make it live. And the bigger the project, the less chance of a successful launch.
And when off-the-shelf software projects go wrong, they can go really wrong—like a billion dollars wrong. The off-the-shelf software vendors are often monoliths that care more about their bottom line than about your success. To often, these behemoths are fine with cost overruns (which can kill your business), and don’t care about blowing through deadline after deadline.
Instead of being sold down the river, make sure to choose a software developer that has a proven record of successful launches and satisfied customers. If it takes custom software developer to get there, then go in that direction.
5. Do you feel like your software vendor is holding you hostage?
The reason that inflexibility is a problem for off-the-shelf software is that the companies that make and sell these products are notoriously slow to change, and they often charge an arm and a leg to make changes. Sometimes, the behemoth that built the software forces you to work with an authorized third party for service, which eliminates your options when it comes to cost comparisons or quality control. In some cases, the version of software you purchased is no longer supported, which means changes or updates aren’t even an option.
Even worse — your software vendor holds your data hostage because of a billing dispute, or for any other reason. In that case, your business grinds to a halt, and you can’t serve your customers or make money.
The situation is so frustrating it leaves you thinking, “There has to be a better way.” Custom software development can be that better way. By building an integration or layering a user-friendly web portal on top of older software, you gain the benefits of custom software and improved usability at a reasonable price. Good custom software development is like Liam Neeson in the Taken movies — eliminating those who want to keep you and those close to you hostage. So find a custom web development firm with a very particular set of skills.
6. Are you trying to wring a couple more years out of your existing ERP?
At Worthwhile, we encounter many companies facing a decision point with their ERPs. Because they were proactive 20+ years ago, they have an ERP software system that they’ve used for 20 or even 30 years. These companies know their days are numbered with this ERP, because the software is ancient. But replacing the ERP would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention the months of work for the stakeholders leading the transition and the huge amount of training employees across the company will need. Replacing an old ERP requires a great deal of planning when it comes to budget and calendar — and may have to wait 3-5 years before the company is ready for the massive commitment of such a change.
But having to wait on a new ERP doesn’t mean you have to wait for new functionality or better interfaces. Custom software development can make it easier and quicker to enter data, create reports, and manage orders. These changes can help you improve efficiency and net profit in the short-term while you plan for a longer-term ERP change.
7. Do your employees work too slowly?
Custom software can’t limit smoke breaks or keep employees from making yet another trip to the water cooler, but it can help your team accomplish more when they’re working. In every business, there are some tasks employees do manually that could be done automatically. There are some tasks that force employees to wait on page loads or downloads or uploads. These are things that custom software can help with.
If you’re wondering how this could improve your business, ask your employees questions like:
- What tasks do you have to wait on day after day?
- What busy work do you spend too much time doing?
- What tasks make you bang your head against your keyboard?
Finding sources of employee frustration can reveal opportunities for greater efficiency — which are opportunities to improve your bottom line.
8. Do your employees make too many mistakes?
Employees are human, and they make mistakes. This isn’t a reason to fire them, but it can be a business risk. A mistake can cost your company money or make customers unhappy. Obviously, avoiding these kinds of mistakes is a valuable goal.
This is even more of a concern in regulated industries like insurance, financial services, or others that require government compliance. A mistake in these situations can put your business at risk for fines, sanctions, or lawsuits.
Automating compliance in these situations provides tremendous value through both efficiency and risk mitigation. That makes it a great reason to pursue custom software.
9. Do your employees complain about your software?
Your employees’ complaints may also indicate that it’s time for custom software. Often, their complaints are not about what they have to do, but how they have to do it. Improving user experience can improve employee satisfaction, and along with it productivity and business value. Don’t believe it? Just ask the Wharton Business School.
Improving user experience can also reduce network risks. Sometimes, employees who aren’t happy with how software off the shelf is working will bring in third-party apps to do the job your established tech stack is supposed to do. This may speed things up a bit, but it’s an IT management nightmare. Those third-party apps could expose your network to vulnerabilities and hacks. Avoiding this isn’t just a matter of creating employee policies or IT lockdowns; it’s about giving your employees the tools they need to do their job effectively. Custom software that improves user experience does just that.
10. Do you need software to match an established business process?
One of the biggest frustrations off-the-shelf software or SaaS can create is that the way the software works doesn’t match the way your business actually works. So either you have to change your business process to conform to your software, or you have to use two processes and match them manually at key points. Custom software can eliminate this frustration by matching your business process.
Here’s one example of how this can work: We are working with a large international company that develops new products. This company needs to track these products from engineering through four separate departments. They haven’t found an off-the-shelf software offering that fits their process, and so they contacted us for custom software development. For them, custom software — even if it costs a little more — will save so much time in the long run that the ROI is easy to measure.
11. Do you need to comply with regulations, and prove that you have done it?
We’ve already mentioned the value that custom software can provide when it comes to compliance. It can also provide custom reporting that protects a company when it comes to legal claims about compliance.
We have worked with the nation’s biggest labor law firm to create a web application that integrates with various HRIS systems to ensure compliance with the all of the complex regulations of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This law has a long list of reasons for leave, required communications, and calculations of how leave is accumulated. The software product we have automates compliance, and also gives a company a vital record of how they have complied with the law. In this way, it protects a company from litigation while reducing the manpower needed to comply with the law.
12. Is a customer or vendor changing systems?
Sometimes the reason you need custom software isn’t driven internally. It could be that one of your biggest customers, or a key vendor, is making a software change that your business has no choice but to adjust to.
This happened to one of our clients recently. This company, which provides billing and payment services to hospital systems, discovered that two of its biggest clients were changing ERPs to a new system called Epic. They had no choice but to upgrade their tech stack to integrate with this software. We helped this company integrate so they could continue to serve its customers well.
13. Is your e-commerce system frustrating your customers?
If your business completes sales online, your e-commerce system is one of your most important pieces of software. You must make sure that it fits users and makes it easy for them to buy when they’re ready to do so. You need to reduce friction—numbers of fields, numbers of steps, and other hoops that a customer would have to jump through.
Of course, this affects user interfaces, but you need to make sure your e-commerce software is customizable so you can serve customers. So ask yourself these questions from a user’s point of view:
- Is it easy to enter coupon codes?
- Do users know what the shipping options are, and how much they cost?
- Can you show users up-to-date inventory information?
- Can you show users the full detail about products?
- Do you show users related products, and are they actually items a customer would also consider?
- Is it easy for a user to select a size or color, and find the correct shipping and in-stock information?
The e-commerce package you choose needs to account for these options. And if it doesn’t, you may need custom software development to add options or even replace an off-the-shelf e-commerce product.
14. Is your e-commerce system forcing your employees to do extra work?
Your e-commerce system doesn’t only affect your customers. It also affects your employees. When you have holes in your e-commerce ordering process, your employees will end up spending more time on the phones talking to customers who have questions or, worse, complaints.
Automating things like inventory in-stock status and product information in your e-commerce system will make life easier on your employees and give them more time to focus on delivering even better customer service to e-commerce customers. It could even allow you to reduce or reallocate headcount out of customer service into other strategic parts of your business. Before long, you’ll be able to measure and recognize ROI from investment in custom e-commerce development.
Custom software development isn’t always the right answer for a business. At Worthwhile, we always encourage potential clients to investigate potential off-the-shelf software and SaaS options first.
But when custom software is the right fit, then nothing else will help you accomplish your goals nearly as well. So embrace the opportunity and challenge of custom software and take the next steps.