Government CRM software selection projects must follow a strategic approach and procurement process in order to demonstrate transparency and begin a journey which leads to a successful destination. Challenges in government CRM software selection projects not incurred in the commercial sector include stricter procurement guidelines, more aggressive budgets, dissimilar customer types, different system requirements, diverse processes, added security conditions and support for disabled users. However, while many of the needs may be different, government can benefit from the lessons learned, best practices and experiences of private industry. The software selection steps below highlight a proven approach used by the commercial sector and adapted for government.
Phase I Planning
Looking at CRM software before gathering, documenting, prioritizing and weighting your business requirements is putting the cart before the horse. Incurring the time and effort to interview users, gather requirements, challenge assumptions and brainstorm new ideas and new ways of doing business is an up front investment which can pay significant dividends in the form of a better software selection project, implementation experience and ultimate payback.
During the planning phase, avoid the temptation to simply do what you do now in a new CRM application. Just like your counterparts in the commercial sector, chances are the way you do many of your tasks and activities now could be improved upon. The planning phase is the time to improve upon or reengineer business processes that can be further complimented by a new information system for a truly synergistic effect.
Once you've honed your requirements, challenged the norm and upgraded your processes, you are then ready to survey the market for credible CRM software vendors. While there are many CRM software solutions in the market place (over 300), there are a disproportionate few that serve the needs of government. This unfortunate reality is somewhat offset by the impressive quality of the few CRM vendors that to cater to government agencies and organizations. I recommend against a broad brush approach of surveying every CRM vendor that has a web site and instead suggest a more focused approach of down-selecting a smaller but more qualified list. A typical down-select listing contains four to six vendors who are known to accommodate government requirements. Once the list is determined, a Request For Information (RFI) can be distributed to each. RFI documents should contain clear descriptions of the most salient business and information systems requirements, a budget amount, a time frame or schedule and a request for public sector CRM information. Providing the vendors an opportunity to ask questions will ultimately provide you a more thoughtful and meaningful RFI response. You may want to hold a vendor debriefing presentation or simply permit vendors to send questions via email. For transparency and to avoid protests, be sure to circulate all questions and answers to all participating vendors.
Phase II Evaluation
The evaluation phase normally commences with a Request For Proposal (RFP). It's critical that the RFP is inclusive of all relevant requirements, weighted and comprehendible by the vendors. The most popular mistake I see in government RFPs is too treat all requirements as equal. I typically recommend to categorize requirements in at three classes. The first class is often called 'Prerequisites'. These are the minimum contractual requirements that a vendor must possess to do business with the government. Without meeting the prerequisites, there's no sense in wasting either sides precious time any further. Prerequisites vary by type of government. For federal, prerequisites include Section 508 for disabilities, FIPS 199 certification, NIST Certification and Accreditation and possibly other security clearances if related to DOD, DHS or other security sensitive bureaus. The second class of requirements often falls in the 'High Priority' group. These are the most heavily weighted requirements and vendor responses. A third category maybe something like 'Nice To Have' and include requests for features which demonstrate value, however, a lesser value relative to more pressing requirements. An alternative is to create a weighted scoring range from 1 to 5 after the Prerequisites class in order to better segment each requirement along a scale.
The second big deliverable in the evaluation phase is the weighted software demonstration script. Unfortunately, many software selection teams make a major mistake by omitting this key document. This is clearly an area where government can learn from the private sector by mandating a demo script to map requirements to the software functionality and to the ensure a fair comparison among competing vendors. Without a demo script which requests each vendor to specifically demonstrate how their software addresses those most important requirements, the vendors will instead perform what the commercial sector likes to call the 'dog and pony show' (or sometimes called the Show Up & Throw Up). These canned presentations are chocked full of bells and whistles that you didn't know existed and are actually quite interesting. However, they do little to demonstrate how your most weighted requirements will be satisfied and are certain to bypass those things which they don't do well or do at all. At the end of the dog and pony shows you're left with some impressive demonstrations, a complete void in determining which of your requirements are not satisfied and an apples-to-oranges comparison among competing vendors that all demo'd different features and strengths. As a final comment on this topic, make sure that demo scripts are accompanied with weighted scoring forms which are completed by all staff attending the demos during or immediately following the demonstrations. Believe me, after the second or third demo, if you don't have an objective score sheet to review it can be really hard to remember which software system performed which features. Watching impressive software demos is like drinking from a fire hose. You are likely to be bombarded with software feature sets, automation and analysis and unless you score each vendor right away you likely to be unable to accurately attribute capabilities to vendor solutions.
In addition to helping staff accurately record their thoughts for each vendor solution, the demo script weighted scoring provides two additional key benefits. First, it ensures the vendors will actually follow the script. The commercial sector learned long ago that if vendors were not penalized for bypassing demo script agenda items, many would indeed skip or gloss over those requested items which they did not accommodate. By putting a score with each demo script agenda item, the vendors are incented to at least demonstrate partial compliance or a work-around rather than receive a zero score for the item. Second, the weighted scores provide the most objective and meaningful comparison among the competing products. It's a good idea to also include RFP scores with demo scores when making the finalist determination as the RFP's are much more comprehensive and incorporate many more items than can be included in a demo. Together these two documents form a sound decision making platform for designating a vendor finalist.
Phase III Selection
Once the scoring is over, a preferred vendor designation is made. Most software selection committees will notify all participating vendors that a preferred vendor has been named. With the preferred vendor designation, the vendor and implementation due diligence process begins. Vendor viability assessment will include a company financial performance report, credit rating review, review for contingencies (such as existing or threatened litigation) and overall company assessment. Note that privately held companies will probably not provide you financial statements which they often regard as confidential, however, they generally do provide assurances of profitability and financial position if they are comfortable in those positions. The more time consuming task will involve a review of the vendors proposed implementation process. It is incumbent upon the buyer to make sure the implementation plan and cost estimate is complete and without omissions. As any software vendor is only as good as the consultant assigned to your engagement, I strongly recommend receiving resumes and meeting the proposed consultants before committing to the software purchase contract.
The final software selection step is negotiation. It's important to recognize that software sales people are experienced and well versed in software negotiation. They perform this service routinely and are highly compensated on the results they achieve for their employer. On the other hand, most CRM software buyers may endure one or two negotiation experiences in their professional career which inherently puts them at a disadvantage. The GSA schedule can neutralize negotiation tactics by mandating a best price in advance. Even if the vendor doesn't participate on the GSA schedule (and many don't), the price conclusions reached with prior government agencies can be reviewed for a meaningful comparison point. Armed with this information, price negotiation can be minimized so that more time can be spent on tying vendor payment to implementation milestones and project success.