If your organization has made the decision to hire a custom software developer to build the tools you need to improve customer experiences, optimize processes, and increase revenue, your next step might be the hardest: choosing a vendor. There are countless software developers out there, and many of them use the same key phrases and buzzwords to show off their expertise, making it extremely difficult to determine whether a particular vendor is the right fit for your project.
Based on my experience talking with customers about why they chose (or didn’t choose) Syberry, or why they came to Syberry after another vendor botched their project, I want to share a few tips for vetting potential vendors before making your selection and a few recommendations for what not to do. After all, while every mistake is a learning opportunity, it’s much easier to learn from someone else’s mistakes than your own.
Do Your Research
Building a custom software application is a significant investment, and selecting your vendor is a critical first step. You’ll want to interview several potential partners to ensure you’re making the right choice, but be strategic about who you interview. Too many times, we’ve seen businesses send requests for proposals to dozens of software vendors, undergoing titanic efforts and coming back with nothing to show for them.
So before you start sending RFPs, be sure to do your due diligence. You’ll be able to eliminate some options simply by looking at their websites, case studies, and reviews. Whittle down your list to five or six firms. Once you’ve reviewed their RFPs, narrow your short list down to two or three solid options. Carefully selecting candidates and keeping the list manageable means you can focus on each vendor, considering them carefully in order to make the best decision.
Unpack the Estimate
The first question most companies ask vendors is “What will it cost?” But keep in mind that choosing a vendor based on price alone may lead you to ignore red flags — like intentionally lowballing the estimate to win your business or cutting corners in development — that will end up costing you more time and money in the long run. When you’re presented with one quote that lists a high cost and a long timeline compared to one that looks too good to be true, it’s likely you’re better off with the former. We’re not saying inexpensive is always bad — there are a lot of factors to consider. But when you’re looking at pricing, remember that free cheese can be found only in a mousetrap.
Besides the cost, pay careful attention to what else is in the estimate. A good vendor will include details about project functionality, timeline, development milestones, and more, along with advice that’s specific to your case. Does the estimate include information about the approach, potential technology choice, phases, deliverables, milestones, risk management facts, assumptions, and constraints? All this information will help you see the bigger picture and make an informed decision. And when an estimate includes little more than the final cost, that’s a sign not to take that vendor seriously.
Ensure the Vendor Understands Your Goals
Pay attention on the questions that a software vendor asks you about your project. Are they making an effort to understand your industry and your business’s unique business goals, challenges, and risks? Most of the questions a vendor asks upfront should be about the business. Technology-related questions are important, too, but only useful once the vendor has a full understanding of the business side.
Probe Their Expertise
Even though you haven’t signed a contract yet, vendors should be ready and willing to talk though a few of the options and potential hurdles they see in your project based on their experiences with similar work.
The first red flag that a vendor may not have the expertise you need is if they’re acting like “yes-men,” agreeing with everything you say and telling you what you want to hear. Unfortunately, many vendors take this approach to pitching their services, and it leads to a lot of unfulfilled promises and unhappy customers. You, the client, aren’t the expert in software development, and you’re looking for a vendor who’s willing to engage in healthy discussions that may challenge your perspectives but will ultimately lead to better decisions and a higher-quality project.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask detailed questions about the vendor’s experiences and perspectives and the logic behind their proposed approach. Sometimes, a vendor may advise you to choose a specific type of work structure (like fixed-cost versus time and materials), split the project into specific releases, or undergo some preparational work before the main engagement. A good vendor will be able to provide detailed explanations for these suggestions based on best practices and experience with previous projects, and they’ll be able to explain why their approach makes sense from a business, development, or risk management perspective. And they’ll be able to explain in laymen’s terms, ensuring you’re confident in your understanding and prepared to make an informed decision.
When you’re excited about a new project, it can be too easy to rush in and ask questions later. But take your time selecting your vendor. Your development partner is the most important element of your project, and a little patience and due diligence upfront will make a world of difference in the long run. Ask questions, expect your perspectives to be challenged, and value the candidates who are helpful and receptive to your needs.