How to choose the right social technology vendors
Finding the right social media technology vendor is not easy. While the good news is that there are dozens of vendors offering “white label” social business solutions, the bad news is that it makes the process for choosing one that much more difficult. Additionally, many technology companies today are making acquisitions, so in the near future, the number of vendors may dramatically decrease.
That being said, there are several considerations that technology and IT decision makers must think about before deploying a social application, like first understanding the company culture and leadership, the technology feature requirements, vendor support models, training and maintenance.
Understand the Organization, Culture and Leadership
Choosing a technology vendor has to be a strategic decision. Organizations need to first understand what it is they are trying to achieve before thinking about which technology application to deploy behind the firewall. Are they trying to streamline communication between business units or geographies? Are they looking to roll out a collaboration application that will eventually replace their intranet? Or, are they planning to use Social CRM and weave it into their sales and marketing initiatives? Whatever the case, it’s important to understand the culture of the organization and its leadership.
Social business transformation requires a change in behavior. It requires organizational leadership to embrace the social customer, tear down organizational silos, empower the organization to share knowledge across job functions and geographies, and invest in technology that will help facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing. It’s more than lip service, too. These change management initiatives have to be driven by organizational leadership and practiced at every level in the organization from senior leadership all the way down to a customer support agent. Otherwise, change will not occur. This means that executives must not only talk about changing the organization but exemplify the behaviors that really do facilitate and practice change.
Technology will not change an organization’s culture. That has to be a decision from company leadership and then supported by employees at all levels. What technology will do is help facilitate collaboration and communication across job functions and geographies.
Application Feature Sets
Companies need to choose technology vendors that do more than just provide the features and functionality needed for today’s dynamic business environment. They must also choose the vendors with features that may be needed in the future. For community related software, some important features to consider include the following:
Support for internal groups, forums, profile creation
Support for topical sub groups (private or open)
Multi-language support for global companies
Support for micro-blogging, general blogging, group messaging, wikis and chat
Email support and integration
Single sign-on (SSO) capabilities that integrate the platform with other internal registration databases as well as external profiles like Facebook and Twitter
Feature sets for collaboration applications may include:
Document sharing and control
Task management, shared calendar
Workflow and roles-based management
Self-service features that enable dragging and dropping of various widgets to allow for customization of each user’s interface
Full set of APIs for integration with other internal and external applications
Several technology vendors offer both community and collaboration feature sets. Many of them are also starting to build in Social CRM functionality into their platforms and already have open APIs that integrate with traditional CRM applications. The benefit of this is that companies can use one vendor for everything, which is cost effective and easier to scale.
Customer Support Models
One key consideration when choosing a technology vendor is their support model. Many vendors today have their support teams overseas in other parts of the world. No matter how good a software application performs, there are always cases when support is needed to troubleshoot an existing problem. Having a support team eight or nine hours ahead can potentially be disastrous.
Additionally, some technology providers may require a dedicated support staff per company or license, while others will provide customer support for a fee. The cost of hiring support staff needs to be factored into the buying decision. Support may be in the form of human help or an automated support engine. And in some cases, there may be a need to have a dedicated support person on site.
Training is another form of support and is imperative to help an organization adopt and implement new technology. Some technology vendors offer free training (in person or e-learning) that will help their customers get up to speed quickly. In some cases, and depending on the size of the company, the vendor might offer paid training as well. This cost needs should also be factored into the purchase decision.
Maintenance models and cost efficiencies have a major impact on the performance and adaptability of most technology vendors. When the application is hosted externally by the vendor, it’s vital that the software application be available online at all times. In most cases, uptime expectations are covered contractually under the “service level agreement” (SLA) and range from about 98% to 99.99%. Smart and innovative vendors are consistently improving their software applications, fixing bugs and releasing new versions to existing customers at no charge.
Understand the Internal Technology Stack
Before choosing any external technology vendor, it’s imperative to get a full understanding of the company’s existing internal infrastructure and technology stack. Several questions must be answered before a decision is made:
What current applications are powering the Intranet/network?
Can the existing network infrastructure support the technologies that are being considered?
Is there enough network bandwidth to support the application? If not, how much is going to cost?
Does IT have the resources (both human and technical) to support the integration and/or installation of the application?
Can this solution be built in-house versus being outsourced to a vendor?
Before jumping head first in choosing the right technology vendor, organizations need to listen, watch, understand and interview the constituent base that will be using the technology internally. It’s important to understand their feedback, expectations, requirements and how it will be received by the people and teams that will be using it. Additionally, it’s important to ensure that there is high involvement and buy in at the early stages of the initiative in order to establish collaboration and avoid internal push back.
It’s imperative to also initiate conversations with Legal, Human Resources, IT and Privacy teams early on in order to understand the limitations and potential risks that may be associated with the technology initiative. As with any new business plan, companies need to do their due diligence and fully understand the risks involved with selecting, acquiring, integrating and installing social technologies behind the firewall.
One thing companies should also consider is whether or not they should build or buy the technology they need. Most companies do have the expertise internally to develop their own solution (i.e., engineering and IT). They also have the infrastructure (server space, hosting, security, applications) to support and maintain the development of a robust application. The challenge with building the technology from scratch is timing and cost. These factors need to be considered before making any technology decision.
In most companies, it can take years to build a new social application — mainly because most IT and network engineering teams are busy maintaining the company’s network and ensuring it’s safe from intrusion. Unless the initiative is a business priority, deploying a new social technology may even take a year or two to get started.
This post was first written for Social Business News on October 24, 2011.