Recently, Russ Davidson sent me an email about an article written by Adam Bluemner regarding remote implementations of enterprise software. Both of these gentlemen work for Find Accounting Software, a firm that helps software buyers find the appropriate software for their business needs — like a match.com for software developers and software buyers.
The article struck me as informative and shed some light on a topic that I had not given much thought to: remote implementations. Thanks to the advancement of technology and the availability of high-speed internet in more parts of the world, the requirement for vendors to be local has decreased in recent years. But just like any important decision, you must decide if a remote implementation is right for you.
Take it away Adam…
The popularity of remote vendor support of on-premise business software implementations is dramatically increasing.
How do we know?
Two statistics from our software matching data based on tens of thousands of projects are particularly telling:
- The average software buyer is located nearly 3x as far away from their vendor in 2014 as they were in 2001.
- Only half as many buyers told us it was “absolutely vital” to work with a local software provider now versus 2001.
The number of discussions we have with buyers about accessing remote implementation support is increasing as well. This article will catch you up on the conversation. More importantly, it will help you determine if remote implementation is a good option for your business. In this article, we’ll cover:
- How did remote implementation become a viable option for software deployments?
- What advantage does the remote implementation option offer software buyers?
- Is remote implementation right for you?
- Which factors determine the availability of local system integrators?
- What does a completely remote selection and implementation process look like?
- What factors might affect a preference for onsite implementation?
- What are the best practices if you opt for remote implementation support?
To dig deeper into what goes into implementing a complex business system—and the various things vendors can assist with in the process—our “CFO’s Guide to ERP Implementation” is also recommended reading.
How did remote implementation become a viable option for software deployments?
The option to access remote technical support for the on-premise implementation of complex systems such as ERP, accounting, CRM, supply chain, manufacturing management, and project management software is a relatively recent, generally post-2000 phenomenon.
A couple key technological advances over the last decade and a half have introduced it as a viable choice: an increase in cheap, accessible Internet bandwidth and easy-to-use remote access tools.
One of the fundamental requirements to manage a remote implementation software project is sufficient Internet bandwidth.
When we started our software selection assistance service in the late 90’s, a T1 delivering 1.536 mbps was a luxury that would cost your business somewhere between $1,000 – $2,000 a month. According to 2013 data, the cost of 1 mbps has now dropped below $1/month in many US markets. This is significant on a couple fronts.
Access to cheap Internet bandwidth is not only critical to supporting the actual remote implementation of software. Bandwidth availability also is a necessity for the communication which supports the product evaluation and project planning phases, including: rich interactive presentations of products, web demos, web conferences, and collaborative project management.
2. Remote Access Tools.
The capability to remotely access networks has been around for a while. But improvements in technology have made it much less cumbersome.
Modern server and desktop OS’s uniformly now let remote computers directly access system resources, as if from the machine itself.
Additionally, a robust market of remote access client software now offers a variety of interface and ease-of-use options optimized for a multitude of platforms and system configurations.
The bottomline is that VPN, RDP, VNC, and Terminal Services solutions abound—and software integrators are actively putting them to good use remotely deploying systems.
What advantage does the remote implementation option offer software buyers?
The technical capability to allow remote implementation of software is only part of the story though. Just because remote implementation is possible, does not inherently make it preferable.
That being said, the remote implementation option does offer at least one inherent advantage: expanded choice. Looking beyond local implementation providers means increasing your candidate pool for both software and support.
More choice allows buyers the opportunity to take advantage of two trends in the enterprise software market: product specialization and vendor differentiation.
1. Product specialization.
The software market for enterprise applications is heavily diversified. The requirements of a retailer are as different from those of a manufacturer, as the needs of a non-profit are different from those of a contractor. Consequently, the software market has responded with thousands of product choices optimized for each individual business environment.
There are pros and cons to selecting a niche solution versus customizing a more mainstream base package. But the opportunity to look beyond only the particular solutions supported by local providers allows the opportunity to consider a wider variety of approaches—often opening the door to finding tighter functional fits.
2. Vendor differentiation.
Not all system integrator companies are created equal.
While a single product line may be supported by many system integrators, usually only a smaller subset of providers will truly be specialists in your particular industry. The level of support offered and the expertise of the implementation specialists will naturally vary as well. Additionally, buyers are often surprised that not only will pricing on services vary, but different integrators may offer lower pricing on the actual software licensing itself.
Surveying a wider range of potential system integrators increases the chances of finding a provider who offers both terms to your liking and the skills to support your unique needs.
Is remote implementation right for you?
There are, of course, unique advantages to working with an onsite implementation provider as well.
Implementing a new business system is a complex process. It requires time, planning, coordination, teamwork, and trust. Working through it in person with an onsite implementation partner can help facilitate and strengthen a critical business relationship.
So, is onsite or remote implementation the way to go?
It’s a complicated question. But one of the first things to consider is the availability of local implementation partners.
Bringing representatives onsite from a provider located geographically further away is of course possible—but it comes with a price-tag for the additional travel costs.
For many buyers considering the local versus remote implementation support decision, the first step is to gauge whether local implementation options exist.
Which factors determine the availability of local system integrators?
Geographic location (Figure 1)
Not surprisingly, the closer you are to a major geographic population center, the greater your chance of finding a qualified local integrator. In other words, the news is good for New Yorkers looking for onsite support, but a tougher break if you’re located in northern Montana.
Buyers located somewhere between those two geographic extremes should take notice too, though. Finding a system integrator for many enterprise applications is more difficult than locating an IT support provider for more standardized network, server, or desktop work. Implementing accounting software or a new CRM system, for instance, is a much more specialized technical niche with far fewer skilled providers.
Uniqueness of Needs (Figure 2)
Your own requirements will also greatly determine your ability to find a relevant local provider. Essentially, the more unique your needs—the less likely it is you will locate a qualified software integrator.
How can you determine if you have particularly specific requirements? Consider the following questions:
- Do we require a solution that is unique to our particular industry?
- Do we need to support complicated integrations with 3rd party software (especially custom, older, or uncommon applications)?
- Do we have unusual database or OS compatibility requirements?
What does a completely remote selection and implementation process look like?
Software buyers used to working with onsite providers may find it strange to contemplate an entirely remotely supported implementation. Rest assured: It can work.
Email, regular old phone conversations, screensharing and videoconferencing, and online project management software are invaluable tools for buyers and sellers who need to communicate during the selection and implementation process, but don’t have the luxury of doing so face-to-face.
In terms of facilitating direct server and workstation access to complete the actual software implementation, there are lots of options. VNC, Remote Desktop Protocol, VPN, and Windows Terminal Services are the most popular. There are open source and paid choices available for remote access technology. Implementation providers will make the decision in terms of which technology to use based on your operating system, security requirements, previous experience, and a variety of other factors.
Working with thousands of software buyers a year, we receive feedback from many customers who have completed software implementations with both remote and local support. Simply put, we don’t see any strong indication that the choice between remote or onsite services is itself affecting overall satisfaction with implementation outcomes.
(Where we do see a distinct impact on overall satisfaction is with buyers who opt to implement complex software systems themselves—without any expert assistance—but that’s another issue entirely!)
What factors might affect a preference for onsite implementation?
Ultimately, in many situations, what it comes down to is a comfort level. What are you as a buyer more comfortable with? An onsite implementation team or remote support?
As you might imagine, speaking to as many software buyers as we do, we hear lots of reasons why individual organizations may or may not be willing to consider remote implementation.
Scope (Figure 3)
Generally, the more complex the requirements for a project are, the more likely it is a buyer will express a desire to work with an onsite implementation team.
In our work as a software matching service, we help companies of all sizes locate buying options. Project budgets generally range from the low thousands on up. For the last 15 years straight we’ve seen that projects with more substantial budgets (benchmarked at $40,000 and higher) have had a higher rate of requesting local, onsite support.
Budget is a rough way to measure the scope or complexity of software implementation projects. But increases in the amount of configuration, integration, and data conversion involved in a project all boost the complexity of an implementation. It’s important to note though that these are also all tasks which can be addressed with a properly planned remote implementation.
The need to deploy specialized hardware—such as might be required in projects involving point-of-sale or RFID hardware—is one area where it may be especially beneficial to have an implementation provider physically onsite, however.
Internal technical expertise (Figure 4)
It’s a rare deployment where all the technical implementation work is turned over to the third party support provider. Internal tech staff often take on tasks such as hardware preparation, verification of available system resources, and even data conversion.
The larger role the internal tech staff plays in guiding the implementation, the less important it’s typically deemed to have a 3rd party implementation team onsite. Essentially, when eyes, ears, and hands are required to complete implementation tasks, if they can be provided by internal technical staff—that’s one less factor creating a demand for onsite support.
Local orientation (Figure 5)
Businesses that service a local market—rather than a national or even global customer base—are also more likely to express a desire to work with a local onsite implementation team.
Why? In a word… relationships. Businesses that service a local market are in the habit of building and maintaining direct, personal relationships with community businesses.
A recent article from SustainableConnections.org—an organization whose stated mission is to create a “local forum where businesses come together to transform and model an economy built on sustainable practices”—offered a list of the top ten reasons to “buy local.” The reasons cited in the article, which included points such as “encouraging local prosperity,” “investing in community,” and creating local jobs are most likely to appeal to businesses whose own success is dependent on local investment.
Online orientation (Figure 6)
Another trend that we’ve noticed affecting interest in remote implementation services is the extent to which the company culture has acclimated itself to the online environment.
- Previous remote implementations of other key business software systems
- Usage of cloud-hosted software
- A business model dependent on web communication or facilitating e-commerce
Each of the factors listed above create a familiarity and comfort level with using online services—such as those required to support remote implementation.
What are the best practices if you opt for remote implementation support?
Remote implementation is an option for most enterprise software deployments. As discussed, there are pros and cons to onsite versus remote implementation. But, if you prepare properly you can successfully implement software without onsite services.
The following best practices will help to ensure a smooth remote implementation:
- Take advantage of online communication tools during product selection so you don’t miss opportunities to fully evaluate your software options.
- Check provider references specifically for other clients who have utilized their remote implementation support.
- Work with your provider to create a detailed implementation plan.
- Verify that your provider is utilizing a remote access approach that includes encryption and two factor authentication to provide security.
- Select an internal technical contact to assist with system reboots or other tasks that may need to be undertaken from your location.
- Discuss with your provider the provisions that need to be made for ongoing support, such as version updates and future technical assistance.