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July 1994

Choosing the best software. (The CPA & The Computer)

by Wicks, Jack

    Abstract- Product selection is particularly difficult for those in search of fully integrated accounting and management systems. Most of them often have no idea how to begin the process of reviewing a comprehensive software package, which is usually priced between $5,000 to $20,000. For an effective product selection, these individuals are advised to write a computerization plan that should describe what they are looking for in a sofware system. They should then conduct research to identify software vendors whose products have the desired features, request product literature and information to be able to scrutinize products more closely, and review collected information very thoroughly. Next, they are advised to query the software publishers, request for and use a demonstration system, outline system requirements, and establish a realistic timetable. The system should be returned if it does not meet expectations.

A better question to ask is, "How do I begin the process of reviewing a software system for my organization or my client's firm?"

I'm referring to those in the market for comprehensive software packages--not the $39 off-the-shelf variety--in their early stages of product selection. Fully integrated accounting and management systems, ranging in price anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 for PC-based use, are the systems which cause the most consternation for buyers.

The following 10 action steps will help you sort through the maze of accounting and management systems currently on the market.

1. Write a Computerization Plan. The computerization plan is similar to a marketing plan, a business plan, or any other strategic plan a business may develop. The computerization plan should include exactly what you are looking for in a computer software system. The plan should state a time frame in which you want to computerize or upgrade your existing system. Don't underestimate the time needed to accomplish your computerization goals--typically a minimum of three to six months is required for system analysis, product selection, product review, purchase, installation, and system integration. The more accurate and specific you are in listing exactly what it is you want from your computer system, the better able you will be in selecting the right system. Your computerization plan should include your needs for short to mid-and long-term periods. What do you need the system to do for you today? And, what will you want the system to do for you down the road?

2. Do the Research! Review software directories, such as the Computer Applications Directory, Data Sources Software, industry blue books, or others available for review at most well-stocked business libraries. Also research industry trade journals and look for reviews, product mentions, articles. The goal is to initially select 10 software publishers whose product descriptions (from the various directories) match your needs. Your selections should be well-balanced--selecting from small, medium-sized, and large software publishers. Select vendors by matching their product and service descriptions with the needs of your firm or client and the variety of services the company offers (such as level of technical support, company background, product history). Every firm's and client's needs vary. Therefore, a product from a large vendor may be perfect for Company A, while a product from a small vendor may be perfect for Company B.

3. Request Information--and Lots of It. Request product literature and information on references, users, user groups, technical support, prices, company background, upgrades, annual maintenance, trade-ins, system requirements, training and installation information, and system integration expertise. You can only begin to analyze the company based on literature and specific information regarding every aspect of the system and support.

4. Thoroughly Review the Information. Don't judge any material you receive solely on appearance. Some of the best products take a minimalist approach to product literature. As you review the literature you receive, take notes on each company. If the literature you receive is not complete (i.e., is missing vital information such as prices, company background, or support information), contact the vendor with a specific list of items on which you need information. But only give the vendor one chance to comply with your specific request. If the material or information you requested is not supplied to you in an efficient manner, it is an indication of how the company operates. Find other valid reasons to whittle your list to three to five choices.

5. Contact the Software Publishers and Ask Questions. Again, lots of them. Be prepared when you call. Compose a list of questions ranging from simple to very specific. You are the customer. Don't be smooth- talked by company salespeople. You or your client will invest a lot of time and money in the system, so be assertive and be satisfied with the treatment you are getting. After your questions have been answered, evaluate the responses from each company. Once you have specific answers to your questions, you will be able to narrow the field to two or three choices.

6. Get Your Hands Dirty. From the two or three choices remaining, now is the time to request a full demonstration system. A demonstration system is very different than the demo disks most companies send out. Those little demo disks are merely pretty pictures of the product in action, with company-loaded operations, and all you do is keep pressing Enter to see the company's magic. Don't even request a demo disk! You want the nuts and bolts of the system. You want to use the system before you purchase it. Demonstration systems are typically limited (for example, limited to 50 logons), but fully usable versions with accompanying user manuals. Most companies require a deposit--ranging from $75 to $150. Make sure the deposit is fully refundable upon either purchase of the system or returning the system.

7. Use the Demonstration System. Once you receive the demonstration system from each company, take the time to install each system one at a time. Then proceed to thoroughly test each in its entirety. During your test, call the vendor's technical support personnel and ask questions-- find out how you like dealing with the support people. Forget the salesperson, hereafter the support people are your friends. After your testing is complete, make a preliminary decision by noting your first, second, and third choices. Next, contact each vendor's references. Ask questions about working with the vendor, using the system, upgrades, technical support, and the like. Then, contact your first-choice vendor. Request detailed information on installation and training; get copies of the sales agreement, warranty, and service contract; get a commitment on price and find out if they are negotiable. If you are satisfied with your product test, technical support test, reference check, price, terms, etc., then keep this vendor as first choice. If not, consider the remaining two.

8. Outline System Requirements. Discuss the details of your hardware and peripheral needs with knowledgeable personnel at your firm, with a consultant, and with the staff members who will be the primary users. Then talk with the vendor.

9. Implementation Timetable. Establish a realistic timeframe and adhere to it. This includes: budgetary concerns, timing of purchases, when you want to receive the system, when and how your hardware requirements will be met, and most importantly, conversion from your old system to the new.

10. Be Confident in Your Decision. You've made the commitment to a particular company and product based on thorough research, becoming an educated consumer, budget considerations, checking references, and product evaluation. Once your system is up and running, thoroughly test it as best you can during your warranty period. If the system does not meet your expectations, return it for full refund.

The CPA Journal is broadly recognized as an outstanding, technical-refereed publication aimed at public practitioners, management, educators, and other accounting professionals. It is edited by CPAs for CPAs. Our goal is to provide CPAs and other accounting professionals with the information and news to enable them to be successful accountants, managers, and executives in today's practice environments.

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