Before You Buy: Questions to Determine if You Can Trust a Software Company

With strict budgets, bylaws, and bid submission processes, it is fair to say the average public safety agency does plenty of due diligence when it chooses a software product. But are the people making the software solutions subject to the same scrutiny? If the product works to spec and the company putting it out isn’t immediately recognizable due to controversy or incompetence, many organizations may ask, “Why go through any trouble beyond a cursory web search?” Just as with individual solutions, some companies are good only for the current problem, while others will help over the long haul.

As software products evolve, so too must this attitude toward the companies providing them. With more and more vendors releasing products under a software as a service (SaaS) model, it’s reasonable to imagine a product staying with an agency over multiple years or decades, with the provider on the backend providing upgrades, updates, and quality-of-life improvements throughout the process (assuming they are doing a proper job).

This lengthening of the vendor-agency relationship means it’s time to change how we begin those relationships—by asking crucial questions about the company in which you are about to place your trust. Long-term thinking at the beginning of the relationship will set you up for success over the long term.

Who does the company primarily serve? What does their average customer look like?

The first and arguably most important question on your list should be who the vendor wishes to serve with this specific product. A vendor that makes software specifically for your industry is one that crafts solutions for your industry’s particular problems. “Generic” software solutions can work for some aspects of public safety workplaces, but most cases—especially foundational tasks like field training and certification—are better suited to a seller that knows their niche of customers and strives to make things that appeal, often quite specifically, to them. There tend to be nuances in the public safety space that general software cannot accommodate.

Are they externally certified from reputable, relevant sources?

This question is highly important on its face and only grows more critical as the tool you consider becomes more specialized. At a minimum, the organization should meet the non-negotiable compliance requirements specific to your field and should be able to explain where they are in the process of obtaining other certifications. While compliance with FedRAMP and FISMA, for instance, can be difficult to achieve, the approval process comes in stages, which allows companies to record and report progress. A solution custom built around the security needs for public safety ensures that continuous efforts are made to keep critical data safe and protected.

Are they innovators—or just innovating for its own sake?

Innovation is good to have in a solution and its vendor, but the focus on what’s new and next goes awry all too often. “Innovation for innovation’s sake,” or the tendency for certain companies to implement new features and technologies with no appreciable benefit to the consumer (relative to dollars spent), is a problem that public safety organizations need to be wary of. A good question to ask is how their product roadmap is developed—are they taking into account input from their users?

Take a look at the makers of your software. Does the product history include a natural progression or is it full of appealing—but ultimately meaningless—bells and whistles?

Rather than being taken in by the latest features, spend the time to find companies that have been implementing new features and technologies consistently over time and that the innovations are informed by customer feedback.  There are no more knowledgeable product experts than the users of that product.

Do their products evolve?

If superficially innovative companies are frustrating, equally troublesome are the companies offering no innovation whatsoever. In poorly executed SaaS models, some companies put out software that shows no appreciable evolution over time, yet still charge a monthly fee for the “service” instead of the one-off cost it warrants.

A simple look through their product lineup and talking with people who’ve used the solution should give you at least some idea of their trajectory. As noted earlier, they don’t need to light the world on fire with every iteration, but they should display a clear line of progress that justifies that monthly spend.

A particularly important sub-section of this is security. If the company is not evolving the product and its defenses, then it will be useless for public safety organizations by the time they are through with initial setup. Be certain that the company you are committing to is keeping pace with the stringent security needs of your industry.

Do they commit to support and providing value?

Support is a key part of any software purchase consideration, but focusing only on the technical issues of individual products rather than creators themselves, can cause trouble later on. Additionally, software that does not focus on providing ever-increasing value to their partners can become “shelfware” over the long term.

Providing help when things break is only one kind of the support a modern software company should provide. Because purchasing software is increasingly a long-term relationship, make sure to evaluate the company’s overall attitude towards providing help as well as continuous innovation that provides scale for your organization. What are some ways they’ve implemented customer and industry feedback in the past? Do they enable their tools to integrate with third-party solutions your agency relies on, or do they rest in their own silo? Providing access to a growing ecosystem of solutions that are interoperable and allow for integrated reporting is critical.

Conclusion: Bet on companies, not products

Agencies can now come to the vendor-buyer relationship with a longer-tail mindset, and that changes how we must approach every technology purchase, software very much included. Keep these questions in mind as your own organization evolves, improves, and begins to implement technology tools from your growing list of vendors—if the companies creating the tools no longer treat the transaction as a one-off deal, your organization shouldn’t either!

Posted on Feb 9, 2021