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5 tips for better HR software selection

Finding the right software isn't just a one-stop shop. You'll need to follow the right strategy before determining the HR software that is best for your company.

In many areas of life, following the right strategy is the key to testing assumptions, learning and uncovering the truth. In the HR software selection process -- where it's easy to fall prey to hype and empty promises -- following the best strategy is critical.

Here are five tips on how to make a better HR software selection.

1. Start with the right team

Setting up the right buying team is critical to choosing the right software.

Depending on the type of software, this can include yourself and other HR representatives as well as IT and cross-departmental representatives. Each member brings an important perspective on how the technology will fit within the technology ecosystem, what the return on investment will be and what user experience elements are most important. 

"HR software vendors offer a wide range of features: recruiting, onboarding, time tracking, performance management, payroll, benefits, compliance and analytics," said Bruce Hogan, CEO of SoftwarePundit, a technology research firm located in New York. "When evaluating vendors, it's critical that the company knows the specific features it needs, and those it does not."

A representative HR software buying team helps ensure that you ask the right questions to uncover that the technology you're considering meets those needs.

2. Adopt a people-centric perspective

Considering the technology first is not a good starting point. Instead, focus on the user.

"It's amazing that companies don't typically ask questions about people when looking to buy software that's all about people," said Mark Brandau, principal analyst at Forrester, a research firm headquartered in Cambridge, Mass.  

Be sure to look at the transformation you wish to create through a people lens that supports your company's specific business objectives, he said.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • Can the software help identify potential leaders for the region in the company's employee pipeline?
  • Can the software effectively help recruit and hire people in a particular region by using the correct language, job titles and descriptions, advertising appeals, benefit offerings, and considerations unique to the people and cultures there?
  • Can my company use the software to pay people in the right currency and in the most accepted methods for that area?
  • Can the software scale to culture considerations specific to the area?

By matching their features with your company's answers to these questions aimed at meeting a very specific business objective, you may be able to select an HR software vendor and product. However, it's not always that simple.

A single product is rarely sufficient for a large organization's needs, Brandau said. These questions are much more likely to help a smaller business, but only until the business grows and needs more specialized or customizable features.

"Ultimately, HR software is not a one-stop shop decision," he said.

3. Focus on implementation questions

Another important area in an HR software selection is considering how the implementation process will affect your company.

"It's all about asking the questions that really clarify what you're looking for in a software product and figuring out … how you're going to implement and use it," said Brian Westfall, principal analyst at Capterra, a software directory, research and review division of Gartner in Arlington, Va. 

Some key questions to ask include:

  • What is my budget?
  • Who's on our implementation team?
  • What are their responsibilities?
  • How are we defining success?

In other words, ask what measurements are going to deem the technology implementation a success or failure, Westfall said.

Without clear metrics, you won't know if you made the right decision or if you need to start the process over.

4. Uncover features and functionality

Asking questions about the software itself is essential to any software assessment.

"It's key to check the basic boxes in evaluating HR software, covering things like completeness of functionality, an easy and intuitive user interface, examples of customers of similar size and complexity, and, of course, cost," said Max Caldwell, principal-in-charge of people and HR transformation at The Hackett Group, an intellectual property-based strategic consultancy headquartered in Miami.

Here are some in-depth questions you can ask to learn more about a product design:

  • Were the modules in the software suite developed from a common architecture or added via acquisition?
  • To what extent is the software configurable to meet my needs?
  • Are there any plans for ongoing development?
  • What services are provided for ongoing software support?

Be sure to ask if the software is customizable to your company's needs, said Trevor White, analyst at Nucleus Research, an IT research and advisory firm in Boston.

If so, ask if there is a charge associated with customizing the software. Also confirm the IT response time to a request for service. 

A salesperson may hide details about extra fees and potential problems behind a broad, generic answer. Ask for specific details so you cover everything you're concerned about.

This includes requesting references and other use documentation too.

"Ask about any case studies, as they can tell you a lot about the legitimacy of a product," Westfall said.

5. Push past the marketing to get answers

Once you've established your company's needs and have narrowed down your choices, pivot to asking probing questions about the usability and longevity of specific HR software products.

Drill down to the vendor's core competencies to better understand the product focus, scalability and performance, said Lisa Rowan, chief analyst in HR research at IDC in Framingham, Mass.  

Some questions to ask include:

  • What is the average tenure of your customer service team?
  • What do your clients say they wish they had done differently after they've completed adopting your software? What was their biggest lesson learned?
  • What is your largest client in terms of full-time equivalents (FTEs), a universal employee workload measurement, and what is your smallest client in terms of FTEs?
  • What is the average number of FTEs of all of your clients?
  • What industries are most prevalent among your clients and are there particular industries in which you have a larger share of the market?

Push past the marketing speak and get definitive answers to all of these questions in order to select the best product for your organization.

Vagueness is the ultimate red flag when it comes to evaluating software vendors, Westfall said. You want to understand how exactly these products work and how they can contribute to your company's goals.

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