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Buying human resources software: The support phase

In this last article of a seven-part series on buying human resources software, two experts emphasize the importance of vendor support. Here is what to keep in mind.

Support is the ultimate savior or ultimate demise of your system. Yet, it's literally the furthest from your mind...

when buying human resources software. In fact, you're probably looking at, on average, about nine to 12 months between the moment the pen hits the paper on the master services agreement and your first support request.

And note that most vendor support is reactive, rather than proactive. A sneaky vendor will take advantage of this. They will understaff the support group, build in additional levels of support and charge you for them, and make you wait a week before the support team resolves an issue related to something as critical as benefits or payroll. In short, the sneaky vendor will thwart everything you've accomplished to date. Instead of success, you'll have the outcome Figure 1 shows.

Inadequate vendor support can spell the demise of your HR system
Figure 1. Inadequate vendor support can spell the demise of your HR system.

Support is connected to each step of the process. The more solid the product, the less support it will require. The higher the quality of implementation, the less shaky is your instance of the product (even the data and configuration, if we're talking software as a service). The more adequately trained are your users, the less demanding they are on support. All of that said, there are aspects innate to the support realm itself, and if you make the following considerations, you'll be in much better shape.

1. How does the vendor distinguish between standard changes and enhancements, and are they proactive?

This topic can be one of the most damaging in a sneaky vendor's bag of tricks. "Oh, you need that [insert standard regulatory report] modified? Well, that may take some time, and you may need to sign this customization request." No, this should not be your problem and, in truth, you shouldn't need to be raising it to them because they should already have known about it and resolved it. At the very beginning, find out how the vendor handles these kinds of situations. Don't ask only the vendor, ask the vendor's clients. Request to join user groups and ask questions. If applicable, as an example, ask the vendor how they're handling the Affordable Care Act and whether you have to push/wait/pay or simply receive. The goal here is simple: proactive support.

2. Does the vendor answer the phone? Where are they when and if they do?

There's something calming about the term Zendesk (a very common online help desk tool). You close your eyes, practice some chanting and then type in your issue about how Mary the End User received an error when entering her previous employers into the system. You wait two weeks for it to be resolved, but that's cool because it wasn't urgent. The next month, Mary's paycheck is off by $500, and you're pretty sure the problem traces back to the payroll interface from your HR system. There's no phone number. If there is, there's no dedicated phone rep, so they know nothing of your company. Or maybe the representative is in a foreign country that has no idea about the earnings structure of a U.S. paycheck. You need to know how closely your expectations match what the vendor's support model delivers. And during the sales process, ask for 100 examples of things that typically happen in support. Make sure your vendor can illustrate what is and isn't support. That will help manage your expectations.

3. How does the vendor charge for support?

Face it, at least once in our lives we've all looked at the vendor support options Figure 2 shows.

Example of vendor support options
Figure 2. Example of vendor support options.

Yeah, that's for dramatic effect, but don't stand for any version of that model. If you're looking for an integrated system, you're probably talking about issues like the one above that involve big-ticket items, like benefits and payroll. There are HR system issues that affect lives. The fact that an HR technology vendor would be willing to make you choose between spending money and getting Mary's paycheck resolved is one of those "shame on them, shame on you" scenarios. Think of it another way, from the perspective of the vendor: Great support equals great renewals.

4. What is the vendor's upgrade and update policy?

We could write an entire series on this huge topic. Vendors are trying to find the right model and clients or prospects are getting caught in the middle. Most have gone to the "one code base" model, but some still haven't. Even those that are on one code base are tinkering with the frequency and logistics of the updates. Just this past week, one vendor we work with adjusted the responsibility of who manages the updates while the client is in implementation mode. We believe that upgrades are generally a good thing; however, training and support are tethered to upgrades. Know that, understand that, plan for that. Know the upgrade policy in advance, and keep up to speed as it changes.

Whatever the case, the upgrade and update approach varies so greatly, and has such a significant effect on your post-production support, that we suggest you either:

  • Do plenty of research on what's already been written on the topic
  • Wait for us to write that not-yet-conceived series (probably not your most timely option)
  • Get an expert to ask the vendor the right questions

Needless to say, vendor support should not be an afterthought as you go through the phases of buying human resources software. By following the advice we've offered, you can ensure that the vendor support you receive will be proactive and not reactive.

The seven points of satisfaction
in buying HR tech

  1. Product selection
  2. Sales process
  3. Negotiation
  4. Implementation
  5. Training
  6. Adoption
  7. Support

About the authors
Jeremy Ames is co-founder of Hive Tech HR, a consulting company based in Medway, Mass. He is a 15-year veteran of IT implementation projects and sits on the HR Management and Technology Expertise panel of the Society for Human Resource Management. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jeremyallynames.

William Tincup is principal analyst and co-founder of Key Interval Research, which is based in Occidental, Calif. He is a contributor to and other media outlets and sits on the boards of several technology companies. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @williamtincup.

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