Need a BI solution? The most crucial questions to ask a vendor

Business intelligence technology isn’t new. The idea of using a lot of data and crunching it through amazingly complex algorithms has been around for a while. That said, nobody can deny that within this past five years there has been a massive surge in case studies, success stories, and business use cases of BI technology. Every business captures data across dozens of streams all day long, every day. Over time, well-maintained data becomes a bit of a crystal ball. BI, however, gives you the vision to peer into the crystal ball and see knowledge, wisdom, and insights that can bring in massive improvements in business practices. Today, even startups and small businesses understand the need for BI tools. Purchasing one, however, needs to be done like the pros do it. We’ve prepared a mini list of the questions you need to ask potential BI vendors. These questions will not only help you find the most suitable BI solution for your business requirements but also ensure there are no expensive course corrections necessary a few months down the line.

‘How intuitive and user-friendly is your BI solution?’

BI solution

There were times when IT was the sole department responsible for building dashboards for key business users. Those times are over. BI technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. The interfaces are visually enriching, the menus are intuitive, and the documentation is highly empowering. Self-service BI is the name of the game. Business users should not have to depend on IT departments to deploy simple yet important reports and dashboards. When you discuss the software’s user-friendliness and self-service readiness with a vendor, you are well and truly on track to making your BI system relevant and useful for target end users. Imagine — if your business key users know that for any new dashboard request, they would have to talk code jargon with their IT counterparts, they will not be too excited to use the BI solution.

‘What will the implementation timeline be?’

BI solution providers will always promise you a super-quick deployment. Their estimates, however, assume best-case scenarios in terms of your organization’s data storage, processing, and archival mechanisms. If you ask them some direct questions about the BI solution implementation timeline, you automatically nudge the vendor into laying out all the assumptions they’d have conveniently made about your organization. This discussion helps organizations a great deal as BI vendors clearly tell them about the key aspects of data management where their key project leaders will need to closely collaborate with them.

Also, to estimate the solution’s implementation timeline, organizations need to clearly state the scope of the deployment. To do so, companies also need to define the key performance indicators (KPIs) they want to measure with their BI solution. Such fine-tuning enables BI vendors to estimate accurate and reliable implementation timelines. Gartner has predicted that in spite of the mature capabilities of BI vendors, a vast majority of the implementations will fail. Ask the right questions, and you’ll be all right.

‘Can you share some customer references?’

Most reputable BI solution vendors have healthy credentials in the market. The first request for a reference will invariably draw out canned responses from their sales teams. Remember, merely scratching the surface doesn’t work here. Instead, drill down your question into specific bits. Eventually, you want references from customers as similar to your own organization as possible.

For starters, ask the vendor if their BI solution has been deployed at an organization in the same industry as yours. Then, inquire about the user base (number of users) that this BI solution supports in some of those organizations. Businesses from the same industry have similar KPIs, which means you can be more confident about the feasibility and effectiveness of a BI solution that’s worked well at a similar company.

‘What level, quality, and quantity of support is on offer?’

BI solution

A technology deployment isn’t a one-time event. You will only extract the promised value out of your BI tools if your users actually use it to the desired extent. The single biggest inhibitor for them is the technical complexity of the tool. The single most successful solution to this problem is to opt for any BI vendor that offers extensive training for your business users and IT folks to be able to use and support the tools to their full potential. This support, in reality, extends way beyond training, which is often a paid inclusion in the total cost of ownership of the BI product. Vendor support should also include web knowledge bases, user manuals, training videos, and organized classroom sessions. The best in the business understand the value of post-deployment support and will go the extra mile to give you the confidence you deserve.

Other important questions

The four questions we’ve covered till now will help you bring out considerable insights from the BI vendors you interact with. Apart from these, here are some more you’ll want to cover:

  • What’s the number of licenses I need to purchase?
  • How frequently do you release new features?
  • How does the product compare with others in terms of its web security readiness?
  • What other tools will we possibly need to make sure the BI solution fits and integrates into our business applications environment?
  • How easily can this BI solution work with data directly coming from information management solutions such as ERP and other database products?
  • Does the software support all major structured data formats?
  • Do you also offer data warehousing, data cleansing, and performance management services?
  • How much training will a non-techie need to be able to get comfortable with using these BI tools?

Remember, you’re in control

Just like every major technology purchase, a BI deployment calls for careful analysis of factors that might not be evident, particularly the ones linked to your vendor. The questions we’ve outlined will help you feel confident and in control of the purchase and deployment.

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