So, what’s the best inventory management system? Ask Google that question and it’ll tell you there are at least 30. Ask your friends and you’ll get 20 more. Pretty frustrating when such a simple question ought to have an equally simple answer, right? The answer is woefully inadequate because you’re asking the wrong question. You should be asking, “What’s the best inventory management system for me?” For all the same reasons your parents told you never to go to a car dealership without first doing your homework, you need to know exactly what YOU need out of an inventory management system way before you start shopping for one, and today’s article should help get that ball rolling.
Before we get started, there’s one core concept that’ll help frame everything else to come: there is no such thing as “perfect.” What you’re looking for is the solution that addresses more of your needs than any of the others, and the better you understand those needs before you start shopping, the sooner you’ll know when you’ve found the right one. (we went a lot deeper into this idea in an article called “The Top 3 Reasons Inventory Management System Rollouts Fail”)
The next thing you’ll need to prepare yourself for (and this should come as a surprise to no one) is salespeople. Lots of them. Before you schedule any of the conference calls, screen-sharing sessions and/or video demo’s, get organized. Draft up a list of the topics you want to discuss, separate them into Need-To-Have’s and Want-To-Have’s, and document your answers carefully, as you’ll be listening for something very specific. Since the dawn of mankind, politicians, guys at bars, and salespeople have excelled at one unique skill: answering the question they wish you’d asked. In your case, you’ll start hearing things like, “…well, we don’t have that specific feature, but we do have something that should get you pretty close…” and those are your red flags. If you’re asking good questions you’ll hear some variation on that phrase at least once or twice on every call, but if it turns into a pattern, that may not be the service for you. Ultimately, what you want to do is narrow the field down to the two or three providers that said, “Yes, our system addresses that exact scenario,” more than all the rest.
The following is a short list of some very important questions you should be asking yourself, your staff and definitely potential vendors as you make your way through the process of selecting a service provider. Granted, there are at least a few thousand other questions that will come up at some point or another, but these will provide a strong foundation to build from.
What do you need it to do?
As you ponder this question, keep in mind that you aren’t shopping for tools, you’re shopping for solutions. Software providers compete with each other by incorporating the best features into their products, and that’s what they’re going to emphasize when you’re on the phone with them. Don’t be led astray. When you feel the conversation veering in the direction of the sizzle (and away from the steak), steer it right back. “Ma’am, I understand you’ve got some pretty neat stuff to show me today, but I’ve got three big problems: I’m burning man hours looking for missing items, inventory’s “falling off” my trucks, and my customers need an up-to-the-minute view of my on-hand physical inventory, so let’s talk about how your system is going to help me in those three areas, and then we can go from there.”
How long before you outgrow it?
This is one you may have to chip away at, because the question you’re really asking is, “How can I expect your system to scale?,” and no matter how long you stay on the phone you’re never going to get a straight answer to that question. Instead, ask about metrics that are meaningful to your business (e.g. staff size, number of physical locations, industries served, multi-channel vs. brick and mortar, etc), AND see if you can get some kind of idea about their largest and their smallest clients. What you want is something that addresses your current needs, and that will grow with your business for at least the next 5-8 years. Focus on trying to understand how closely you resemble their other customers. If they’re working with one-warehouse mom ‘n pops and you’ve already got three locations and 42 people on staff, you probably want to keep looking.
Do you handle warranty repairs?
If you don’t, you can eliminate a pretty good number of providers right off the bat, but if you do (or you plan to in the future), you want to look at the ones that use QR codes, not bar codes. For the uninitiated, QR codes are just a visual representation of a web page address, no more, no less. The real power though, is in the QR code’s web page. Virtually everything you’ll ever need to know about that individual physical object or parcel in front of you is going to be stored and continuously updated on that page. We did a much longer piece called “The Power of QR Codes” in a previous blog if you’d like to learn more about what this technology can do for your business.
Who do I go to for help?
Customer support centers are expensive. Whether they’re in-house or outsourced, it’s fixed overhead that most companies wish they didn’t have to support. For you though, it’s an excellent gauge of how strong that company is (and how long their customers tend to stick with them). If you’re evaluating three different service providers and only one of them has a fully staffed, 24-hr support team that you can call and actually talk to someone helpful, move their brochure to the top of the pile and keep it there. Make no mistake, it will pay for itself.
Can you try it before you buy it?
When you get to the end of a demo with a service provider and most of the people in the room with you are nodding their heads in approval, you need to ask if you can take their product for a test drive, and how they answer will tell you a lot. What you really want to do is ask if they have a “sandbox environment” they’d be willing to give you access to, and they’ll know immediately what that means. In the world of software development, the sandbox environment is a mostly-operational version of their software that’s just there for you to play around in…without them. If they cheerfully say, “Yes of course, we have a free trial version that I’d be happy to set you up with. I’ll send you the login cred’s a little later this afternoon,” that’s a good sign. It means they’re so confident in their product, they’re ready to let you click around in it to your heart’s delight without any training, and without them present. If they don’t, that’s a major points deduction, and a few different things could be behind it. The most likely reason is that they’ve got some half-baked features that don’t work very well (or at all), and they’d rather you didn’t stumble across them while they aren’t around to provide an explanation. The other possibility is that everything works just fine, but the user interface is so complex and unwieldy that no one can figure out how it works without sitting through three or four training sessions. Regardless of the reasons why, if they can’t provide you and your team with an opportunity to spend a fair amount of time with it, that makes it almost impossible to answer the last – and arguably most important – question…
Do you understand how this thing works?
No matter what system you decide to go with, there’s going to be a learning curve. There’s no getting around it. Until you’ve sat down and spent at least a couple hours figuring out where things are and how it’s all laid out, nobody gets to make any judgement calls. Pretty soon, you’ll start figuring things out, and that’s when it’s time to ask, “Was that intuitive?”
- Can a salesperson reference the customer history notes, create work orders, attach it to an email and send it without having to ask for help?
- Can a receiving clerk scan product to print a label and receive into inventory?
- Can a technician scan a QR code to transfer an item from inventory to a customer?
- Can a purchasing agent run an inventory report and quickly determine whether or not they have enough on-hand inventory of a particular item?
Given the freedom to speak their mind, your staff will tell you exactly what they thought of the experience, and while you’re never going to get a thunderous standing ovation from any of them, you’d better be hearing a lot of “Yeah this one works, I like it,” before you move forward with anything.
Is Steven Spielberg the best director of all time? Not if you don’t like his movies. Did Jimi Hendrix play a Fender Stratocaster because it was the best guitar in the world? Nope, it was just the one he liked the most. Likewise, the “best” inventory management system is the one that helps you grow your business the way you want to grow your business. Take your time, don’t fall for gimmicks, work the process, and when it starts to feel right, go with your gut.
For more information on the best inventory management systems, please contact the TRXio team.