I have been doing some vendor evaluation projects for clients this week. People usually just start off asking on the initial phone call, "Which vendor is best?" They are disappointed when I won't give them a simple off-the-shelf answer. Is this because I want to scam them for money? No... I charge a few hundred bucks and it's not going to make me a rich man. Why do I charge them anything at all? Things start becoming clearer when I take them through a formal needs assessment. We cover questions like: What kind of content will you be including? Is polling important? Do you rely on slide animations? Do we know anything about your audience hardware/software configuration? Is cost or reliability a priority? Will you have multiple presenters, guest speakers, or a single experienced presenter? Do you need integrated billing options for for-fee events? Will you have Q&A and how do you want to run it? And many more like this. When I took one of my clients through this process, he was amazed that I was considering so many factors to find out exactly what they needed instead of just pushing something on them with blandishments that it could handle whatever they would throw at it.
My next step is to go through a pre-screen of which vendors I will consider for the detailed evaluation. Sometimes I can use a low-cost, more limited functionality set. Sometimes the client is going to need a full-featured enterprise-level approach. Then I start making phone calls and re-testing the latest versions of each product. Vendors make small changes and additions to their functionality all the time, and my past use of a product is no guarantee that it still has the same limitations (or capabilities in some sad cases). The recent wave of mergers and acquisitions in the industry has caused some shakeups in features, pricing, and support as well. I check with technical departments and pre-sales people to see what kind of response and support I get. Because the client is going to depend on the same support. I check general pricing levels to get an idea of comparative rates for the kind of event or events my client will produce (this is always a shady area, as price negotiations are the norm in this business. It's like shopping at a mid-East bazaar). I review a few other resources I trust (and there aren't many) to make sure I'm not overlooking a candidate I had forgotten.
Then I produce a report with one or more recommendations specifically tailored for the client's needs. Given the total amount of time spent, it's not a big profit area for me. But it's the first step in making sure that the event will work for the client instead of for the vendor.
Why this post? Well, first of all because it's what happens to be uppermost in my mind today. But secondly, it's a hint to those companies who want to go through a vendor selection process themselves. Ask yourself a LOT of questions about exactly what you are going to produce. Make sure you know what factors are going to contribute to your satisfaction or disappointment in the outcome. Then take those to the vendors... don't let their marketing departments tell you which features are cool.