How to Evaluate Small Business Marketing Software & Subscription Services

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If you’ve been in business for a while, you’ve no doubt received calls or emails from sales vendors hawking their solutions for your business. Whether it’s CRM software (like Salesforce), marketing software (like HubSpot), subscription services (like SinglePlatform or Merchant Services through ResellerRatings) or some other “must have” program, you’ve no doubt been inundated with demos and free trials. And some of this “stuff” probably sounds good and helpful even.

But how do you know for sure? How do you know you’re investing in something worthwhile for your business rather than snake oil from a slick salesman?

Here are eight ways to evaluate the latest-and-greatest offers filling your inbox.

1. Approach free trials as you would homework. Free trials sound good. Who doesn’t like free stuff, right? But unless you commit to digging in and truly experiencing the product for the free trial period, you should pass on it. This is why we suggest approaching free trials like homework: take the time to learn about the product, to play with its features, and to understand how it could benefit your business.

Here are a few caveats.

  • Involve all the key players. If someone else in your company would need to be in charge of managing the product, make sure he or she is involved in the free trial and listen to this person’s feedback.
  • With any new software, even the most user-friendly programs on the planet, you’ll be dealing with a learning curve. Ignore any initial grumblings and frustration that you or your employees experience in the beginning. Know that learning a new product takes time, but try to see the bigger picture. Does this product have the potential to transform your business? Will it deliver on everything it promises?
  • Be careful with free trials that require a credit card. This doesn’t mean you should avoid them completely. Just be sure you note the date when the free trial ends and set up an appointment in your calendar to make a firm decision either way: keep the product or cancel the account. And make sure you know how to cancel the account. If you do cancel, double check your credit card statements in the following months to make sure you haven’t been charged.

2. Take advantage of your “point” person. Oftentimes, you’ll have a dedicated point of contact when you sign up for a product trial. It’s usually a sales person, one who is familiar with the product and the specific needs of small business owners. Use this person! He or she is there to walk you through the product, to answer questions, to provide feedback, and to capture your desires—desires that they can then share with their team to help improve the product.

3. Learn how the company “talks” to customers. Your point person during free trials is a sales person looking for a new customer. Of course this person is going to treat you well (and if he or she doesn’t, this is a red flag). But how does the organization respond to other people? You’ll need to do a little sleuthing, but thanks to social media, this doesn’t require a ton of effort.

Go to the company’s Facebook page and see how the company responds to fans, not only within the comment threads, but also in the messages between individuals and the page itself. Do searches on Twitter on the product’s name and the company’s name, and see what people are saying about both…and how the company is responding to these tweets.

Are the responses helpful, defensive, evasive? Do the customers sound frustrated or happy? Yes, you might not know the full story, and you shouldn’t base your decision only on a company’s social media presence, but you want to work with a company that treats its customers respectfully and promptly…both of which you can sense from social media.

4. Audit help/community forums. Software companies often have help or community forums where customers can assist one another with frequent questions and troubleshoot issues. Again, you’re looking for themes: are people complaining about the same problem repeatedly without anyone offering any resolutions? Are representatives from the company helpful? Does it sound like the product is performing the way it should, or is it buggy?

If you notice anyone in a similar business as yours, consider messaging the person privately to get the inside scoop on the product.

5. Research independent reviews of the product. In fact, seek out the negative reviews. What are people’s complaints centered on? Price? Functionality? Limitations? Bait and switch issues? Something else? Yes, you’ll want to dismiss random one-off complaints (every product will have them), but if a consistent theme begins to emerge—perhaps people have the same complaint about a certain feature—take that to heart and ask yourself how critical that feature would be to you and your business.

On the flip side, you should be skeptical of any company that seems to have only glowing reviews. Unfortunately, we live in a day and age where companies have been known to buy fake reviews, so if the reviews are reading too-good-to-be-true, they might just be.

6. Ask people you know. Networking can prove helpful with this task. Ask people you know and trust about their experience with the product/software in question. Be specific with your queries:

  • How has this product helped your business?
  • Would you recommend the product? Why or why not?
  • What do you know now that you wish you knew before you bought/subscribed to it?
  • What tips can you offer for someone just starting out with the product?

7. After you do the above, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the product/software seem to deliver on what it promises?
  • Even if it does deliver, is the product/software redundant? Do you already have the means of doing these tasks yourself (perhaps for free)? Do you already subscribe to a product or service that does what this product offers? For example, if you already have marketing automation software, you might not need to subscribe to an email software company for your electronic newsletter.
  • What are three specific ways this product/software will help your business? Be sure you can articulate these reasons clearly.
  • How will you measure the product/software’s effectiveness over time? Determine what this metric is (or metrics).
  • Is the product necessary to your business? We’ve all been there where we’ve been taken in by the sophistication or allure of a product only to arrive home and realize we don’t need it in our day-to-day lives. The same can happen in our business lives as well.

8. Remember that nothing is forever. Sometimes you need to live with a product or subscription for a certain amount of time beyond a free trial in order to truly understand if it will benefit your business for the long term. Even if you vet a product fully and give it the ol’ college try, you might realize it’s not right for you. That’s OK. You tried it. You learned. You cancel the account and you move on.

How do you evaluate different software products and subscription services? Share your tips and strategies in the comments.

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